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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.

What is Honey Bee Robbing?

Robber bees trying to enter beehive through screen image.

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 or dearth.

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 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.

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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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18 Comments

  1. Tony Ellison says:

    Hey Charlotte,I really like your information on honeybees and their robbing behavior I fight this battle every summer,it starts around june and continues until fall and I often have some small nucs at this time and it is a tough battle once it starts,lucky for me I have another bee yard it just makes it a little tougher to feed them and my main yard and work my job and cut grass,you get the picture.

  2. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Thanks Tony, it is a never ending battle I know !

  3. Hi Charlotte, great site! I had a robbing situation I was NOT expecting…I extracted my first super of honey, beautifully made, by my strongest hive (I have three hives in bee yard, a local extension class has three more) yesterday. After spinning the frames bone dry, I waited until late afternoon, drove over to the bee yard with the super in a covered tote, and returned it to the hive. From covered in tote to covered in hive was less than a minute. Almost immediately, bees from another hive came pouring out, heading for mine. Tons of noise, fighting, killing. I ran to my car and got a robber screen, slapped it on. Waited for the activity to stop (all three entrances on screen were shut) but the robbers kept at it, covering screen and picking off returning foragers. I was heartbroken. Saw uptick in activity outside my other two hives so I put a second robber screen on outside the one nearest the site of attack and made entrance reducer opening on the third the smallest it could be. I had to leave but came back early this morning. Activity at my other two hives is totally normal, but I have several hundred bees trying to get into the robbed hive. Some fighting still, though not as much as last night. They are all over the underneath of the screened bottom. The hive is still completely closed up. How long do you think I should leave it closed? I want to open up the smallest, single bee entrance but don’t know if I should do that, or at what time of day. Any ideas welcome!

  4. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    I’m so sorry you had this experience. Seeing robbing in action gives me such a helpless feeling. Next time, I would not give any of the colonies a wet super unless you can give them all one. The smell just drives them into a frenzy. What I have done is set the super outside “well away from all hives” and let the bees fly to it. I would open up the smallest entrance only about 2 bees wide for a few days. You can even create a type of tunnel into the opening with some other small pieces of wood, bark etc. This will help them.

  5. Thanks, Charlotte. I really did feel like the worst beekeeper in the world watching my girls get hit and try to defend their home. This morning at dawn I was back up there (it’s a half hour from my house, only option for me). Normal activity at my other hives but still a ton of bees at this hive’s entrance, climbing around exterior and filling the underneath of screened bottom board. A lot of the bees at entrance were carrying pollen. I thought robber bees never do, so I do not know if these were stranded foragers. I saw two brief skirmishes, just two bees chasing away a third, but no knock-down, drag-out brawling, but it was still early and barely light. I opened the smallest entrance on the robber screen and…nothing. Not one bee came out. I waited. Nothing. I had a sinking suspicion so I carefully undid the bungee cord and slid the robber screen off just enough to see, yes, dead bees blocking the length of the entrance. 🙁 The bees that had been hanging around outside were suddenly all revved up to get back in, so as quickly as I could I took my brush and swept the bodies onto the landing board, replaced the screen, put the bungee back on and, after dumping the bodies in the bushes far enough away to avoid attracting wasps, I just watched. Foragers did start coming out the sole entrance one at a time, and I saw one mortician bee carrying out a body. I had to go get ready for work but I am hoping the robbing is mostly over and that the tiny entrance is enough for the foragers as well as the cleanup crew. Heartbreaking lesson for a new beekeeper. My girls paid a heavy price but I hope they recover. I was told never ever leave a wet super out for communal cleaning, ever. My bees are in a community garden, specifically to one side of a veterans’ healing garden, so there aren’t many options to leave a super out, or to check on it every few hours. Also, of the six hives in a small area, only three are mine so giving them each a super would never be an option. In the future when returning a super, I plan to do it later in the evening and to put a robber screen on first and then take the super out of the covered plastic tote and put it on the hive. Thanks for your good thoughts. This hive was my strongest and just overflowing with bees (other beekeepers in the yard kept telling me to split it and give them half, lol…everyone wants these bees because they are super productive but very docile). I am hoping they have the numbers to tidy up the hive (both the bodies and the ripped comb, which I’m sure there is a lot of) and return to normal. I can’t get up there until tomorrow evening at the earliest, but when I do, if things look okay, I’m going to crack open one of the larger entrances of the robber screen so they have more entry/exit space. This hive had no reducer on because it created too much congestion at the entrance. There were probably 90,000 bees in it. Not so many now. 🙁

  6. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Since this was a strong hive, most likely it will be fine. I agree that open cleaning has its risks. But so does giving one back to a hive in a multiple hive yard. I place my wet suppers well away from the hives (more than 150 feet). Sometimes, even in the woods. Robber bees don’t normally have pollen with them. BUT, a pollen collecting forager might stop in for a treat! Hopefully, these were your working bees though. You did your best and hopefully things will improve. Consider joining my email list.

  7. K in Tenn says:

    Thanks for sharing the information and pictures.
    I believe I am dealing with a robbing situation, too. This is my 2nd year trying to keep a hive. Last year my hive was robbed out completely. This year I tried a package of russian bee’s, and when I started noticing some unusual activity at the front, I put a robber-screen on (entrance was always reduced to about 1-inch opening). The activity level outside is fairly intense, and admittedly I am not 100% certain it’s robbing,…. but they’re just so aggressive and angry sounding. I have observed my hive (both this year and last) with bee’s ‘hanging out’ on the front porch so to speak, but as mentioned the orientation flights look very different. They never hung out on the sides of the hive, either. Like the other poster, I also see bee’s coming back with full pollen sacks, but don’t know if it’s foragers from my hive returning and having trouble getting in, or robbers. It’s been going on for nearly a week now? There is a stream of activity coming in and out of the smallest entrance on the robber screen (don’t want to totally close the hive off for fear of stranding my bee’s outside?). Nectar sources are scarce right now, though I’ve seen a steady flow of pollen into the hive all year. I do have a hive-top feeder… but frankly I think I’m going to let it run dry and see if that reduces the aggressive activity I’m seeing? Maybe try to get passed this and hope to rebuild the hive afterwards? Not sure as I’m new to the hobby, but appreciate the helpful posts and community (BTW, I’m just over the hills in East TN!)

  8. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Unless you are seeing fighting at the front of the hive, it may just be traffic. Perhaps your opening isnt large enough.

  9. Bees in Alberta says:

    Such an interesting topic, and great suggestions; thank you for the efforts you put in to provide the information. I’ve been letting the bees clean the wax from the cappings in an area where all three colonies have equal opportunity (and also to keep the activity away from those unfamiliar with honey bees). Does this rummaging through cappings also create this instinct? Certainly creates a frenzy!

  10. Beekeeper Charlotte says:

    Yes, it could cause problems though I have been know to do the same thing. 🙂 Just made sure you do so far away from the hives.

  11. J Carl Mellinger says:

    B. C. 1st time to see you. The rain and wind yesterday caused a ” tree nest ” to fall to the ground. It looks whole. I live at Messiah Village in Mechanicsburg, PA. A neighbor asked if it was a turtle? Ha. It is in our rear lawn, under where it fell.
    Would there be any bees still in it? It looks whole, just laying on the ground.
    J. Carl Mellinger

  12. Charlotte Anderson says:

    A tree nest? A swarm of honey bees living in a tree? This is normally a hive inside the tree with bees coming and going through a hole. If you are seeing a mass of honeycomb that was hanging in the tree, you should be able to see if bees are on that. Now do be sure that your nest is not a Hornets nest! If so, I would leave that rascal laying there until freezing weather. 😉 https://carolinahoneybees.com/bee-nest-vs-wasp-nest/

  13. Duke Jones says:

    This is my 1st year beekeeping, so I’m not calling myself a beekeeper yet. I’d like to be on your email list.
    I started with a nuc on April 4, 2022 and a 3lb package on April 12. I’m waiting for another nuc to arrive mid May and 4 days ago I collected a swarm that currently is living in the original nuc box in which I put a frame of brood with pollen and nectar to get them going.
    Here is my question: I’m not sure if I should start another colony as a 1st year newbie. I was wondering if I could introduce the swarm into the 3rd colony I’ll get in Mid May to bolster the new nuc. Should I kill the swarm queen. I hesitate because it is such a mild tempered swarm or kill the new nuc queen because I have no idea what temperament she’ll bring to her colony? Or should I let them battle it out?

  14. Charlotte Anderson says:

    The sign up link is on the front page for the newsletter. So you have 4 colonies once everything arrives. Swarms are generally calm and you can’t really tell what she will be like for a few weeks. I would probably wait until the new nuc arrives and look at the brood pattern of both queens and decide from there. Combining thing would be a great way to get a full hive quickly.

  15. Chris Ladikos says:

    Interesting topic… I believe we will all experience this at some point or another. Great explanation. I have had success with “wet towel” method although this requires “seeing” the onslaught in action. Balancing strength between your hives is critical – don’t be afraid to make mistakes because inaction is not an option.

  16. Charlotte Anderson says:

    I totally agree. I too try to avoid having mega size hives and small ones in the same beeyard. Though that can be an intimidating task for new beekeepers, it is the weaker hives that are most at risk.

  17. Mike Fowler says:

    Thanks for your postings Charlotte. I am a new beekeeper with 2 hives that were both vigorous through the last 6 months. About 3 weeks ago I noticed unusual behavior that I discovered was robbing activity on .hive #2. Both hives are about 15 ft apart. Of course I panicked and started researching my options. I ended up with the wet towel approach with a reduced entrance but this was on the eve of u# leaving for a 10 day vacation. It seemed to work at first but when I returned the hive had been completely destroyed. Do you think I should change the location of this hive probably to the other side of the property? How long should I wait to repopulate and what is the best time of year? I live in Calaveras county in Northern California and we do not get snow. We are in the middle of a long drought and I stopped feeding my bees about 2 months ago. I can think of many things I did wrong to cause this catastrophe. Please put me on your mailing list for any information that you are sharing.
    Thanks and best regards
    Mike Fowler

  18. Charlotte Anderson says:

    I’m so sorry to hear of your troubles. Yes, it is easy for any of us to look back and wish we had done things different. I do the same thing and I have a lot more experience than you. Bees love to “do things” right when we need to be somewhere else. I can’t advise you on the best time to get another hive due to your climate being so different. I will say that I don’t think moving them farther apart would have any affect. Bees have no problem flying to the neighbors hive – even when far apart. I don’t think yours were too close. I tried to add you to the mailing list but you will have to do that. Good Luck

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