Robber Bees – A Serious Problem for Beekeepers
When we think of hard-working honey bees, its hard to imagine them as thieves. But robbing behavior is a part of their colony life. In keeping honey bees, we learn to work with the natural characteristics of the hive. Besides, robber bees don’t think of themselves as the bad guys!
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.
Yes, the worker bees in the colony labor all season to make honey but sometimes nectar is in short supply. The colony must focus all season on food collection.
Modern Bee Yards Increase Robbing Opportunities
Honey bees are social insects but they will steal from each other. This is survival of the fittest and strongest playing out right in your back yard.
Robbing becomes a serious problems for weak hives. Strong hungry colonies with 60,000 workers can overwhelm a small colony in just a few hours.
The threat of robbing bees in your bee yard is worse at some times of the year.
Especially when no natural nectar sources are out there, bees will fight and steal honey from other colonies.
In my region, robber bees become a major problem during the long hot Summer.
This is a normal time of nectar dearth for my bees. We may see blooming plants in the field but that is no guarantee that they have nectar.
The way most of us keep colonies does not help the situation. Our modern bee yards are set up with many colonies close together.
The robber bees don’t have to go far to find a hive to attack. Having too many colonies in one area encourages this behavior.
Honey bees do not normally live this close together in nature. This causes greater competition for food resources.
Moving/Robbing Screens Can Help Control Robbing Bees
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 I keep on the hive all Summer. However, it is not a bad idea to have a few 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.
What is Honey Bee Robbing?
This behavior often comes as a surprise to the new beekeeper. But, it is something that every beekeeper will have to deal with at some time.
Robbing occurs when worker bees enter another hive (not their own) and steal honey or sugar water. Pollen and baby bees are usually safe from theft.
Weak colonies may be unable to defend their hive and be overcome by intruders. I 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.
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 bee yard.
Will Robbers Kill the Queen Bee?
The defending colony will battle to their death. Also, the queen bee may be killed by the robber bees.
We know a colony can not survive for very long without a queen. With a reduced workforce, the weakened colony may not be able to recover from attack.
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 honey bee robbing? Are all flying bees a cause for alarm ? No, not every group flight is a sign of robber bees.
Cleansing & Orientation Flights
Honey bees leave the hive to expel wastes. Also, young bees 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 honey bee behavior can go on for hours or days.
How to Identify Robber Bees
If you have robber bees, there will be a true frenzy of activity that does not calm down in 10 minutes or so.
You will also see bees fighting at the hive entrance. And, maybe tumbling to the ground as well.
When robbing occurs, the attacking bees will be trying to get into any entrance. They will be at cracks between the boxes and trying to get in under the top.
Peak Season for Honey Bee Robbing
Humans tend to assume that flower blossoms always mean nectar. They do not.
Not all flowers produce nectar and those that do – do not not always have nectar available.
Bee 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.
Drought conditions are one of the main causes of a lack of nectar for all pollinators. In my location, a dearth is common during the long hot summer.
After the Spring nectar flow, colony populations are large. If nature is not providing food, the honey bees go into survival mode.
Honey bees will rob their weak neighbor hives. It’s every man (er bee) for himself/herself.
The Robbing Frenzy Begins
New hives (from buying packages) are prime targets for robbers. The beekeeper provides ample amounts of sugar syrup to help the new colony grow.
For a while, bee population in the new hive will be low. This is an ideal time for problems to start.
Robbing begins when a few bees are able to enter a hive and return home with food.
This excites the other foragers to join the raid. Before long a frenzy of robbing bees will be present at the front of the target hive.
Robber bees are typically older foraging bees but younger ones join in at the height of the frenzy.
Robbing is identified by wrestling, fighting bees at the hive entrance. The influx of bees from different colonies spreads disease and pests (varroa mites).
Robbing will continue until the colony is killed and resources depleted. Robbing must be stopped – doing nothing is not an option.
I can tell you from personal experience that watching a colony be robbed out is a helpless feeling.
Over the years, I have lost several small colonies to a robbing frenzy. It is difficult to stop robbing bees.
Stopping (or Slowing Down) Robber Bees – Entrance Reducers
Once you notice bee 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.
Your first step is to reduce the entrance of the colony being robbed to the width of 1 bee. This is most efficiently done with the use of entrance reducers.
They are the right size and offer several opening sizes. Keep some extra entrance reducers on hand. You will need them from time to time throughout the year.
What if you don’t have reducers on hand? Use something, sticks, rocks, grass etc. If you intervene early in the activity, reducing the entrance may be enough.
How to Stop Robbing Bees
- Narrow the Opening of the Hive Entrance
- Don’t Use a Smoker
- Relocate Weak Hives
- Disguise Hive Entrance
#1 Narrow the opening – somehow!
You can narrow the opening with pieces of wood or grass or screen but purchased 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 to the hive until things settle down.
#2 Bee Smoker Is Not Very Useful
Leave the bee smoker in your tool box. Smoking will not work to stop robbing.
Some beekeepers use a small amount of Vicks Vapor Rub around the entrance to discourage robbers but it hasn’t worked for me.
#3 Relocate Weaker Hives
If you have another location for bees, you can move the weaker hive to another bee yard. Most of us do not have this option.
So we much be extra vigilant to keep small entrances on these small hives or splits.
#4 Disguising the Hive Entrance/Odors
Some beekeepers suggest hanging a wet bath towel over the front of the hive being robbed.
This discourages the invading robber bees. The resident bees figure out how to get behind the towel and enter the hive.
I like to use a Canvas Drop Cloth cut into half for this and other uses around the bee yard.
Another method I have used with some success to slow down honey bee robbing behavior 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.
But, you will still need to do some preventive measures or the robbing will start again in the morning.
Robbing screens are available for purchase from major bee suppliers. A variety of styles are available and the handy beekeeper can make their own.
Robbing screens can stay on the hive for a while as long as they allow hive residents to come and go.
Tips for Preventing Robbing
It is much easier to prevent robbing than to stop it once started. Takes these steps to decrease the likelihood of robbing 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 for weak colonies.
- If your bees are starving due to a dearth, feed them.
- Equalize colony strength by moving frames of brood between colonies. Be careful not to move the queens! Spray the moved frames with sugar water to reduce fighting.
Hive inspections can create robbing situations. During times of dearth, keep your inspections brief.
In the timeless fight for survival, honey bee robbing behavior is a natural process. We beekeepers do not enjoy seeing hives destroyed and bees killed.
Using good beekeeping practices helps reduce the amount of robbing in your bee yard.