The mild winter and warm spring has caused an increase in bee activity, and a high volume of calls from concerned homeowners. But with all the confusion around the ethics and legalities of treating bees, we felt it would be useful to dispel some of the myths and advise on how best to deal with bees.
Identifying the suspects
As with any pest, correct identification is key to establishing the most appropriate course of action.
Bumblebees (Bombus) are not easily confused with any other bee. They are rounder, larger and furrier and come with a variety of coloured stripes across the end of their tails. Nesting sites are normally found in bird boxes, under the decking, or in the compost bin. If possible educate your customer to leave them alone as they are an important pollinator, rarely sting, and are under threat of extinction.
You’ll find these small bees popping in and out of the wall or very small holes in the ground. They have a reddish-brown bottom and black body. Solitary bees are harmless and, as their name suggests, live more or less alone so you will only really find them in small numbers. It’s unlikely you’ll receive a high volume of calls for this bee as one or two are unlikely to raise an alarm with your customer.
The tree bumblebee (B. Hypnorum) is a recent addition to the UK’s fauna. Despite this it will already be familiar to many householders and pest controllers in the UK, as it can be the cause of most phone calls – “Help, there’s a bees’ nest in my house!”. The tree bumblebee banding is unique amongst the UK species. The thorax is tawny to reddish brown, the abdomen is black and the tail is white. Fresh drones have a patch of yellowish facial fur, but this wears off with time. Queens vary significantly in size, and workers are normally quite small.
Some traits of tree bees can be the cause of worried calls to pest controllers as they commonly establish a nest in bird boxes, or parts of buildings. Apparent high level of nest flight activity due to ‘nest surveillance’ by drones, and the sound of bee chatter/activity heard through the ceiling are all signs of activity. However, by the time a colony has become obvious (due to this action), its activity will be about to decline naturally. Colonies formed in spring usually decline naturally by late July, if not sooner. Educating the customer about these facts may prevent them from taking any further action.
Honey bees are small and vary in colour from golden brown to almost black. The most common scenario in which you’ll receive calls for honeybees is when they swarm. Typically these intimidating swarms will first set up a temporary camp somewhere nearby, such as a tree branch, fence post or even a car (pictured above)! At this point, it is best to contact a local beekeeper to collect the swarm, and in the majority of cases this works well. The British Bee Keepers’ Association (BBKA) website www.bbka.org.uk has a handy search function you can use to find your local beekeeper. However, in almost all cases the swarm will take off again within a day or two to occupy a more suitable permanent home elsewhere. If the use of a beekeeper doesn’t work then we recommend you try to convince the customer to wait a day or two, by which time it will have gone away. Swarms of honey bees can usually be safely removed by a suitably qualified and experienced beekeeper if they are contacted in time. If the honey bees have left their post/swarming clustering place, and taken up residence in the fabric of a building, that can be more difficult (if not impossible) to be safely dealt with by a beekeeper, so time is of the essence.
All bees can be treated, but we’d always recommend you explore all other avenues before considering eradication. Use the step by step guide below:
Leave Them Alone
Educating the customer is key. Bee species in a property won’t usually cause any damage, or be considered a significant risk to the customer, so it’s always best to inform the customer of this before agreeing to take the job. If the customer is adamant that they want them gone, then make sure you or another professional company take the job. If you don’t then they will go elsewhere and may find a ‘cowboy’ who will automatically treat using biocides without considering all the options like a professional would. From an ethical standpoint, if your company won’t have anything to do with bees then please refer the customer to find someone else via the BPCA website www.bpca.org.uk or set up an arrangement with a local competitor to give them your unwanted bee work – who knows, they may even pass some other work back to you!
If a nest is outside or underground then there shouldn’t be a reason to really move it. However, your customer may not see it this way. For underground nests, you’ll need to dig it out and retrieve it, but be careful and wear protective clothing as you’ll create a considerable amount of disturbance (and thus distress pheromone) as you dig down to the nest.
In more conventional and accessible places such as bushes, trees and sheds, to move a nest safely it is best to do it in the dark, when all of the bees will be in the nest and docile. They might buzz a bit, but they won’t fly in the dark so it’s safest to do it then. Bees also don’t see red light well, so if you need to see what you’re doing, put some red plastic film/acetate over your torch or alternately use a red LED light to reduce the likelihood of attacks. Simply lift the hive and slowly place it in a sealable plastic box, securely closing the lid for transportation.
Some bumblebees (especially tree bees) like to nest in bird boxes. To move a colony in a bird nest box, wait until all or most of the workers have returned. When activity quietens down, bung the entrance hole with flexible foam (e.g. from a sponge or scouring pad), and seal up any holes you find around the box using tape, as bumblebees can easily use these to escape from the box when it is being moved. Take the box down carefully and without tipping it over, and place it in a secure sealable plastic box for transport. Carefully move the box to its new location and attach it to a surface that is not liable to vibration, as this can disturb the bees.
If possible relocate the bees close to their original nesting point. However, if this isn’t possible, keep the box upright and somewhere cool and dark overnight while they are shut in. Situate the box at least a mile or more from the original location to prevent the bees from returning. Remove the bung the next day and release the bees; they will re-orientate. It is best to leave it until after midday to remove the bung. At the original location, a few bees might return, but these will soon diminish. Make sure the customer knows this is normal and not a problem.
Obviously if the nest is located in an inaccessible location such as cavity walls or a chimney then relocation will not be possible, and eradication will be only viable option. If you do not feel competent to move a bee colony contact the BPCA to find a member who has experience in this area.
Treatment for bees can be administered in the same way as you would for wasps, the only difference being the need for post-
treatment activities. If you have to treat for bees you should consider the risk in terms of their location and access for post-treatment work. The decision to treat will depend if it is possible to close the entrance(s) to the nest after treatment. It may be possible to use extension lances to get the insecticide to the nest, but access equipment may be needed to close entrances safely. If the client is not prepared to pay to do the treatment properly, then you shouldn’t carry out the treatment under any circumstances, and should warn the client of their responsibilities under the law if they choose to use an ‘alternative provider’.
Post treatment requirements will vary depending on the species of bees you are dealing with. For bumblebees and tree bees, blocking up access points will prevent non-target bees from entering and getting contaminated, as well as shortening the likelihood accessing the same area in the future.
For honey bees, it is essential you can either block all entrance points or remove all the honeycomb, but preferably both. If you fail to do this, robber bees will find the infected honey and take it back to their hive, contaminating it. This may lead to an investigation and prosecution by DEFRA. Also note that the smell of the honeycomb and the queen pheromone will be lingering, making the area more attractive to another swarm. It is therefore recommended that the smell be masked using a deodorising compound, but if unobtainable, creosote oil or Jeyes fluid are excellent substitutes. For more advice on dealing with feral honey bees, download the Pest Management Practice at www.pmalliance.org.uk
“If you do not feel competent to move a bee colony contact the BPCA to find a member who has experience in this area.”
Bumblebees and tree bees are less likely to sting than honey bees and wasps. However, disturbing the nest can make them behave defensively, and precautions should be taken to prevent stings occurring. Also note it has been found that bees can become alerted to the presence of an intruder if they are breathed upon, so it is best to try to avoid breathing on the nest during removal. Bee stings are at best unpleasant and at worst can trigger potentially fatal anaphylactic shock or Kounis Syndrome. So always use protective equipment such as a bee veil/suit and gloves.