Is it legal to kill bees? That’s the question most commonly asked by people who get in touch with us at Tree Bee. Whether it’s members of the public, local authorities, private commercial landlords or pest controllers themselves, there’s a huge grey area in the law over what can and can’t be done. After explaining the ins and outs of what the law says, of what various professional bodies recommend and of course, what we recommend, it seems quite often that this is entirely the wrong question to be asking. Rather than asking, is it legal to kill bees? The question ought to be asked, Should I kill bees?
By now, we’re all aware of the importance of bees, we’re made aware of it constantly, through educational establishments, through the media, by what celebrities are telling us and of course, by the message that is constantly on repeat from organisations such as Tree Bee. Even central government departments such as DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has a National Pollinator Strategy, setting out a 10 year plan to help pollinating insects survive and thrive.
Without going into too much detail about where each bee species lives and the habitat they prefer (because we’d be here forever and it’s probably another post for another time), bees commonly move into properties. By nature, most bee species are cavity dwellers, with Honeybees (A.Melifera) and Tree Bees (B.hypnorum) being the most commonly reported to us here at the Tree Bee Society. Due to our environment here in the UK, most modern properties are built with cavity walls for insulation, cavities within our roof spaces and generally, a chimney stack or two. These cavities provide the perfect space for an insect such as a bee to take up home. The cavities are often warm, insulated, dry and not disturbed, meaning they can continue to raise young and further their species in relative peace and quiet.
Quite often, when coming across a species of bee within their properties, members of the public (and those from commercial properties) will call either one of two people, a beekeeper, or a pest controller. While attempts may be taken to live remove the bees, often, due to a mixture of either inexperience handling bees, a lack of knowledge or being unable to physically access the bees, the question is raised – can I kill bees?
After acknowledging the obvious, that bees are beneficial insects, we should focus on where they are causing the issue. Are they high up, possibly in the loft space? Is the entrance on a wall, away from windows? If they’re a type of seasonal bee, the recommended action would be to leave them to continue to the end of the season, where the nest will finish up naturally and any entrances can be sealed up (give that they’re not an airbrick, vent or a chimney stack). If the nest is in a garden, possibly a bird nesting box or compost heap, a decision can be made to relocate the nest, given that the professional who has been called in to deal with the issue is comfortable with removing and transporting a nest to relocate it. If the professional is not comfortable in dealing with the nest in this way, there are other professionals such as Tree Bee who operate bee removal services.
However, if the nest is again in an area away from where humans will be affected or must interact with it, then efforts can be made for a reasonable accommodation for the nest. If a nest cannot be removed but is deemed to be in an area where members of the public may come into regular contact with the bees entering and leaving the nest, the nest entrance can be diverted using tools found in many DIY shops.
When Honeybee colonies move into a cavity in a property, they are not seasonal and will not move out unless necessary. Professional Pest Controllers and members of the public attempting a DIY treatment should be aware of what they could potentially be exposing themselves to. Not only should you consult the Codes of Best Practice of your chosen professional membership body (either the British Pest Control Association (BPCA) or National Pest Technicians Association (NPTA)) but also look at the Codes of Best Practice from the National Pest Alliance and read through the literature from the Health and Safety Executives Wildlife Incident Investigation Scheme (WIIS). The label of the insecticide you are about to use should also be consulted, as any use of an insecticide against label recommendations can result in prosecutions. This is the point where most professionals would ask, is it legal to kill bees?
Firstly, the cavity the bees are located within. All professional Codes of Best Practice (and the HSE’s WIIS documents) state that when a pesticide is used on a feral honeybee colony, all possible entrances to that colony should be sealed after use, due to the robbing behaviour that Honeybees will display upon finding a new source of honey. In a cavity where honeybees are using an important feature of a property, such as a chimney or an airbrick, it is not always possible to block possible entrances due to the property needing these features to encourage decent air flow throughout. A colony behind a tiled roof, such as that on the photograph below is also impossible to be sealed in, as the entire roof would need replacing in order to prevent any small gaps where a robbing bee may enter. If the entire roof is to come off – the colony may as well be removed by a professional while the work is happening.
The second consideration to make, is the material that the bees are living on and the food source they are gathering and storing within where they have colonised. Beeswax and Honey is meticulously maintained by the Honeybees while they are living as a colony. When bees fail to maintain that wax, the honey within regains moisture, returning to a more viscus liquid state. We have many instances where honey has returned to this state, running down the inside of cavities, pooling on ceilings and causing damage, despite the initial problem of the colony being dealt with some months prior.
Honey can also attract other, secondary infestations of pests, such as rodents and other scavenging insects. While a customer and a pest controller may believe that they have dealt with the issue of the live Honeybee colony within the property, they may find themselves having to tackle a more prolific pest after the fact.
Beeswax itself is a highly flammable material, with a very low flash point. If a Honeybee colony is present within a chimney, or indeed in any cavity within a property, the beeswax from the colony poses a possible fire risk. Too many times have we heard of customers who have been encouraged to light a fire under the bees residing in their chimney stack to “encourage” them to move on, without fully understanding how dangerous this is, despite it also being completely ineffective once a colony is established.
Another issue with leaving beeswax within a property after a colony has been treated with an insecticide, is that it acts as a beacon to other swarms of feral bees within the area. One of the most attractive substances that a beekeeper can use to encourage a swarm into a hive is beeswax, making the bees think there is a ready made and suitable home for them already within a cavity. A colony that has been killed will leave about 50,000 dead and rotting bees within the cavity of your walls, but the leftover wax is waiting for a swarm to move in the following year.
Issues may also arise with the treatment of feral bee colonies, when a pesticide is applied to the entrance of a colony, without fully appreciating the extent of what is happening within the cavity. The application of a pesticide may kill up to 500 bees and knock down numbers for a while, however a full colony of feral bees can reach up to 50,000 bees, with a Queen laying up to 2000 eggs a day. Unless the Queen is killed, she will continue to reproduce. Losing a small amount of her children will affect the workings of the colony only temporarily, while she’s replaces them. Bees are also highly sensitive to changes in their environment and will actively seek to remove themselves from the main colony if they believe that they are dying, to reduce infection within the colony. This prevents the spreading of an insecticide effectively within the colony.
And finally, if use correctly (and it should be used correctly within a professional setting), insecticides most commonly used in the eradication of feral honeybees remain active within a dry and protected environment for years. Having spoken with the professionals, Tree Bee cannot find out what the life span for the active ingredient within these insecticides is. If the insecticide was to be disposed of from the professional’s store, it would have to be disposed of as Hazardous Waste, via the proper channels. If a feral colony is treated with an insecticide, but then years later a builder comes to build an extension, or the comb is removed with the pesticide upon it, materials from the removal would most likely be placed into general waste streams, given that a builder would not be aware of the of pesticides. The affected materials would then be sent via a picking line prior to being landfilled, where the insecticide runs the risk of being washed into local water courses – a warning which is often published on the labels of most chemicals of this type.
At no point along its journey, would any of the people coming into contact with it be wearing the appropriate PPE, or even be aware of the materials they are handling, causing a massive Health and Safety issue.
In the case of a feral honeybee colony, it is agreed that it cannot be allowed to continue colonising a property. However, the method of dealing with the colony should be to physically remove it and all comb, taking the bees off site. This reduces the risk of harm from pesticide use, it reduces the risk of another swarm moving into the cavity, removes the issue of secondary infestation and removes other risks such as fire and secondary poisoning from a cavity not being sealed up appropriately. The risks to the customer, the property and other local beneficial pollinators, including the wider environment, with insecticide as a method of control far outweigh the benefits.
So, SHOULD we kill bees? Most definitely not. Beyond it being against every piece of policy that is coming from central government, scientists and conservationists, who are hopeful that the improvement of habitats will encourage an increase of these highly important creatures, the killing of bees within properties can cause far more issues than the bees themselves.
Update October 2019: As of July 2019, there have been significant changes in approvals on pesticides that can be used to kill bees. We will soon be making a blog post covering these changes and a link will appear here to take you to the post.