Honeybees & Horses in Perfect Harmony

A better combination than logic might suggest…


As an entomologist and ecologist, I frequently get asked questions about pollinating insects and horses. I’ve heard many stories, most of which come down to common sense. Saying “I can’t have honey bees because I have horses,” is like saying “I can’t have roses because I have deer.” As with most things, it comes down to management. You first must know what you hope to achieve. To do that, you need to answer a few basic questions about why you want to raise bees.

There are as many reasons why people raise bees as are there are reasons why people raise horses. Commercial beekeepers maintain thousands of hives that they drive across the country for pollination purposes. They make a lot of money, but they also lose money when the bees die, and they must then replace the dead hives with new hives. Professional beekeepers also are very knowledgeable about honey bee colony management, pesticide use, plants, parasites, and pathogens.

You don’t have to be a professional beekeeper to be a bee expert. There are plenty of amateur beekeepers who know more than professionals. Their motivations for raising bees is no different than an amateur horse owner: they love what they do.

So back to bees and horses. Yes, you can keep bees and horses on the same property, and they won’t bother each other if you follow a few simple rules.

Honey bees sting to protect their hives that contain honey, brood, pollen and, most importantly, the queen. I’m assuming you’re raising traditional bee species such as Italian, German, Carniolan, Buckfast, Caucasian, or Russian. I would never recommend anyone setting up hives with Africanized bees. They’re aggressive, they’re difficult to control, and they’re a pest insect.

(My brother-in-law called me from California one evening to ask what to do about the bees in his eave. I told him to find a beekeeper who wants the bees and they’ll collect them. He made some calls and the only people willing to take the bees were exterminators, and they wanted $500 just to remove the bees, not to repair the damage they do while extracting the bees. I was curious, so I called a local bee club to see what was going on. It wasn’t long before he laid out the problem: Southern California is overrun with Africanized bees. Nobody wants them. They’re too dangerous, particularly around livestock.)

I’ll assume you don’t have Africanized bees in your area. Before buying your first package of bees, I suggest reading about honey bees or speaking with a local beekeeper. They can tell you a lot about the bees in your area, such as: the types of bees that are available, managing colonies, getting started, monitoring periods of activity (e.g., on wing or in hive), castes (queen, workers, drones), feeding, and queen disposition.

The queen can determine a hive’s gentleness. Some bees are gentler than others. For example, Italian bees are light-colored and moderately gentle; German bees are dark-colored and aggressive; Carniolan bees are black and very gentle; Buckfast are medium color and moderately gentle; Caucasian bees are dark-colored and very gentle; and Russian bees are gray-colored and moderately to very aggressive. The more aggressive bees often are better honey producers, but they demand more experience to avoid getting stung.

Back to bees and horses. If you want bees for pollination purposes only, then there is very little you need to do to manage the bees. Add two or more hive bodies for brood and several supers for honey. The honey gets them through the winter. You’ll need to check the hives periodically to see if they’re healthy or have absconded. On the other hand, if you plan to remove the honey, you’ll need to feed the bees from October through November, and then again from April to May, just until the colony builds up.

Once you install the hives, don’t remove them unless absolutely necessary. Moving hives disrupts the bees and can lead to multiple (hundreds or more) stings. Some people like to install observation hives in a room, so they can watch honey bee behavior, much as you might do with an ant farm. Bees are highly intelligent in colonies and they exhibit numerous behaviors that most people find fascinating. If you plan on handling your bees, always know where the queen is. If she falls out, she’s not smart enough to find her back into the hive and she’ll die, or you’ll kill her by stepping on her.

So, what should you do when your horse gets stung? In most cases, bees stings don’t pose a significant problem. In those rare instances when you have a horse that is allergic to bee venom, it’s necessary to know what to do. The most susceptible areas are the head, eyelids, muzzle, and neck. In these cases, the sting may become life threatening. The first time the horse is stung, a mild reaction usually occurs at the sting site; there might be a welt and the sting area may be warm. That’s because the body has developed antibodies against the venom. It’s the second time and thereafter that the venom becomes dangerous.

Whether or not your horse is allergic to bee venom, it’s prudent to carry and learn to use an EpiPen®. Speak with your veterinarian to learn how to use it so you don’t hurt yourself or the horse. There are two anaphylactic reactions that need immediate veterinary attention: antibody mediated (IgE) reactions (anaphylaxis) and non-antibody mediate (non-IgE) (anaphylactoid). Unlike anaphylaxis, anaphylactoid reactions are not allergic reactions, but reactions to the venom. Anaphylactoid reactions can occur immediately after the first sting.

If you know your horse is sensitive to bee venom, the best recourse is to avoid areas where honey bees congregate. If you happen to come upon bees in a tree or other opening, try to use a different route if you can. Contrary to common belief, bee swarms are usually harmless, unless you hit them or knock them down. If you’re on a trail ride, try to get back to an area where the horse can be treated. If you don’t know if your horse is allergic to bee venom, you should watch for swelling, welts, rapid heart rate, or difficulty breathing. If your horse is showing any of these sign, you should contact your veterinarian just to be safe.

Considering everything I’ve said, it is possible to keep horses and bees. How? Place hives along the outskirts of your farm. This serves two purposes: they’re away from the horses, and they’ll pollinate your field as well as your neighbors’. Place the hives at the highest point possible. Bees fly in straight lines when foraging. So, if you’re six feet tall, place the hives seven feet tall (like a hill).

Bees usually forage between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm. Those are the safest time to be around bees. Position the hives to get the maximum amount of sun. If the bees get cold, they’ll stay in the hive. They maintain the hive around 80ºF all year round. Never open a hive in the winter. The forms form a cluster the size of a softball. If the cluster is broken, the bees will die. Keep horses a safe distance from the hives. Depending on the type of bee and its gentleness, you should not have any problems raising bees among your horses.

Have an insect-related question for Marty? Let us know at [email protected]!

Marty Matisoff has a Bachelor of Arts in English from Western Illinois University with a concentration in Romantic Era literature and a Master of Science in Entomology from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. He is a full-time research entomologist at Kentucky State University, as well as an art agent for his wife, award-winning figurative and equine artist Sharon Matisoff. In his free time, he enjoys writing flash and short story fiction, and he is studying clarinet with Los Angeles Jazz Saxophonist Robert Kyle.

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