Not All It Seems
As a new beekeeper, you may one day walk to your hive and see furious activity around the entrance of the hive. It’s all you have waited for! Your bees have settled in and there’s a wonderful sense of excitement. You can only imagine how quickly they are collecting pollen and nectar and growing the colony. It’s a good day.
Except it’s not…
In our little scenario here, something much more sinister is happening. Your bees are being robbed! This is more than a small dispute over some honey. This is a fight to the death and many bees will likely die.
Robbing occurs when a small or weak colony is attacked by bees from another colony. The target is the honey stored in the hive and the attackers will go to great lengths to reach it. Similarly, your own bees will defend to the hilt. Losses are inevitable.
What makes this difficult for the new beekeeper is that there are a number of perfectly positive situations that may appear quite similar to robbing. The first is the aforementioned foraging activity. As a new beekeeper, you are both expecting that and want to see it. So, your mind is naturally inclined to accept that as the explanation of all the activity.
Another situation is when orientation flights occur. This is when young bees get their bearings in relation to the hive and hundreds of bees can participate in this, which makes for an exciting scene.
Robbing, clearly, has a different outcome. Let’s first consider how to tell the difference from these other events.
Both heightened foraging and orientation flights can be confused for robbing. So how can one tell when your bees are being threatened? Here are a few clues.
- The robbing bees will approach the hive without any nectar payload, as opposed to the foraging scenario where many of the bees are clearly bringing back nectar.
- Robbers don’t fly right onto the landing board or into the entrance. They may first fly around and check out the target, waiting for their moment.
- You may be able to spot fighting near the entrance or on the ground. This is perhaps the most obvious sign of robbing, with guard bees attempting to rebuff the robbers, with all they have.
- Successful robbers will be full of honey. This constrains their ability to fly well and many may crawl up the front of the hive before attempting to fly off.
When Robbing Happens
So what’s the reason for this unfortunate event? It’s quite simple. A weak colony has a valuable resource – honey. A stronger colony has detected that, through smell. It wants that honey! So it attacks.
Robbers will very intentionally go after a colony they consider to be weak. They will attempt to enter the hive at every possible location. For example, you will see robbers checking out where two boxes are touching, well away from the entrance.
Beyond the deaths from the robbing, any remaining bees will have limited resources and be less capable of surviving.
Robbing is just plain bad news!
The best defense against robbing is simply to avoid it. Thankfully, as a beekeeper you can help your bees.
Use an Entrance Reducer
The home colony will put up a heck of a fight! A key factor in whether they can successfully defend their turf is the surface area they have to defend. This is why entrance reducers are commonly used with new hives, such as after a package of bees are introduced. By limiting the space at the front, the smaller number of bees has a better chance of staving off the attack.
Avoid Entrance Feeders
Also, avoid entrance feeders. These just stick out like a sore thumb, precisely in the location that your bees will need to defend. Instead, consider in-hive feeders.
Robbers detect honey through smell. So what do you think happens when you are a little careless and spill sugar syrup around the hive? That is just an invitation for robbers to check things out, by sending some scout bees. If you spilled the syrup near a hive that the scout bees considered a reasonable target, then they will return with the full army of robbers for the prime attack.
Don’t spill syrup around your hive!
Consider a Robbing Screen
A robbing screen helps confuse robbers, while allowing home bees to come and go. This is a curious device in that it seems to throw the robbers off the trail, while providing a way for home bees to leave. The primary entrance is blocked by the screen. Interestingly, though, the bees that have left the hive know to come back from where they came.
Consider Combining Colonies
As you might imagine, a key catalyst for robbing is a nectar dearth, when the need for resources becomes more competitive. When nectar is in short supply, be on guard. If you have a number of weak colonies approaching a nectar dearth, consider combining colonies to produce stronger, more populous colonies.
Recognize The Greater Risk with Italian Bees
Although not a preventative option, if you chose Italian bees (which are otherwise an excellent choice for new beekeepers) be aware that they have a stronger tendency to rob than other races. So if you have a number of hives, be vigilant.
How to React When Robbing Happens
It’s important to realize that robbing can be over and done with very quickly. It is also very difficult to stop. But here are some tactics you might consider:
- Reduce entrances to the hive. The problem with this approach is significantly reduced airflow to the hive, especially in hot weather. For this reason, some beekeepers plug the entrance with grass, which allows at least some air to flow, while deterring robbers.
- Close the hive completely. This is drastic but may be justifiable if the robbing is intense. Close all entrances for a few days, but be sure to provide food, pollen, and water.
- Cover the hive with a heavy, wet blanket. This again prevents robbers from accessing the entrance, while seeming to allow resident bees to leave and find their way home. If the weather is very hot, re-wet it each day and retain this until the robbing attempts stop.
Here’s a video showing robbing as it happens.
Although sad to see, the efforts that guards bees will go to in defending the hive is fascinating. Here’s a video of one such defense. As you can see, it is very much a team effort and the way they attack the robber is pretty gruesome!