How to Stop Robber Bees

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How to Get Rid of Robbing Bees

Robber bees are not the “bad girls” of the hive-as you might think. Their action to rob honey from a weaker neighbor is all about survival. However for those of us who keep bees 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.

picture of robbing honey bees attacking a hive

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.

Anytime the “nectar flow” is cut off, our foraging bees begin to look elsewhere for resources. The colony must focus all season on food collection.

What is Honey Bee Robbing?

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.

Honey bee robbing 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.

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.

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.

picture of honey bee hives stop robber bees

Will Robbers Kill the Queen Bee?

The defending colony will battle to their death. Once the majority of the guard bees 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 brood to support the hive.

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. 

picture of a worker bee foraging on a flower

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

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.

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.

image of free secrets of beekeeping book

Bee Yards Increase Robbing Opportunities

Robbing becomes a serious problems for weak hives.  Strong hungry colonies with 40,000-60,000 workers can overwhelm a small colony in just a few hours.

Because of the variations in nectar flow, robbing is not a concern every day. The threat of robbing bees in your bee yard is worse at some times of the year.

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 robber bees don’t have to go far to find a hive to attack.  The aroma of 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.

Moving/Robbing Screens to Control Robber Bees

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 I keep on the hive all Summer. Why? Well, the last thing I 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.

The Robbing Frenzy Begins 

Robbing begins when a few intruder bees 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.

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.

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 th 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 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 bees, 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) being robbed 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 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. You will still need to do some preventive measures or the robbing will start again in the morning.

Tips for Preventing Robbing

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.

Final Thoughts on Dealing with Robber Bees

In the timeless fight for survival, honey bee robbing behavior is a natural process. 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. And we keep hive much closer together than they would be in nature.

Use good beekeeping practices, such as keeping the bee yard clean and others can help reduce the amount of robbing in your bee yard.

Beekeeper Charlotte

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10 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. 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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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. 🙁

  5. 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.

  6. 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!)

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

  8. 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!

  9. 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.

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