If bumble bees have taken up residence on or near your home, you might be thinking about how to get rid of them. However, it’s probably best to let them be. Bumble bees play a crucial role in pollination and the food industry. Without them, we would have a lot less food and fewer flowers. Unfortunately, they’re not doing so well. Worldwide, bumble bee populations are declining. Because of their importance and their conservation status, the best thing you can do when you find a bumble bee nest on your property is to celebrate it and leave it alone.
In some cases, however, the nest is in an inconvenient location or a family member has an allergy to bee venom. In this case, it may be prudent to evict them as soon as possible. Around 3% of people in the United States and Europe are allergic to insect stings. People with sting allergies can suffer from anaphylaxis, a reaction that includes hives, nausea, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness, and sometimes even death. Repeated exposure to bee venom increases the chances of developing an allergy. Larger bee populations nesting closer to places where people live and congregate mean a greater risk of stings. Wasps and bees are considered even more dangerous than spiders, scorpions, or snakes, though this may be due to the prohibitively high cost of epinephrine injectors.
Here, we’ll cover bumble bee identification (including hierarchy and seasonal activity), benefits and drawbacks to having them on your property, bumblebee habitat and nesting behavior, non-lethal and lethal control methods, when to call in the professionals, safety tips, and ways to prevent bumble bees from nesting around your home.
In this article:
- Bumble bee identification
- Bumble bees on your property
- Non-lethal bumble bee control
- Lethal bumble bee control
- When to call professionals
- Safety tips
- Bumble bee prevention
Bumble bee identification
There are over 250 different types of bumble bees (Bombus sp.), nearly 50 of which live in the United States. They can be confused with honey bees, carpenter bees, or even some wasps if you don’t know what to look for. Here, we’ll cover the primary identifying characteristics of bumble bees, including seasonal activity, and how to tell them apart from other bees.
What are bumble bees?
Bumble bees are members of the order Hymenoptera, along with wasps and ants. There are around 20,000 species of bees and wasps alone. While various bee species can be confused with wasps, there are some notable differences that will help you determine what you’re dealing with. Bees are hairier and stockier than wasps, having a less pronounced waist. Wasps’ waists are very pinched and narrow. Bumble bees, in particular, are quite large, round, and fuzzy. They are usually banded in some combination of black, yellow, and white. Like all insects, their bodies are divided into three major parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. Their heads sport two antennae, while the legs and wings are attached at the thorax. Bumble bees typically have bristles on their legs and the females have a corbicula, or pollen basket, on their hind legs for carrying pollen back to the nest. There are three classes of bumble bees (as is true for many other bees): queens, workers, and males. Queens and workers are both female but can be distinguished by size, with queens tending to be larger. Males have more abdominal and antennal segments and slimmer legs than females.
Bumble bee activity
As winter ends, typically in February, bumble bee queens emerge from hibernation and seek out a suitable nesting location.
Bumble bees nest in cavities, usually underground (often abandoned rodent burrows), but some nest aboveground (e.g., tree hollows, rotten logs, or even driver vents).
Once she chooses a site, the bumble bee queen lines the nest with grass or moss (unless she chose a rodent burrow, which would already be lined with fur). She then builds wax cells and fills them with nectar and pollen, lays between 5 and 20 eggs, and incubates them for around one month. When the worker bees emerge, they go out to forage while the queen lays and incubates more eggs. Bumble bees remain active throughout the summer and fall, foraging and pollinating. In the autumn, males and future queens are produced. This generation heads out from the nest in search of mates. Fertilized females go into hibernation at the beginning of the winter (November) while males and unfertilized females die off. Bumble bees also emerge early in the morning and return to the nest late in the evening. This, and their habit of being active in cold months (February, November) is made possible by their ability to actively thermoregulate. Unlike most insects, they can shiver, producing heat in their thorax. This heat allows them to fly even when the ambient temperature is low.
Bumble bees vs. other bees
The types of bees that you are most likely to encounter besides bumble bees are honey bees and carpenter bees. While at first glance, you may have trouble telling them apart, they do have several distinguishing features (both in appearance and behavior) that will help you identify them.
The distinction between bumblebee vs honeybee is fairly straightforward. Honey bees are smaller, less rotund, and less fuzzy than bumble bees. While honey bees can only sting once (the act of stinging kills them), bumble bees can sting repeatedly.
The distinction between carpenter bee vs bumble bee is a little less clear. Carpenter bees can be confused with bumble bees due to their roundness. However, carpenter bees have smooth and shiny abdomens rather than the fuzzy abdomens characteristic of bumble bees. Furthermore, their abdomens are fully black, whereas bumble bee abdomens are banded in black and yellow. Thus, carpenter bees look a bit like a shiny, black bumblebee.
Carpenter bees lack the corbicula found in bumble bees. Female carpenter bees nest in tunnels they drill in wood. This hole-drilling behavior can make carpenter bees a significant pest. While not as bad as termites, they can cause structural damage to homes.
Bumble bees on your property
Now that you know what bumble bees look like and how they differ from honey bees and carpenter bees, what happens when you have bumble bees living near you? We’ll cover why it’s actually a good thing to have bumble bees on your land, what the risks are, and a little about their nests.
What are the benefits of bumble bees?
As mentioned, the world would be a hungrier, less floral place without bumble bees. They pollinate many of the foods we eat and the flowers we enjoy. The diversity of the more than 250 bumble bee species means a wide variety of proboscis (tongue) lengths, allowing the pollination of a wide variety of plants. They are more important to pollination than honey bees, of which there are fewer than 10 known species.
Keep in mind!
Bumble bees are also active both earlier and later in the year and day than other bee species, meaning that they are still pollinating when other bees are not. They also pollinate in bad weather, such as cloudy, cool, and/or rainy days when other bees have difficulty flying. Furthermore, bumble bees can pollinate some flowers that other insects cannot.
Damage and risks
Since bumble bees tend to nest in existing cavities instead of excavating their own, they don’t cause any damage to your home or property. The greatest danger from bumble bees is for those with bee venom allergies. Sure, nobody likes being stung by a bee, but there are ways to reduce your risk and if you’re not allergic, it’s really not so bad. Check out our article, “How to Avoid Bee Stings” for tips to decrease the chances of a painful sting. Most people stung by bees experience initial sharp pain, swelling, and redness around the site, followed by dull pain and itching that can last for multiple days. If, however, you’re one of those 3% with an allergy to insect stings, the situation can be much worse, even life-threatening. Some of the minor allergic responses to bee stings include hives and swelling away from the actual sting site, headaches, nausea, and abdominal cramping. Anaphylaxis, however, is a life-threatening reaction involving difficulty breathing, dizziness, shock, and loss of consciousness. Without immediate medical care, including but not limited to the use of an epinephrine injector, people with severe sting allergies can be killed by a single bee sting. It’s best not to let bees live around your home if you or someone in your family is allergic.
Some people do not have allergies, but instead, have a phobia of bees. The irrational, sometimes debilitating, fear of bees is called apiphobia or melissophobia. This is not the same thing as being afraid of bees and bee stings. Someone who is allergic to bees has a healthy, natural, and completely rational fear of being stung. Phobias, on the other hand, are irrational. They cause disproportionate panic and can lead people to significantly change their behavior. Apiphobia can severely limit someone’s ability to be outdoors in the summer. Phobias can be treated. However, if you or a family member has a debilitating phobia of bees, that’s likely a good enough reason for bumble bee nest removal.
Bumble bee nests
As mentioned above, bumble bee queens find a suitable nesting location, line it with moss or grass (if necessary), build some wax cells, and lay eggs. This is how a bumble bee colony is begun. The population will grow as more workers hatch and mature. The workers take over the tasks of provisioning new cells and defending and enlarging the nest while the queen focuses on laying more eggs. Bumble bee colonies usually grow to a few hundred individuals at most, never reaching the enormity of honey bee hives.
If you think you have bumble bees and you need to get rid of them, you’ll need to find their nest. Most species of bumble bee seek out dark, dry, enclosed spaces. If they already have a lining (like abandoned rodent burrows), that’s a bonus because it means less work for the queen. If there aren’t any abandoned burrows around your property, you may find a bumble bee nest in your house wall (insulation being a great nest lining), under eaves, beneath sheds, in bird boxes or disused bird nests, within hollowed-out trees or rotting logs, in drier vents, in the hollows of rock walls, in lofts, in compost heaps or thick grass, and shaded garden corners. They will not nest in an area that gets a lot of sun as this will heat up the nest to potentially dangerous levels.
Non-lethal bumble bee control
If you have nuisance bumble bees, there are a couple of minor things you can do before trying to remove them. For example, perhaps they’re nesting under your shed and coming up through a hole in the floor. You can plug this hole and open another one outside that will reduce the chances of a bee-human encounter. You can even give bee nests in other locations new entrances by attaching a rubber pipe or hose to the existing nest entrance. The bees will follow the tubing out. If the nest is far away from the home, you should be able to leave it alone and let the bees complete their life cycle. If, however, you need to get rid of bumble bees around your house, the best way is a non-lethal way. They are very important to us and the world and they are threatened with extinction around the globe. Here, we’ll detail nest relocation, some DIY solutions, and bee repellent.
Relocate the nest
Moving a bumble bee nest is risky business. Disturbing a nest is one of the best ways to get yourself stung. It also carries the risk of disturbing the bees enough to disrupt their life cycle. If they don’t produce new queens, several generations could be prevented from existing.
If you’ve determined that they must be removed, here’s how to do it: Choose an alternative, sheltered site that isn’t exposed to prolonged sun before taking the nest from its original location. We recommend either a few feet away (if possible) or more than 1 km away from the original nest site. Be sure that wherever you place the box won’t vibrate a lot (e.g., with wind or human activities) so that the bees won’t be disturbed. Only approach nests at night when the bees are lethargic and highly unlikely to fly. Use a red light to see by (bees can’t see the color red).
Wear protective clothing: long sleeves, rubber gloves, long pants. Do your best not to breathe on the nest as you prepare to move it. Bees may be alerted by breath alone.
The easiest nests to relocate are those in bird nest boxes. Simply plug up the entrance hole and any other openings in the box and carefully take the box down. Don’t tip it and make sure it remains level during the relocation. If the nest tips, any nectar the queen and/or workers have collected may spill out, resulting in lost resources and reduced chances of colony survival. Put the box back up in the new location. The following afternoon, remove the plug to release the bees into their new home. For a nest that is not already contained within a movable structure, you will need to first find or build a suitable container for the nest. Large wooden boxes and plant pots will work. Be sure to line them as a queen would with moss or grass. Have this structure with you when you move the nest. Use a spade or shovel to gently pick up the nest and transfer it to the structure. Make sure that it remains upright and stable. Move the whole structure with the nest inside to the new location. If you need to get rid of bumble bees in the ground, however, this may not be possible. The act of digging around the nest will almost certainly disturb the bees and provoke an attack.
You may also be able to relocate individual bees (using a trap) or get the whole colony to move away (using natural bumble bee repellents).
Trapping and moving individual bees is time-consuming and largely impractical. Moving an entire colony a few bees at a time is inefficient, you have to check the traps often to avoid accidentally killing the bees, they might just fly home after you release them, and you run the risk of disrupting the colony life cycle, potentially preventing the birth and/or feeding of next year’s queens.
However, if you’d like to try it, all you need for a bumble bee trap is a 2-liter plastic bottle, a sweet liquid (e.g., sugar water, soda, fruit juice), and some cotton balls. Cut the bottle in two at the point where it begins to taper towards the mouth. This leaves you with an open cylinder and a funnel that fits right down into it. Soak several cotton balls in the liquid and place them in a layer at the bottom of the bottle. Wipe one of the cotton balls around the inside of the top of the bottle, then place the top upside down in the bottom. Bees can easily fly into the funnel but have trouble getting back out. Place the trap near where you’ve noticed bee activity. When you’re ready to release the bees, make sure to go far from your home (at least 1 km) and remove the top section from the trap. This leaves a wide opening from which bees can escape.
This method is not recommended. Recall that worker bees take over the task of foraging to provision the nest once they emerge from their wax cells. This means that the queen does little foraging of her own and you’re unlikely to catch her. Worker bees are not fertilized and will not start their own nest elsewhere. The most likely result of trapping and relocating individual bees is a severely diminished original colony that is unlikely to successfully produce new queens and a bunch of confused worker bees that suddenly find themselves very far from home.
You can make the traps lethal by pouring the liquid into the bottle so the bees will drown or simply leaving them inside the trap to die instead of releasing them.
To get rid of bumble bees naturally, try essential oils. Some essential oils, like those of peppermint, cinnamon, clove, and citrus repel bees. You can make repellent stations by soaking cotton balls in essential oils and placing them around your home. Essential oils of peppermint, lemongrass, and citronella can be used as a bee repellent for your body. Similarly, mixing witch hazel with peppermint, tea tree, or lavender oil and spraying it on yourself and your clothing can work the same way. Alternatively, mixing essential oils with water (1 tablespoon of oil to 16 oz of water) and spraying them around your decks, patios, and other outdoor gathering places will also repel many insects. Spray once a week for continued control.
Another option is a spray containing peppermint, cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and soap. Mix 2-3 teaspoons of liquid soap, a few drops of peppermint oil, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper in a spray bottle. Fill the bottle with water and spray around outdoor spaces, doors, and windows to keep bees away.
Cinnamon may have limited effectiveness or even be dangerous for bees, however. In low doses (50µg/ml), it is used to treat disease-causing bacteria on honey bees and poses no danger to the bees. At high doses (10% oil solutions) used to treat mites, however, it is fatal to honey bees. Even though bumble bees are larger, it is likely to be dangerous to them as well. Be sure to use it only in the proportions listed here.
Garlic is an effective insect repellent that poses little to no threat to adult bees. In fact, if administered in low doses as a food additive, it reduces the prevalence of disease in commercial honey bee colonies. Bees dislike the smell of garlic and it can mask the odor of attractive flowers, encouraging bees to seek shelter and nutrition elsewhere. You can spray garlic extract, sprinkle garlic powder, or boil one garlic head in 16 oz of water for 10 minutes and use the water as a spray (once it has cooled off). Be careful, though. While garlic is non-toxic to adult bees, it has been shown to be toxic to larval bees. Don’t put garlic sprays or powders on or near bumble bee nests.
Citronella candles are another bee repellent. It’s likely that the scent masks other, attractive smells so that bees find the area surrounding a citronella candle to be uninteresting. Take care with citronella oil, though. It has been shown to kill adult workers and, when fed to larvae, results in smaller adults.
Lethal bumble bee control
Sometimes, though it should be a last resort, bumble bees must be killed. For example, if bumble bees make a nest inside your home, you and your family can be in danger even if you don’t have allergies.
When multiple bees sting a person, a condition called mass envenomation results. This simply means that a lot of venom is in your body and it can be lethal, especially to children and pets.
Bumble bees nesting inside the walls of your home can present risk and be very difficult to access, making relocation nearly impossible. You may be wondering how to get rid of a bumble bee nest in the ground. Unfortunately, you may have to kill them as well. If you can’t let bees remain on your property and none of the non-lethal options are available to you, lethal control is the only solution. We’ll outline some things you can mix yourself to kill bees as well as approved commercial insecticides.
There are a few bumble bee killers you can whip up at home. These are certainly easier on the wallet than commercial insecticides. The only drawback to DIY insecticide solutions is that they usually do not have any residual activity. This means that they are effective immediately but won’t linger and thus won’t be effective on future bee visitors.
Soapy water and mint
Soapy water is a commonly-used insecticide, especially on plants. It coats the bodies of insects, thereby suffocating them. It must be applied directly to bees in order to kill them. Unlike repellent sprays, you can’t simply spray around your home and expect it to kill any visiting bees. As mentioned, it has no residual properties. However, adding a mint essential oil to your soapy water spray will act as a bee repellent if any spray ends up on your outdoor surfaces. After the water evaporates, the mint smell will be left behind. Similarly, if you spray a bumble bee nest, as long as the mint smell remains, other bumble bees are unlikely to colonize the site. If you choose to attack the nest, make sure to do it after dark when the bees are resting.
Vinegar has a similar effect to soap. It coats the bee’s body, rendering it unable to fly and eventually suffocating it. You only need about 1 teaspoon of vinegar to 1 quart of water. Add a few drops of dish soap to enhance the coating action. Alternatively, you can spray a stronger solution of 1:1 vinegar to water on a bee nest to eradicate the whole colony.
If you choose to go the commercial route, either due to personal preference, because the DIY methods were unsuccessful, or because you need residual toxicity, we’ll cover some tips for choosing the right insecticide and using it appropriately. Sprays and dusts are both effective and can remain toxic for 2 to 6 months after application. Bumble bee sprays are easier (and potentially safer) to apply given that you can apply them from a distance. Dusts are good for ground nests because of their residual activity. The dust will remain on the ground well after the bees have been killed and any that emerge from the wax cells later will also quickly perish. Remember to only apply insecticides after dark and wear protective clothing.
Check the label of any insecticide you consider purchasing to make sure it’s formulated for outdoor use and specifically for bees. While most agricultural pesticides will kill bees (they are a leading cause of worldwide bee declines), ones made to target bees specifically will be more effective. The major active ingredients of bee sprays are pyrethroids, such as deltamethrin. Pyrethroids are the synthetic version of pyrethrum (pyrethrins), a natural insecticide derived from chrysanthemums. They are common in many different insecticides, including household sprays, pet shampoo, dusts, mosquito sprays, treated clothing, and agricultural pesticides. They have low toxicity to people and pets (especially at the levels necessary to kill insects), but are highly toxic to aquatic life, so care should be taken not to spray them near waterways. They bind tightly to soil, so are unlikely to leach into the groundwater. They work by preventing normal nerve impulses, which leads to paralysis and death. Check the labels of any insecticides you are considering. Pyrethroid common names typically end in ‘-thrin’ or ‘-ate’.
When to call professionals
Sometimes, a bumble bee problem is too difficult to handle on your own. Perhaps you can’t easily access the nest and/or you don’t want to kill the bees. You may simply be uncomfortable getting close enough to spray or dust. Maybe you have an allergy to bee venom. Those with allergies should always turn to professionals for bee and wasp control. The savings are not worth anaphylactic shock. Professionals come with copious knowledge, years of experience, heavy-duty protective clothing and application equipment, and often pesticides regular consumers don’t have access to. Both beekeepers and pest control companies are great resources for your bumble bee control needs.
Beekeepers are a great alternative to dealing with a nest yourself. In addition to their knowledge, experience, and equipment, beekeepers will likely try to preserve the nest and keep the bees alive. They may even be willing to keep them on their own property and care for them. Try to find a bumble beekeeper near you. While honey beekeepers have knowledge of other types of bees, their expertise is in honey bees and they may not be able to help you out. They are also far less likely than bumble beekeepers to adopt your nest.
Pest control companies
Pest control companies typically won’t move nests; they are more likely to destroy them. Some companies, however, refuse to destroy bumble bees and a few do move nests. Just make sure to do your research and choose the company that does the service you want.
Whether you choose to leave a bumble bee nest alone or eradicate your unwanted guests, you must exercise caution around bumble bee nests.
Although bumble bees aren’t particularly aggressive, they will defend their nest from intruders. Furthermore, they are social insects and they secrete an alarm pheromone when attacked that signals nearby sister bees to join the fight.
Try to avoid getting to close to bumble bee nests. 10 or 20 feet is considered a safe distance. Bees are thought to be able to detect intruders by their breath alone. Be careful not to breathe on bumble bee nests when you are near them. If you have a bumble bee nest in or near your yard, wear a bee hat and veil when mowing or weeding in case they decide you’re too close for comfort.
As mentioned, when moving or treating bumble bee nests, wear protective clothing. At a minimum, long sleeves, long pants, closed-toed shoes, and gloves are recommended.
If you encounter a foraging bumble bee, you should be fairly safe. However, take care not to appear threatening. Don’t swat at the bumble bee and be careful of loose clothing. Bees could fly up through a loose sleeve and become trapped.
Bumble bee prevention
A crucial part of pest control is prevention. If you don’t want bumble bees on your property, it’s easier to keep them out in the first place than getting rid of them after they’re already established. Prevention also obviates any need to kill them. Here, we’ll cover how to keep bumble bees away from your home and yard.
Bees are always on the hunt for nectar so they are attracted to sweet substances like juice, soda, and fruit. If they know they can find these things at your house, they are likely to try to make their home near such a reliable food source. Always rinse out the juice and soda containers before disposing of them and keep the area around your garbage and recycling bins clean. Make sure the lids are tightly closed and bees can’t get in to investigate any sugary garbage you’ve thrown out. Bees also need water, so make sure there’s no standing water on your property.
To keep bumble bees from moving right into your home, seal up any holes or cracks around your house and outbuildings. If you have empty rodent burrows, fill them in and/or place repellent around the hole. Take down any unused bird boxes. Remove empty plant pots or buckets and store them indoors.
If you have had a bumble bee hive in prior years but don’t want them to move back in, block the entrance or destroy the nest at the end of the season when the colony has died. This way, a new queen can’t find it and recolonize next year.
Finally, try out some of the repellents we mentioned above.
A bumble bee nest near your home is generally a very good thing. They play a crucial role in natural ecosystems and agriculture alike, pollinating a wider variety of plants than other bees as well as pollinating specific plants that other pollinators cannot. They are threatened worldwide by human activity. Anywhere they can set up a colony should be protected if possible.
However, sometimes they make their nests too close to high traffic areas of your property. Some people are highly allergic to bee venom. In these cases, it may be necessary to get rid of bumble bees. In this article, we’ve covered both non-lethal (moving nests, repelling bees) and lethal (traps, pesticides) control methods as well as safety and prevention tips. You may very well be able to handle an unwanted bumble bee colony on your own.
However, it’s imperative that you know your own limitations. In some cases, the best solution is to call a pest control company or a beekeeper and let them take care of it for you. Good luck!