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Captives who change allegiance

Do you remember the Stockholm Syndrome? It’s a behavior seen in some hostages in which they develop sympathy for their captors, often to the point of defending them. The most famous case in America is Patty Hearst who, after being captured by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, eventually joined them and helped rob a bank.

What does this have to do with bees? Not much. But a recent discussion of robber bees reminded me of the syndrome. It seems that robber bees, if captured and held within the hive they were robbing, will eventually change allegiance and become part of that colony.

Opinions vary, but three days seems to be a number many beekeepers cite for the length of time the robbers must be held captive. This agrees with the 72 hours often cited for how long you must keep bees locked in a hive before they will perform a reorientation flight. (Beekeepers wanting to move a hive just a short distance can lock the bees in the hive and move it. When released after three days, the bees will reorient themselves to their new position.)

Several beekeepers I know of have used robbing bees to boost the population of a failing hive. Once the robbers were inside the hive, they just locked down the hive and waited for three days. By then, most of the robbing bees called the new place home and the colony population was greatly increased. One beekeeper even used a one-way bee escape over the entrance, so robbing bees that got in could not get back out.

Bees locked up like this in the heat of the summer need good ventilation and a source of water. Otherwise, there are few downside risks. Yes, there is a chance of the queen getting killed, but she may have died anyway had the robbing frenzy continued. From what I’ve heard, queens locked up with robbers usually make it.

An alternative to keeping the bees locked up for three days is to screen them in just long enough to move them several miles away. Most of the robber bees will re-orient and join the hive in the new location.

Although it is far better to avoid robbing in the first place, this is a fascinating twist on using bee behavior to your best advantage.




Clever. Presumably the three days would also give the bees time to take on the hive odour through food sharing and grooming, so that the guard bees accept them after their next foraging trip.

I read an autobiography by Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted aged ten and imprisoned in a tiny basement for several years. In it she expresses some limited sympathy for her kidnapper, and notes times he did her little kindnesses. But she strongly denies this being due to Stockholm Syndrome, arguing that this takes her human responses away from her.


I never would have thought to use robbing as an opportunity to boost a weak hive’s population. I just assumed a hive being robbed out was doomed. Clever, clever.

Skip Sharp

Rusty, I have four hives; two nucs and two deeps. Three of the four have been under siege for the past ten days. I have robbing screens on all and it seems that I may be winning. However, my wife has about been to drive me crazy saying I should capture the robbers and start a new hive, or two. Is it feasible to use a one way bee escape and capture the robbers in the robbed hive?



It is an interesting idea, although I would be afraid of the robbers doing a lot of damage before they are tamed. They might even kill the queen, which would set you back. It would be best if you could find a way to catch them that didn’t involve an intact colony.

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