You see them at every barbecue, spinning and swooping, whirling round and round, arms flailing, aerosols in hand, covering the world in chemicals. The bee sprayers. Why do people have this fixation about repelling bees?
I think it’s a cultural thing. From an early age we are told, “Beware kid, that bee’s got a mighty sting”. So even as children, we learn to chase them, have a swipe at them, swat them. Dead! The big problem is that we got it wrong. Very wrong.
Kids learn that those yellow and black stripy flying things are BAD and need to be KILLED. Or at the very least, attacked or escaped from. The problem is that the “yellow and black stripy flying thing” could be a wasp, a hornet or a honey bee. All of these insects look very similar, and to most children and even some adults, they are all the same. They’re “bees” – all to be dealt with in the same way.
The reality is that bees, wasps and hornets are very different creatures with different habits and different ways of living – and they need to be dealt with very differently too. Let’s take a look:
Yellow jackets, Wasps and Hornets
Yellow jacket is a name given to those wasps that are black and yellow striped as you probably know. It’s a term not used in the U.K. There are other wasps that are black, or black and white. In the U.S., one of these wasps is known as the bald-faced or white-faced hornet but is not a true hornet, it’s a wasp. To add to the confusion, the true hornet looks very like the common wasp, but it’s a little smaller and darker and isn’t a wasp at all. To keep it simple, when I use the term “yellow jacket” on this page I am talking about wasps, not hornets.
Anyway, wasps spend the early part of the season eating mostly other insects, even bees! During this time, you won’t be bothered by them very much because they are gathering insects and feeding their young like crazy. Later in the year the adults’ diet changes – they eat mostly sugary substances such as windfall fruit. It is during this time that most people get fractious about yellow jackets, because this is when they come buzzing around your orange soda or cola and just won’t leave it alone. Basically, they have nothing better to do at this time because their young have been raised and their work is done. Even as a bee lover, I agree that yellow jackets can be a pain in the neck (sometimes literally) if you’re drinking or eating something sweet out on the porch. The thing to remember is that they’re not after YOU, they are just trying to get at the sweet drink or whatever and if you get in their way, you better watch out!
Yellow jackets will be attracted to the aroma of the drink in the cup and on your mouth. It’s like this – if you sit in front of the kids eating candy, they’ll pester you like crazy until they get a piece of the action. It’s the same with these creatures. If you flaunt your sugary wares in their little world, they will pester you until they have their fill. It’s not you they are after, just your sweet goodies! The best thing to do is NOT take that sugary drink outside, especially in late summer. The same applies to anything that has a sweet aroma, even perfumes.
I bet if you follow this advice you will have no trouble from these critters, but if you do feel that you need to repel them somehow, I have some advice lower down the page. First, though, lets talk about bees:
Honey Bees and Bumble Bees
Bees are not wasps, but people always seem to want to deal with them as if they are. Unless you are sitting on top of a bees nest, which I don’t usually advise, you won’t ever have trouble with bees unless you go looking for it.
Bees will not usually be attracted by your cola or orange soda or sweet-smelling perfume. They’re just too busy doing what bees do – going from flower to flower, collecting nectar – and they’re not going to be remotely interested in you unless you happen to look like some over sized daisy and have a sweet center.
Some bees will come buzzing around you and we are all conditioned from an early age, or maybe instinctively, to fear this, but with bees, there is no need to be afraid. In the early part of the summer it is likely to be a queen bee looking around for a nest site, later on it may just be a curious bee temporarily mistaking your flowery pants for a patch of marigolds or whatever. As soon as Miss Bee realizes her mistake, she will fly off with her tail between her legs. If you see what I mean. There is no need to react to the bee, just observe it, enjoy it, and soon it will move on. There is NO WAY this bee is going to sting you.
There is a really good reason not to kill a bee. Killing it will cause airborne chemicals caused pheromones to be released. These will tell other bees that one of their number has been attacked, and this will put them into attack mode and could cause them to sting without warning, especially near the nest.
Now for a serious environmental message. Honey bees and bumble bees are vital to our wellbeing. They pollinate about a quarter of the world’s food sources. Recently their numbers have declined dramatically, which could soon be a very big problem for us all. The last thing the world needs is for you to go killing bees and reducing their number even further. Please do your duty and leave these beneficial insects alone.
Why do Bees Sting?
Bees and wasps sting to protect either themselves or their nest. In the case of honey bees, they only sting mammals to protect their nests, because stinging a mammal causes a worker honey bee to die, which means she won’t sting just to save herself. Bees and wasps will not sting you unless you do something to cause it, or they think you did. Here are some things to avoid:
- Avoid the scenario where a bee or wasp could be trapped in your clothing. Yellow jackets especially are prone to go exploring up legs and sleeves. If they get stuck or squeezed, they will take this as an attack, and sting you. Woolly clothes are also a problem as yellow jackets can get trapped in the fibers and think you did it deliberately.
- If a bee or wasp comes near you, please resist the temptation to indulge in a fit of amateur dramatics. Flailing, swooping, flapping, screaming, running around like the Keystone Cops – all of these actions could be seen as aggressive. Just sit still. Even if the bee or wasp lands on your skin, sit still. It will NOT sting you, it will just tickle a bit, have a little look around, and fly off. If it heads for the inside of your clothes, however, take action to make sure it is diverted away or it may get trapped. I usually get something for it to crawl onto like a leaf or paper.
- If you are on a bike, you may collide with a bee or yellow jacket in flight, and although it was an accident, the insect may not see it that way!
- If you have to drink a can of cola outside in the late summer, watch that can like a hawk. A yellow jacket could crawl in when you are not looking, and you could get it in the mouth, so to speak!
- If you find yourself near to a bees’ or wasps’ nest, be especially careful. Move slowly, don’t flap around, and do NOT interfere with the nest in any way. These things could be viewed as aggressive and could result in the insects attacking you. Even some perfumes can be interpreted as attack signals, so the safest thing to do if you find yourself near a nest is to slowly move away from it.
Bees’ Nest Too Close for Comfort?
If you get a bees nest in your yard, you are lucky indeed. You will have the chance to safeguard a small part of the world’s bee population. The best thing is to leave the nest alone, and watch from a distance as nature takes its course. If it is a smaller nest, such as that of a bumble bee, you will barely know it is there. However, if the nest is a wasps’ nest or a honey bees’ nest, there will be more insects around and this may be a problem for you if it happens to be close to the house or in a place you need to walk through regularly, or if you have curious pets or children. In this case, if you want the nest removed, PLEASE get professional help. Whatever you do, please do not try to deal with the nest using insecticides or other chemicals, fire, water, physical destruction, whatever. You are asking for trouble. On top of this, a professional can often pass honey bees on to a local beekeeper instead of destroying them, so you can do your bit for the environment too.
Responsible Bee Repelling
If you have a real phobia about wasps and bees (apiphobia), I seriously suggest you look into hypnotherapy or other treatments for phobias. However, if you take the view that there is nothing wrong with your fear of bees and wasps, you just want to keep them away from you when you are on the porch or out on a picnic, what can you do about it? First of all, you will now know that the above headline is misleading. When we talk about repelling bees, most of the time what we really mean is repelling wasps which cause by far the most nuisance to humans.
So what can we do to repel them in a responsible way? Repellents fall into two camps:
- True repellents, that cause the insects to keep away from you but don’t harm them
- Insecticides that kill the insects
I would not even consider those products that kill. How many insects do you think you are going to have to kill before there are none left in the area to come and see you on the porch? One hundred? A thousand? A ZILLION??
It really is complete madness and a total waste of your money. There is always going to be another wasp just around the corner.
So that leaves us with the first option – the true repellent, something that the wasps just don’t like, and want to avoid. You can get sprays to put on your skin that are designed to achieve this. Many commercial chemical sprays claim to be non-toxic, bio-degradable, safe to children and animals etc. Just be careful what you believe and in whom you trust.
A natural alternative is to buy or make a spray that contains plant extracts that are known to repel the insects. Tee tree oil, lemon grass, peppermint oil, and citronella are common ingredients in such products.
All of these repellents, chemical and natural, receive mixed results, but if I ever felt the need to use one, I would always choose a natural one personally, because I am dead against filling my yard with chemicals – it’s just so 1970s!