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yellow and black fuzzy bee on pinkish closed petalled flower
Honey bees are the busy bees most employed as agricultural pollinators and in need of protection.  Photo: Lesley Ingram, Bugwood.org.  Click photo to see enlarged version.

People are now realizing the importance of bees as pollinators and understanding their diversity. The honey bee is important and very common because it exists in both wild and domesticated colonies. However, the 400 plus species of native bees also provide critical pollination services. As with all insects and arachnids, we advocate understanding the biology of a species and the use of integrated pest management to reduce risk. Honey bee colonies inside structures or hollow trees may become evident during the first warm days of spring. Scouting—the act of purposely looking for pest nests and pest activity—can reduce problems later in the year, especially for yellow jackets, but solitary bee and wasp species will be much less noticeable. Active honey bee hives can often be heard before they are seen, which can help you locate them inside voids and walls.

In spring, summer, and fall, honey bee swarms will gather in large clusters or clumps on branches or on structures as they search for a place to accommodate their new colony. This is how honey bees reproduce, essentially creating two hives from one by splitting away half the colony with a new queen. While they are generally docile in this stage, a cluster should be left alone. They will move on within a few days, but if you are concerned for a safety reason, contact your local cooperative extension or a beekeeper.

yellow and brown bee hovering near white clover flower on lawn
Watch where you stepping!  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

Although generally docile while foraging, honey bees are often a sting risk in flowers such as white clover blossoms in lawns. Avoid walking barefoot in such situations. Honey bees are also attracted to sweets like sugar syrups and pastry icing but most lack the aggression seen in yellowjackets. And unlike yellowjackets, which can sting repeatedly, honey bees have barbed stingers and can only sting once. When the stinger tears off, the bee will die. Remove the stinger quickly with a “scraping” motion of your fingernail or a flat object to avoid squeezing the venom sac to reduce the amount of venom released. Because of the discomfort and the risk of an allergic reaction, don’t wait until you witness a sting incident to know what to do.

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4 yellow and black bees on a bee hive comb
Florida Division of Plant Industry , Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org.  Click photo to see enlarged version.

What do European Honey Bees look like?

European honey bees are the only honey bees found in New York (from here referred to as honey bees). They are generally dark yellow-orange, orange-brown or darker colored with striped abdomens and a fuzzy appearance, ½ in (14mm).

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Why Should I Worry About European Honey Bees?

Honey bees are a small to moderate risk to humans. They are docile when alone, and do not sting unless they perceive danger or harm to the hive.  Many accidental stings occur when a foraging bee is in the wrong place. A multi-bee sting event may occur when the colony is disturbed by human or animal activity, including the use of a mower or weed trimmer. Honey bees can be particularly “grumpy” or extra defensive in the fall, when the hive is full of honey for winter. Honey bees overwinter as a full colony and become active when temperatures get above 50 degrees, so it is not unusual to see honey bees in the middle of winter on a warm, sunny days. You might even see yellow spots on your car windows, which is bee poop.

To reduce risk, avoid wearing dark clothes around a hive and perfumes, fragrant or flowery lotions, shampoos, conditioners and soaps when outside. Avoid swatting at bees and wasps, or squashing them. Gently blow off, or brush off a wasp or bee that has settled on you. Avoid walking barefoot in lawns with clover or other flowering weeds. Scoop live bees and wasps out of swimming pools and place them away from busy areas. If you are concerned about a wasp or bee nest or have trouble identifying the type and risk, consult a professional pest management company or beekeeper.

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yellow on black bee partly inside white flower
Honey bee pollinating blueberry flowers.  Photo: NYSIPM. Click photo to see enlarged version.

Why Do I Have European Honey Bees in My Yard?

Since honey bees are naturalized in North America, they will be found almost everywhere. To feed the brood, adults forage for pollen and nectar in the flowers of trees and shrubs, vegetables, and ornamental plants. If you enjoy gardening or growing plants, you will likely entertain many insects, including honey bees. Activity is very common on sunny days. If you see a very large number flying around, they are likely swarming nearby in search of a new home.

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How Do I Manage European Honey Bees in the Landscape?

If you find a large nest that can’t be ignored, call your local cooperative extension for recommendations of an experienced beekeeper or pest control expert. Beekeepers can attempt to safely remove and preserve the hive, protecting the bees and your family. If a swarm shows up on your property and is accessible for collection, call a beekeeper; most are interested in collecting and keeping valuable swarms, which occur when the colony is too large and a new queen is produced. Swarms show up as large numbers flying close together and then cluster together (most often on branches) around the queen as workers scout for new locations. Swarms are generally no risk as they do not have a hive to protect, but you don’t want them establishing inside a wall void of your home.

If a honey bee colony has become established inside your attic or a wall void it can result in a considerable mess, especially if the bees are killed and honey and brood are left behind. The honey will eventually drip out and run, causing stains on ceilings and rancid smells as it ferments. It may also attract yellowjackets and other pests. The brood and wax comb can bring in scavenger beetles. It may become destructive and costly to excavate a honey bee hive from your wall or attic, but in the end it is worth the money to avoid the headaches that can follow. More importantly, it is better to avoid allowing honey bees into the walls of your home or building by sealing up the edges of roof eaves, soffits, around the chimney and screening vents. This helps with other pests as well.

Always have an action plan in place to care for people and animals who have been stung.

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For more information on honey bees, see Bee a Good Neighbor—Information for beekeepers and neighbors.