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Like a Moth to a Flame

By: James Elam

Has this ever happened to you? 

You worked your bees extra hard on that really hot summer day. You made the dreaded summer splits, maybe re-queened several colonies, pulled some brood frames to manage and balance populations and maybe even had to stop a robbing frenzy. The friendly honeybees that readily welcomed you into the apiary yesterday now view you as really large and intrusive target to be dealt with, in a very defensive way.

At this point, it seems as if a call for all-hands-on-deck has been issued in the form of an alarm pheromone bomb. And, to make matters even worse, they feel the need to guard the sky, your garage, your house and the chicken coop to ensure no further intrusions occur! As evening approaches and the sky darkens, you think out loud to yourself, "Surely Shirley, they are about to finally settle down." A cursory glance at the once offensive and defensive battlefield indicates it might be so and the world of the honeybees is back in order, or is it?

You suddenly spot something out of order near the garage. You know - the garage with an outside light.

The same garage that the aerial forces have been guarding, while you were hiding.

Well, like moths to a flame, the ladies are swirling around the garage's mercury vapor light. A tornado-like approach it seems. Something like you might see from a storm in the panhandle. As they say, "What’s up with that?" It didn’t happen last night, or last week and for that matter ever…that you remember. You shake your head saying, "Dumb bees," while all the while knowing they’re smarter than you in the ways that matter to them. The next morning reveals another mystery. You see downed honeybees all around the garage light. Did they really circle around that light all night? Doing so up to the last second of fuel and never giving up, really? Why would they do that? Some might say they must have been hungry and were simply feasting on some kind of a fresh bug hatch. As a real beekeeper, you know that just isn’t so. You sometimes believe we could justifiably call our honeybees vegetarians. After all, they own the nectar, honey and pollen thing. Some might disagree, but it sounds good. So no to bugs! Then what?

Wait a minute! What are the moths doing while circling the same garage light? Surely Shirley! They must be after the little bitty bugs, right? You could be right, but again, no, same story as your honeybees.

You want to know why this is happening so you start your research at the website In looking up the phrase “like a moth to a flame” you find the terms “irresistibly and dangerously” attracted to something or someone. Honeybees and moths are both attracted to the light itself and not the ecosystem encircling the light. The term phototaxis generally describes the movement and stimulus towards light that an organism uncontrollably displays. You now know that the movement of your bees towards the light is as suspected, not just them being dumb. Their normal behavior pattern of returning to the colony before dark and being dormant within the colony during night was interrupted. By aggressively working your bees late in the afternoon you forced many of them to be flying later than normal and being subject to the “dangerous attraction”.

So why do honeybees possess this trait? You know that heat from the sun warms your colonies in the mornings and stimulates their foraging activities. Could it be possible that your bees are also phototactically attracted to the sun and just can’t quite get there?

After all, stimulus or no stimulus, your bees are not dumb!


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