Bees hate the colour black

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Last week I visited my bees, as I do most days. I have an old wooden chair where I like to sit and watch them from about two meters away. It’s a little close, but I enjoy watching them come and go, seeing the different colours of pollen they bring back while I have a coffee. Sometimes a guard bees will come and check me out but then they’ll fly off. They usually they just ignore me. I think I’m not that interesting to them. I had an experience recently that confirmed to to me: bees hate the colour black.

Before I got my bees I’d spent a lot of time researching online, and reading every bee book I could get my hands on. A reoccurring theme, when they spoke about bee aggression was reaction to dark colours and strong smells. I read about this first in online forums but it seems this is recounted nearly everywhere: Bill Turnbull mentions the effect in his book ‘Bad Beekeepers Club’ (which by the way is an excellent and funny read, even if one is not interested in being a beekeeper). I also found it mentioned in my more textbook style books and other papers I’ve read – Ted Hooper, Thomas Seeley, and Mark Winston all confirm this effect.

And to prove the theory…

Last week, I had been sat down for about five minutes when (what I realise now, was) a guard started headbutting me. I thought maybe she’d just flown into me accidentally and paid little attention to her. She persisted for about a minute and it became apparent she was trying to warn me away, I remembered what I’d read previously about dark colours and it clicked that maybe she was reacting instinctively to my black t-shirt and shorts…

I jumped up immediately, abandoning my coffee (which was gutting – it was a rather nice single origin bean which I was quite looking forward to drinking). Chased away from the hive, reviving many headbutts, and eventually, unable to outrun my peruser, I was stung on the inside of my knee.

I had lost my coffee, my bee-sting virginity and a good measure of dignity as I ran away flailing my arms. Although I did fortunately remember to remove the offending stinger almost immediately, and I was glad she had managed to hit a kind target (I may not have felt so jovial about it had she managed to get me on the face).

So what was it about my black t-shit that she hated?

All the sources that I read seem to converge on one hypothesis: Black is the colour of traditional bee predators!

Why exactly do bees hate the colour black?

So the bees have evolved to hate the colour black; over years of predation by bears, skunks, honey badgers, and various other big, dark coloured, smelly animals.

As well as dark colours; hair, carbon dioxide, and strong smells​1​ (some have reported fishy smells) can wind bees up. This all makes sense when you consider that these attributes fit pretty closely to some of the bees worst historic predators… Good thing I’m dealing with European honey bees – their infamous ‘Africanized’ relatives can be enticed to sting with much less provocation, releasing more alarm pheromone, and responding at a much lower threshold to their fellow bees alarm pheromone (a chemical bees will release to signal panic/attack – it smells a bit like banana). Africanized bees have been known to follow their targets upwards of 1 km!​2​ Possibly an evolutionary incentive due to increased predator presence in their habitats.

The black bear! A crucial evolutionary pressure why bees hate the colour black.
Hairy, Smelly, Dark… I can see how she confused me with him.

Next time, I’ll wear white! You can check out some snaps of my bees in my gallery!

~Fraser

  1. 1.
    Bees and beekeeping: science, practice and world resources. Choice Reviews Online. December 1990:28-2129-28-2129. doi:10.5860/choice.28-2129
  2. 2.
    Winston ML. Killer Bees. January 1992. doi:10.4159/harvard.9780674593954

4 thoughts on “Bees hate the colour black”

  1. There’s a lot to be said for testing a theory one has read about in books! Might be better not to do it at the cost of a perfect cup of coffee though! 😉

    Reply

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