Handling Bees in Africa

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Many people are afraid of bees because they sting. Some of us may have heard of stories where bees attacked, and even killed, people and livestock. Cases of human fatalities certainly have occurred in the Americas where Africanised bees have been given the dubious nickname by the media ‘Killer Bees’. Bee fatalities also occur in Africa although they are not well documented. Research conducted in Nigeria found that the defensive behaviour of bees was the biggest deterrent to farmers keeping bees.

Like other forms of livestock, bees must be handled with respect and care. If handled properly, bees will not cause any problems. Some bees tend to sting less than others. A beekeeper who frequently inspects his/her hives can easily tell those bees which are better and more docile. He/she can then eliminate the more aggressive bees and breed from the docile ones.

With frequent handling bees appear to become ‘used’ to being inspected and therefore less aggressive. A beekeeper can come to know the character of his bees. If you have many hives number them and keep records at each inspection of the bees behaviour.

When Handling African Bees:
  • Always wear a bee suit and take the time to put it on properly. Many people do not do this and get stung when the hives are open. There is no need for this. If you don’t know how to put on your suit get someone to help you (an experienced friend) .
  • Avoid using strong smelling soaps or sprays all of which may aggravate the bees.
  • Always use a smoker when handling bees. Smoke makes the bees suck honey from the combs and calms them down. Do not let the smoker go out during the operation or the bees can become aggressive. Keep plenty of smoker fuel handy as you work. It is always better to have two smokers alight than one, in case one goes out.
  • Before opening hives warn any onlookers and remove any tethered animals from the vicinity (over aggressive bees have been known to sting tethered animals to death).
  • Start with the least aggressive colonies always. This will allow you to work in peace with the pleasant colonies first.
  • Work gently and quietly. Do not knock or bang the hive as this can make the bees angry.
  • Always handle the bees in the evening between 5.30pm and darkness (bees can be handled at other times but you need to know what you are doing!). If the bees become aggressive at this time then they have a chance to cool down before the following morning. They also seem to be less aggressive in the cool of the evening. For bees which you have never handled before, or for very aggressive bees, take the extra precaution of handling the bees at dusk using a torch.
  • When handling avoid crushing bees and making sudden movements. Work carefully and with confidence. Remain calm even if the bees become aggressive. If bees appear to be getting out of control, close up the hive and try again another day. If bees get into your veil – remain calm – walk to a safe distance before trying to rectify the problem.
  • Work the hives with two or more people at a time. One person can lift out the combs while the other uses the smoker. This allows better control of the bees.
  • Do not stand in front of the hive entrance when examining the hive. Bees flying in and out may become agitated to find their way blocked. Always cut down disturbance to the bees in every way you can.
  • Advise any onlookers to move away quietly if stung covering their eyes. No running about waving the arms as this can annoy the bees.
  • Remove bee stings from the skin as soon as possible using a knife, hive tool or your nail to scrape off the sting. Trying to pull out the sting tends to squeeze in more venom. Use smoke to cover the scent of a sting. When a bee stings this scent will attract other bees to sting you again if you do not use smoke.
  • Do not go directly to where you are to remove your beesuit.Take a route via bushes/trees or tall maize sorghum etc. if around. Rub yourself against the leaves to rid yourself of bees which might be following or on you.
  • In time, as you gain experience as a beekeeper, you will be able to judge the mood of the bees more accurately and handle them calmly. However for the first few times it is better to get an experienced friend to help you.


Some people can get an allergic reaction to bee stings. The normal response in most people is some localised swelling. If you see someone who has swellings all over the body and has difficulty in breathing take the person immediately to a doctor for treatment. Severe allergic reactions to bee stings can kill. However such cases are rare. For most people a few stings may actually be beneficial. Bee venom is used to treat arthritis and is extracted from bees commercially as a medicine.

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