Honey Bee Temper: Those Other Variables

From Bee Craft October 2011

John Mitchell
Observations on bee temper from 25 years ago

The white venom sacs from bad-tempered bees that have stung this dark-coloured hat

FOR MANY years I have been fascinated by talk of good-tempered and bad-tempered bees. In my early days of beekeeping, I labelled all of my colonies in either category. However, in the course of a season, I could well reverse my opinion. What I had at one stage considered to be a good-tempered colony would often be promptly demoted to bad-tempered after a shock stinging.

Without doubt, there are strains of bees which are generally gentler than others. But there are many variables which combine to determine the collective character of a colony. Weather conditions, obviously, are very important. In the long, hot summer of 1976, I could have given all of my 15 colonies the title ‘mild’. There were times during the last cold, wet summer [1986], when, among other expletives, I could have called them all ‘wild’. And they were just nuclei!

Trying All Types

A Caucasian honey bee
(Kathy Keatley Garvey)

In times when foreign-bred queens were cheap and easily available, I used to send away for queens each year. I tried them all: Italians, Caucasians, Brother Adam’s Buckfast, and I even tried the notorious French Blacks. The French Blacks, reputed to be vicious, were bought second-hand from Aberdeenshire. The heather honey farmers requeened every July and they sold the yearold, marked, clipped queens which they replaced. The resultant colonies from all of these queens, including the French Blacks, were really not much different from my existing stocks. Some days they were sharp; some days they were mild. Conditions always seemed more important than strain.

Wild Italians

Italians, so nice to look at, with their wasp-like workers and amber queens, are reputed to be some of the gentlest of bees. I had previously read about their sunny natures when I responded to the request of a lady who had inherited four colonies of Italians from a deceased relative in Kent. They had been transported in a furniture van the day before I examined them. They were on two brood chambers. The hives had been neglected and none had the correct complement of frames. The result was that the frames had moved and been shaken about and some had broken.

Does working privet
make bees sluggish and docile?

I examined the colonies on a reasonable day to assess the contents with a view to supering. I have never known bees to be so wild – before or since! My veil was supported by a brown trilby hat, the crown of which was completely flecked with white sting sacs (see photo above). Even my final secret weapon, a heavily impregnated carbolic cloth, seemed to have little impact. So much for your gentle Italians. Conditions were the deciding factor in considering temper.

A Settled Strain

It is now 15 years [in 1986] since I consciously introduced any new element into my colonies. It would be reasonable to say that I have a settled ‘strain’ of bees. I keep half of my colonies at home, in established parkland, and the others in woodland, four miles away. All hives regularly interchange sites on return from the heather. Over a period of several years, I have observed a definite pattern of behaviour, in home hives, every late July.

The Effect of Privet?

When preparing the out-apiary hives for the heather at this time, I often have a heavy time and invariably receive a sting or two. On the same day, however, I could prepare the home hives without a veil. The bees at home, last week in July, are always sluggish and docile. This peculiarity always occurs in the presence of the sickly, sweet smell of privet. We have a large number of unclipped privet ‘trees’ in our vicinity, some 10 feet (30 metres) high and untouched for years. The bees become apparently drugged and dopey when working these.

A few days later, on the heather, they all revert to type. Assessing the same bees during their pre-winter check, on return from the heather, presents a very different picture from the placid, pre-heather softies.

Hive Records and a Bee Diary

By keeping individual hive cards and a bee diary, I have some records of bee behaviour. When I recorded colonies as good-tempered or bad-tempered, I observed two interesting situations. A so-called mild colony lost all of its former charm when I searched for, and later found, a virgin queen, a few days after swarming. This exercise was carried out in perfect conditions.

A so-called wild colony, huge and sharp in the autumn, turned out to be very meek and mild when its numbers were very greatly depleted the next spring. I should imagine that even in the controlled, clinical conditions of a bee research station, it would be difficult to assess the temper of a colony or strain scientifically. Colonies can easily be assessed for their prolificacy or honey-producing qualities by counting and weighing, but assessment of temper is essentially a subjective judgement.

A Subjective View

A classic example of this subjective view was evident in the case of a couple of elderly beekeepers who used to live nearby. They kept two colonies for many years. She was frail, arthritic, slow-moving and gentle. He was a big, heavy man, inclined to sweat easily. She examined the bees without a veil or gloves and was rarely stung. He couldn’t get near the hives unless dressed like a spaceman! The bees always hounded him and sought him out when he was digging or picking fruit, 20 yards (18 metres) away from the hives.

Were these colonies good-tempered or bad-tempered? Ask her. Ask him!


My conclusions are that when considering whether a colony or strain is good-tempered or bad-tempered, many factors and subtle variables have to be taken into consideration. Reaction to conditions appears to be as important as genes. ã [This article was first published in the British Bee Journal in September 1986. John Mitchell has kept bees for nearly 50 years. He is an octogenarian, a retired teacher and long time subscriber to Bee Craft. He used to teach at Wimpole Park village school in 1952–1953. Mrs Bambridge, Rudyard Kipling’s daughter, was the local squire who owned all the land, including the American hospital there.]

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