Summer is the best time to eat on your patio — it's also peak season for bees. "Late summer and early fall is when stinging insect colonies reach their peak population levels," says Dr. Jim Fredericks, chief entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. Across the United States, we get many different species of bees, including carpenter bees, bumble bees, and honey bees, and we tend to think of yellow jackets as bees, even though they are actually wasps. (So many bees!)
While most bees can and will sting humans, their level of aggression can vary, which can make them an unpredictable (and possibly painful) nuisance — or a real health issue. "People with known allergies to insect stings or asthma should be particularly careful, since the stings could trigger a potentially life-threatening reaction," says Dr. Fredericks. (I know this to be true because I'm still recovering from Macauley Caulkin's untimely death in My Girl, circa 1991.)
So we do not want bees, but they're around. Luckily, there are a few solid things you can do to keep them away from your cookout.
1. Watch out for nests.
"Many bees that sting are triggered because they feel they and their nests are being threatened. If you are not near a nest, it's unlikely that you will be stung unless the bee feels like it needs to defend itself," says Fredericks. If you see a lot of bees in the area, it may mean that there's a nest nearby (dark cavities like underneath a deck and old bird houses can be tempting homes for bumble bees; female carpenter bees bore holes in bare wood like unpainted decks and furniture). In that case, call a local pest control professional to address the issue before it becomes a bigger problem.
2. Rethink the flowers near your patio.
Bees have particular taste when it comes to flowers, so avoid planting bee-tempters near your patio or relocate what you already have to a place that's deeper in the yard, if you can. "Honey bees, for example, are drawn to wildflowers, lavender, sunflowers, goldenrod, honeysuckle, and herbs like chives, oregano, and thyme," says Fredericks. Additionally, keep trash cans away from the patio area, as bees like to forage in there for food.
3. Don't wear bee attractors.
Avoid wearing floral patterns and sweet-smelling body sprays, lotion, or sunscreen. Unfortunately, there's no bug spray or herbal mixture Fredericks knows of that repels bees (although he recommends wearing insect repellent containing an EPA-registered active ingredient like DEET or Picaridin to protect yourself from mosquitoes and ticks.)
4. Keep the food inside.
Because bees like to eat the same food and drink we do, avoid setting out platters for them to munch on! Besides cutting down on the attractants for bees, serving things like your potato and fruit salad inside saves you the trouble of hauling the dishes out in the first place. "Clean up spills and crumbs from the table, and serve your drinks in clear plastic cups, since aluminum cans are good hiding spots for stinging insects," says Fredericks. Even better than clear plastic cups? Cups with lids on them! And when you're done with the meal, dispose of any waste in tightly closed containers — far away from your patio picnic.
5. Don't swing at a bee that's flying by!
"It's natural for humans to want to swat stinging insects, but that actually further antagonizes them," says Fredericks. Instead, "Slowly and calmly walk away or ignore it." The bee should lose interest and fly away.