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Robber Bees – How to Identify and Stop Them

Robber bees are not the “bad girls” of the hive-as you might think. Their action to take honey from a weaker neighbor is all about survival. However, most beekeepers have hives in close proximity to each other, robbing behavior can be a big problem. Thankfully, there are some management practices that beekeepers can employ to stop robbers bees in the apiary.

Robber bees trying to enter beehive through screen image.

What is Honey Bee Robbing?

Robbing occurs when workers enter another hive (not their own) and steal honey or sugar water. Pollen and baby bees are usually safe from theft but honey is a “high-theft” item.

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The world of the honey bee is about family and survival. Acquiring enough food to survive the winter is the annual goal of any beehive. 

Even though workers labor all season to make honey – sometimes nectar is in short supply. Anytime the “nectar flow” is cut off, foragers begin to look elsewhere for resources.

A robbing event often comes as a surprise to the new beekeeper.  But, it is something that every beekeeper will have to deal with at some time.

Weak colonies may be unable to defend their hive and be completely overcome by intruders.  Many beekeepers have had small mating nucs destroyed by robbing bees during a drought.

Wild colonies in the area or even other hives in your bee yard might be the thieves. Bee robbers may be attacking more than 1 colony at a time.

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It is bee chaos. A beekeeper often feels helpless in this situation.  I know that I have felt helpless when it is going on in my hives.

Will Robbers Kill the Queen Bee?

The defending colony will battle to their death. Once the majority of the guards in the hive being attacked are dead, the frenzy continues.  

The queen bee may be killed by the robber bees.  And, we know a colony can not survive for very long without a queen.

Even the attacked colony that retains their queen may not recover. With a reduced workforce, the weakened colony may not have enough worker or bee brood to support the hive.

Recognize Normal Activity at the Hive Entrance

It is mid afternoon, or the morning after a rainy day.  You see hundreds of bees flying around in front of your hive.  Don’t mistake busy traffic at the hive entrance on a warm day for robbing behavior.

Is this robbing? Are all flying bees a cause for alarm ?  No, not every group flight is a sign of robbing.

Cleansing & Orientation Flights

Honey bees leave the hive to expel wastes. Also, young adults make short flights outside the hive.

This allows them to familiarize themselves with the hive location. (orientation). As they grow older, they will take longer and longer flights.

This activity commonly takes place on warm, sunny afternoons. My hives seem to all do this activity at the same time.

Orientation flights are often mistaken for robbing. However, there is no fighting at the entrance. Orientation flights will normally settle down after 10 – 15 minutes.  Robbing can go on for hours or days. 

Many beehives close together in a bee yard image.

Drought and Late Season Problems

The threat of robber bees is worse at some times of the year. Robbing activity increases during times of a lack of natural nectar. We call this period a “nectar dearth”.

A dearth can be caused by different environmental factors.  A late Spring freeze can result in a loss of nectar for a period of time.  

Drought conditions are one of the main causes of a lack of nectar for all pollinators. In many locations, a dearth is common during the long hot summer.

Honey bees are social insects. Thousands of individuals work together to make the hive a viable organism.

However, they will steal from each other.  This is survival of the fittest and strongest playing out right in your back yard.

Modern apiary with hives close together encourages honey bee robbing image.

Modern Bee Yards Increase Robbing Opportunities

Being killed by robber bees is a serious concern for weak hives.  Strong hungry colonies with 40,000-60,000 workers can overwhelm a small colony in just a few hours.

The way most of us keep colonies-does not help the situation. Our modern bee yards are set up with many colonies close together.

Honey bees do not normally live this close together in nature. This causes greater competition for food resources.

The robbers don’t have to go far to find a hive to attack.  The aroma of nearby honey leads invaders right to the front door of a neighboring hive.

All is well during the abundance of Spring when everything is ripe and in bloom. Trouble begins once we have large hungry colonies and less natural foraging sources.

How to Identify Robber Bees

Honey bee robbing is identified by wrestling and fighting at the hive entrance. Not just one or two but dozens of bees engaged in combat.

Once a few intruders enter a hive and return home with food. This excites the other foragers to join the raid. Before long a frenzy of fighting is seen at the front of the target hive.

The attackers are typically older foragers but younger ones join in at the height of the frenzy.  Not only do they steal food and kill guards. The influx of bees from different colonies spreads disease and pests (varroa mites).

When robbing occurs, the attackers will be trying to get into any entrance. They will be at cracks between the boxes and trying to get in under the top. Places that are not the normal opening of the hive.

Robbing will continue until the colony is killed and resources depleted. Robbing must be stopped – doing nothing is not an option.

Once you notice robbing starting-it is time to intervene before it goes too far.  Sometimes you will not be successful, but your help may be enough to make the attack not worth the effort.

How to Stop Robbing Bees

  1. Narrow the opening of the hive entrance
  2. Don’t use a smoker
  3. Relocate weak hives
  4. Disguise the hive entrance

Narrow the Hive Entrance- somehow!

You can narrow the hive entrance with pieces of wood or grass or screen but purchased entrance reducers are inexpensive and work well.  

A smaller entrance is easier to guard. Close any gaps between boxes or extra holes. You want only 1 small entrance (1-2″) to the hive until things settle down.

Bee Smoker Is Not Very Useful

Leave the bee smoker in your tool box. Smoking will not work to stop robbing.

While smoke does make bees move, in this situation it seems to add to the confusion and does not slow down the fight.

Relocate Weaker Hives

If you have another location for your colony, you can move the weaker hive to another bee yard. Keeping smaller colonies away from yards with large colonies is a good idea.

Most of us do not have this option. So, we must be extra vigilant to keep small entrances on these small hives or splits. Also, preventing a robbing situation is easier than stopping one.

Disguise the Beehive Entrance

The use of a wet towel to stop robbing is a popular beekeeper technique. Hanging a wet bath towel over the front of the hive (in front of the entrance) under attack discourages the invading robber bees.

The resident bees figure out how to get behind the towel and enter the hive. Most of the attackers will buzz around in front of the hive. I like to use a Canvas Drop Cloth cut into half for this and other uses around the bee yard.

Stop Robber Bees with Water

Another method I have used with some success to slow down robbing is the sprinkler method.

A water sprinkler  with a waterfall setting is used to rain down on the victim hive. This causes robbers to return home.

It also gives the beekeeper a chance to get control of the situation. You will still need to do some preventive measures or the robbing will start again in the morning.

Reduced hive entrance to protect colony from robbing bees image.

Tips to Prevent Robbing in Your Apiary

Takes these steps to decrease the likelihood of robber bees getting started in your bee yard.

  • Don’t be messy in the bee yard. Don’t spill sugar water when refilling feeders. Any pieces of wax or comb should be collected and taken away from the hive area.
  • Use entrance reducers and keep the opening small (especially) for weak colonies.
  • If your colonies are starving due to a dearth, feed them.
  • Equalize colony strength by moving frames of bee brood between colonies. Be careful not to move the queens! Spray the moved frames with a light mist of sugar water to reduce fighting.
  • Hive inspections can create robbing situations. During times of dearth, keep your inspections brief.

Control Robber Bees With Screens

During times when honey bee robbing is a threat, some beekeepers use robbing screens. The basic design of any robbing screen allows bees to come and go from the hive at a reduced rate.

This stops a horde of invaders from entering the hive in large numbers. Robbing screens come in a variety of styles.

Some types are made in a manner that allows you to completely close the hive. This is handy when you need to move a beehive from one location to another.

This is not something that you keep on the hive all Summer. Why? Well, the last thing you want to do is slow down the members of the colony during the honey season. However, it is not a bad idea to have a few screens on hand for when you need them.

You can also build your own robbing screens. The simple concept is to move the gateway leading to the hive entrance. Bees who live in the hive – figure it out. Most of the robbers do not learn how to find the entrance.

In the timeless fight for survival, this is a natural behavior in the insect world. In most cases, it may promote survival of the hives with the strongest genetics.

But, we beekeepers do not enjoy seeing hives destroyed and bees killed. Use good beekeeping practices and hive management to reduce robbing.

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