When bees attack: a perspective from a lawyer and beekeeper
A colleague showed me an article about a colony of bees wreaking havoc in the village of Burghfield, and wondered what the legal implications may be. I approach the question not only as a personal injury lawyer but also as someone who is a practising beekeeper.
The incident seemed to appeal to the humour of the BBC, who reported this week that:
Hundreds of the insects were set loose when efforts to move a hive in Burghfield, Berkshire "went wrong".
A bee expert said the insects "would have felt under attack" and were protecting their home.
There was a sting in the tail for residents when hundreds of the insects "just appeared" after the failed hive move…they made a beeline for people outside, forcing people to take refuge inside for up to four hours.
One witness commented that "If anyone went outside, they just landed on you and stung." One poor three-year-old was stung 18 times.
Mercifully, there do not seem to have been any serious injuries although having the attention of one or two aggressive bees is bad enough so being the target of hundreds of could be very frightening.
Honey bees do not attack people for the thrill of it; it is an instinctive reaction to the circumstances. And, yes, they die because they leave their barbed sting in the skin and as they fly off this ruptures their abdomen. (Tip: scrape the sting off rather than pulling it which may squeeze more venom out).
So, how does this strike me as a personal injury lawyer?
As a solicitor, my first port of call would be the Animals Act 1971 which makes keepers strictly liable for injury caused by their animals, so long as various criteria are established. Because keepers are the best-placed people to insure against the risk that their animals may cause damage, they are held responsible despite being blameless.
We know that keepers of lions and tigers will be held responsible for any injury they cause. We also know that the keeper of other animals – typically horses that kick or spook or cows that attack walkers – may be liable for the dangerous behaviour of their animals, even if they are perfectly normal animals. Animals without any aggressive tendencies may nonetheless behave dangerously at particular times or in particular circumstances.
What about less obvious, smaller, animals? In the leading case of Mirvahedy v Henley (a case about spooked horses) Lord Scott considered the hypothetical case of a dormouse causing someone to trip on the stairs and break their neck. In that case there would be no legal responsibility for the mouse owner; the reason that the imaginary accident happened, he said, was simply to do with the location of the mouse and not its behaviour. It is a characteristic of the animals that has to be dangerous, not its situation.
Are bees even an animal? (under the law)
A bee attack may very well pass certain legal thresholds for their keeper to be responsible. Bees are likely to cause damage in circumstances when they sense threat.
However, I’m not sure whether this insect – and others such as tarantulas – will fall within the definition of an "animal." If not, the keeper would escape liability under the 1971 Act.
That is not the end of the story though because, of course, if a person were to allow their bees to escape through carelessness it may result in responsibility. Thankfully members of the British Beekeepers Association have public liability insurance cover up to £10 million for just such eventualities.