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How to stop robbing honey bees

No matter how you do it, you must stop robbing or you may lose your colony. Robbing bees will tear open all the honey cells and clean up every last drop. Fighting between bees will kill many and, once the hive is overpowered, predators such as wasps will move in and kill any remaining bees and brood.

Robbing is most common during a nectar dearth and can often be prevented by restricting the entrance to the hives. This works because the colony has a greater chance of defending a small opening than a large one. With very weak or small colonies, however, even this may not be enough.

How to identify robbing bees

Robbing can be identified in several ways:

  • Fighting. Bees will tumble and roll—sometimes on the landing board, sometimes in the air.
  • Dead bees may be seen on the landing board or on the ground in front of the hive.
  • Robbing bees can often be seen examining all the cracks and seams in a hive, even at the back and sides.
  • Robbing bees are often accompanied by wasps.
  • Some of the bees in the fray may appear shiny and black. This appearance is created when the bees lose their hair while fighting. Both attackers and defenders may have this appearance.
  • Robbing bees are never carrying pollen on their legs.
  • Robbing bees often sway from side to side like wasps, waiting for an opportunity to enter the target hive.
  • Pieces of wax comb may appear on the landing board.
  • Robbing bees are louder than normal bees.
  • Because robbing bees are loaded down with honey when they leave the target hive, they often crawl up the wall before they fly away and then dip toward the ground as they take off. This may not be immediately obvious, but if you study them for a while, you can see it.

How to stop the robbers

Once it starts, stopping a robbing frenzy is not easy.

  • Smoking will not stop robbing, but it will give you a reprieve while you close up the hive. I get the smoker going well and set it next to the hive while I work.
  • Reduce entrances to a very small opening. Some beekeepers stuff grass in the entrance—a technique that keeps out the robbers but allows some airflow.
  • If robbing is really intense, you can simply close up the hive opening with hardware cloth or screen in a size the bees cannot get through (#8 or #10 work well).
  • A water-saturated towel thrown over the hive confuses the robbers but allows the hive residents to come and go from underneath the towel. Evaporation from the towel keeps the hive cool.
  • Install a robbing screen. This device re-routes the hive residents through an alternative entrance while the robbing bees, following the scent of the hive, continue to butt into the screen.
  • Some beekeepers spread a commercial product such as Vicks Vaporub at the entrance to the colony. This product contains strong-smelling compounds such as camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol that confuse the robber bees.
  • Some beekeepers recommend removing the lids from all the hives in the apiary. The theory is that the bees become so busy defending their own hives that they stop robbing other hives. However, if the robber bees are coming from somewhere other than your own apiary, it won’t work. Also, it will do nothing to stop wasps and other predators from entering the hives at will.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite.com

Comments

BrendaSeader
Reply

Rusty,

I really look forward to your posts, and have learned a lot from you.

I belong to a new bee club, and members are mostly novice beekeepers. Funds are tight as yet, and we do not always have a speaker, so sometimes meetings lag a little. Could I have permission to print and hand out copies of some of your blogs to use as discussion material? I would certainly give you the credit (what is your last name?) for the information. I think some information like this would help us start discussions, and give the members some information to take back to their beeyards.

Thanks for your consideration, and all the information you’ve given me about my bees.

Brenda

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

I sent you an e-mail.

Rusty

Jeremy
Reply

I have been keeping bees for about 3 years. I opened a couple of my traditionally stronger hives today and noticed that nearly the entire bottom brood box was devoid of bees, honey, brood, etc. Even though I had reduced the entrance late in the summer, I assume that the hives have been victims of robbers. I made candy boards and began feeding the remaining bees (there are a lot less than normal). Is there anything else that I can do to try to get the hives through the winter or is it a waste of time? Should I just chalk them up to lost?

Suggestions and advice, as always, are greatly appreciated.

Jeremy

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jeremy,

I’m a little confused. You say that the bottom brood box was empty of bees, honey, and brood. That doesn’t sound unusual. The bee cluster tends to eat it’s way upward during the winter. So by mid-winter or spring, the lower boxes may be pretty much empty.

Is there a specific reason you suspect robbers? Combs torn apart with ragged edges may be a sign of robbing, but if you still have stores remaining and you still have bees remaining, I wouldn’t give up on them. Small clusters are also normal for the winter. Depending on the type of bees you have, the clusters may be very small.

Keep feeding them and start adding some pollen substitute to the candy boards.

It’s possible your bees didn’t store much in the bottom brood box compared to other years. I’d say as long as their are bees there is hope.

dave
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Maybe you remember me from earlier needing info on preventing swarms. Well thank you for the info, saved a swarm due to an overnight split; it worked great. Now I have another question. Hopefully I can get your input.

Approximately two weeks ago I spilled some syrup, wellllll! A quart to be exact. Caused robbing. Built some robber screens for all hives on Friday and installed them Friday night at dark. It’s been storming last few days as you experienced (I live in southwest Oregon) and have not been able to check the hive for stores and will not for a few more.

Today went and just looked at the hives and noticed still robbers around and wanting in but residents want in as well with pollen on their legs. Screens are 8″ high, 3/4 deep with a 2” wide entrance 1/2″ deep, top completely open. I believe my hives are very strong. 2 broods boxes full with supers.

Question#1: Do I ignore the residents, or just give the screens time to work. Hard to say if robbers have figured out how to go over at this point.

Question #2: Do you think the robbers could be coming from my hives and have figured out entrance to and from sense all screens are alike on all hives.

Question #3: Should I remove supers as soon as possible and return them later in the winter months?

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

1. The resident bees will find their way in as long as the entrance is open at the top. I would not worry about them.

2. The robbers are probably coming from you other hives, but they are following the scent and that is why the keep trying to get in cracks and other openings. They won’t learn the way in. And if a few accidentally get in, the hive residents will take care of them. Trust your robbing screens; they work amazingly well.

3. You can, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Do what makes you comfortable. There shouldn’t be too much robbing going on any more, with all this rain and cold.

dave
Reply

Rusty,

The robber screens worked well, like you said, but I lost some resident bees due to, I think, they couldn’t find their way back in, but no great loss.

I opened the hives today and, low and behold, a great thriving hive, queenright, laying eggs, thank you. Stress relief. But there are sure a lot of bees flying in front, screens are still in place. I removed honey supers and they were not too happy. But the brood chambers had lots of stores, so do you think that maybe a 1/2″-1″ entrance reducer would work as well as robber screens at this point, or should I keep the screens intact for awhile longer? I’m pleased with your valuable input.

Also did a organic powdered sugar treatment to control some mites detected 5-15ct/24-30hr mite board in place. I have a screened bottom board great ventilation for hot or cold application.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

If the hive is as strong as you say, a 3/4-inch opening should work just fine.

Sounds like a lot of mites. Did you do a sugar roll?

dave
Reply

Yes, did the sugar roll the best I could on two hives, two broods each. Hard to see the mite drop sense the powdered suger is pulled off the board when extracting it from screen bottom board. But I think I’m in good shape. Will check again in one week. Also removed two supers each, lots of bees in the brood now. Worried about overcrowding. Also lots of stores in the brood, some brood, eggs, and larva, queen is healthy. I’m happy! You are the greatest on info.

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

Follow the link I gave you yesterday. The sugar roll test is a very specific protocol involving bees that you put in a jar. It is not the same as a sticky board count; it is much more reliable.

Don’t worry about over-crowding this time of year. You need all those bodies for warmth, and the population will soon start dropping.

Brenda B
Reply

I am in northeast Alabama we are in our second year of beekeeping. Yesterday, I noticed that one of my hives was being robbed; it is very hot here and will be probably well into October. Will putting a entrance reducer on my hives make it too hot for them? I have one hive that is hanging outside on the porch all the time. We have 4 hives. Two of them are our original hives, the other 2 are new. The robbing was on one of my new hives.

Rusty
Reply

Brenda,

It depends. As long as you have screened bottom boards and screened inner covers, they will get plenty of ventilation.

Brenda B
Reply

Rusty,

I am not familiar with a screened inner cover. Where can I see that?

Pennie
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I know it’s several years after you first wrote this post, but it was a huge help to me today, in June 2015. I’m a brand-new beekeeper this year and am learning a lot about bees. I spend time in the morning and afternoon just watching my one hive, trying to see patterns in what they are doing. I noticed that there was a lot of fighting going on at the entrance to the hive and just realized that this was probably not a good sign.

After reading this post, I recognized almost every sign that you describe. So I immediately went out and removed the Boardman feeder, wiped down the hive with a rag and water to clean up any drops of syrup, and closed down the hive entrance to about an inch in width. I stayed and watched for another half hour or so, and the activity around the hive entrance quieted down quite a bit and was much calmer. Yet bees were still coming in the entrance carrying pollen with no trouble.

We have a neighbor whose hive threw two swarms last week, so I think the robber bees are coming from those swarms. They rehived one swarm but let the other one go wild, and didn’t want to let us get it to rehive. So they are out there looking for a place to land, I guess.

I will keep a close eye on the entrance for the next few days to see if I need to close down the entrance further or take other measures.

Rusty
Reply

Pennie,

I’m glad the post helped you. It sounds like you’ve done everything right, but I can’t imagine why your neighbors wanted to let the one swarm go. Swarms let go like that often don’t make it through the first winter, so it’s kind of sad.

Pennie
Reply

Yes, it was very frustrating. But I guess that is sometimes how it goes. I’ve considered looking into baiting a hive. We’ll see.

Pennie
Reply

Yes, it was very frustrating. But I guess that is sometimes how it goes. I’ve considered looking into baiting a hive. We have an extra hive setup, and it’s still within the time frame for a colony to establish itself within the next week or two, I think. We’ll see.

Bob Gotwals
Reply

Rusty, newbie keeper here, I just started a second hive from a nuc, gave them sugar water in a top feeder along with a pollen patty. There are a lot of bees on the outside trying to get in at various places, so I’m assuming the bees from the first hive are trying to rob the food in the new hive. I see some dead bees on the landing of the new, second hive.

Am I diagnosing this correctly, and, if so, entrance reducer? Other? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Bob,

Bees trying to get in through the cracks is a dead giveaway, and dead bees on the landing board is more evidence. I would reduce the entrance and/or add a robbing screen.

Mark
Reply

Thanks for the information. How long do I need to keep wet towels in place and how long should I leave grass in entrance? Also, how will bees that belong in the colony get back in?

This is a very informative post. Many thanks.

Mark

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

Remove that stuff as soon as the robbers leave, or most leave. I usually take it out late in the afternoon so the the resident bees can get back in.

Alyssa Richard
Reply

Hello, I’m new to beekeeping. I have looked up information on robbing and found your information. Tonight I taped my bees cleaning the hive and noticed one bee fighting with another like they were grabbing each other. One was darker then the other. Finally the darker one flew off. Tonight before the storm I put an entrance reducer in to help limit the entrance and make it easier for the bees to guard. Hoping they are not being robbed as it’s a great group of bees and our first hive. Not sure if it is robbing or not. I will continue to check on them and see about the activity. I don’t want to make them upset by reducing the entrance, but it will be easier for them. Love the information you have on here as we are trying to figure everything out. Plus when we checked the hive yesterday we see that they are building under the frames and between the boxes going from one frame to another. We didn’t know that we start with one box and then add on to it when the frames are built on. So we moved some frames from the second box to the first box but left the second on. Should we pull it off and go to one? So much to learn and we just got them this month. Hope they can build enough before winter so they survive. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Alyssa,

I would go by how full the bottom box is. If it’s about 80% full, I would add the second box. Otherwise, I would wait.

Morgan Wardle
Reply

Hi Rusty!

Wow I’m so thankful for this post! I’ve been scouring the Internet for info on robbing and this is by far the best I’ve come across. I have one hive and they’ve been getting robbed since Thursday, so 3 days. Once I figured it out on Thursday, I took away the Boardman feeder, put in the wooden entrance reducer and draped a wet sheet over the hive. Each day I’ve gone to check on the hive, I notice there are still robbers flying around trying to find a way in. I don’t see anymore fighting. Yesterday I ordered a robber screen and a hive top feeder, but it could be 4 more days before they get here. How long does robbing usually continue? Should I keep the wet sheet on until the robbing screen gets here? Any advice would be greatly appreciated, thanks for your great site!

Rusty
Reply

Hi Morgan,

Robbing bees can be extremely persistent once they’ve been rewarded for their efforts. You can probably remove the sheet, but depending on the strength of your colony, I would keep the entrance very tight. On small colonies I sometimes put duck tape over part of the entrance so it’s only about a half-inch wide. A normal-size colony will do okay with the smallest entrance all the way open.

When you add the robbing screen your bees may be confused at first, but they will figure it out and the robbers won’t. The screens work really well. The metal plate in front redirects the odor away from the new entrance and your bees will soon be going in and out and the robbers will eventually leave.

debbie
Reply

Boardman feeders should be outlawed as they are THE number one robbing mechanism. Use inside hive feeders to be safe, especially on new hives.

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

I’ve never used a Boardman feeder so have no first-hand experience, but I’ve heard they induce robbing like crazy.

Evelyn
Reply

Thank you first for information. I am a first year beekeeper. That being said, I really didn’t think too much about “robbing” and thought the activity and the “fallen” out in the front were just the end of the season. I opened my hive and it’s completely dry of honey and any of the remaining brood. On the bottom board there was hundreds of dead bees. There are also a lot of small wasps around. I’ve closed all the entrances, reduced the primary to half, placed burlap over the entrance and landing area inch openings on the sides for the hive bees to come and go. I found the queen.

Is there still hope for my hive?

Rusty
Reply

Evelyn,

You are on the right track. You found the queen and it sounds like you stopped the robbing. Now you will have to feed like crazy to get them through the winter. I would feed heavy syrup as long as they will take it and then transition to candy boards or fondant for the winter. You may also want to feed some pollen substitute to encourage brood rearing. It’s hard to say, the lack of brood may just be the time of year or the wasps could have taken it. In any case, be very careful when feeding syrup. Any drops on the ground can start the robbing all over again.

Ann
Reply

This is an excellent post.
Robbing is my least favorite bee behavior, bar none!
Another solution I’ve heard Michael Bush mention is to put on a sprinkler. The robbers think it’s raining and go home. Seems like it might give the beekeeper time to install preventives.
If nucs are kept near full-size colonies, keeping robber screens might help avoid problems. We’ve had our nucs attacked under enough different conditions that we have taken to leaving robber screens on the little colonies year round.

Chris Tornow
Reply

The last few days we have seen bees with pollen baskets full attack another bee in front of the hive and chew the pollen off one leg and then go to the other and chew on that. The first time my husband mentioned I thought it was just a weird thing, but I saw it myself this morning. Both hives are bringing in a lot of pollen right now. I’m in NW Wa. I’ve got the entrances reduced and also the mouse guards on so I think the entrance is defensible. Both hives are full of bees. Is this a form of robbing? Is there something else I should be doing? Thank you in advance for your thoughts. your website site has been so helpful to me, a first year beekeeper.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

I have never seen the behavior you describe. Bees will fight with robbers, but robbers do not carry pollen. Drifing bees with pollen are normally allowed in, so I have no idea.

thea zimmerman
Reply

Hi, Thanks for all your suggestions and experience. Me and my friend’s 5 hives were all robbed in the Chicago western suburbs. I’m picking up robber screens next week to be ready for 2017. When should I put them on? The robbing was so bad ( was spending 8 hours a day for 3 weeks trying to save them with wet sheets shutting down entrances for several days and even used a sprinkler for several hours but the robbing just started over again. I’m thinking of putting these screens them on as soon as I get my new bees. Also, On my brothers hives, after he received his 3# of bees and installed them, the yellow jackets were attacking the honey bees as they were bringing back nectar and pollen. I saw these wasps eating the attacked bees as they fell to the ground. Any suggestions?

Rusty
Reply

Thea,

Normally you wouldn’t see many yellowjackets in the spring when you’re installing packages. The few yellowjackets you see in the spring are usually queens that are beginning new colonies. The population builds up over summer and peaks in the fall, which is why yellowjackets are typically a fall problem. Honey bee robbing can happen any time, although early spring and dearthy periods are usually the worst. You can leave the robbing screens on if you want, although if a colony gets too congested at the entrance, it is more likely to swarm.

Justin
Reply

I have just installed 2 bee packages. They each have a feeder full of syrup inside the hive. One hive goes through its sugar every day, the other hasn’t touched theirs. Are they robbing from the other hive? There bees fighting outside both hives. Dead bees, bee flying everywhere crowding both hives and darting back and forth from one hive to the other. What the heck is going on here?

Rusty
Reply

Justin,

Fighting is a good sign of robbing. Are you keeping the entrances reduced? I would keep the entrances as small as possible and perhaps add robbing screens.

Justin
Reply

Why would bee rob for sugar syrup when they have their own dang feeder right in their own hive? Got their own feeder but they wont touch it they are robbing their neighbor instead.

Rusty
Reply

Justin,

For the same reason a honey bee colony will fill 10 supers with honey when they only need two: they are hoarders.

Caden Welsh
Reply

Evening Rusty!

First thank you so much for all your amazing info. Your site is always my first stop when looking for more bee education. I’m a 3rd year keeper and finally got my first honey harvest! Made 2 rookie mistakes though wanting to give back to them. First I put one extracted box full of empty frames out for all hives to collect the left overs and second I put the other box directly back on top of my best hive. I bet you can guess what happened 🙂

I took your advice and bought the plastic robbing screens. I put it on the hive that was having the issues at night and the next day the girls were having a really hard time finding the new entrance. They finally started fanning and that helped somewhat but it looks like the robbers are following the resident bees running up from their previous opening.

I want to go ahead and put them on my other 5 hives. I am considering closing all six hives off at night after installing and leaving them closed for 24 hours in hopes they will all do new orientation flights, know exactly where the new openings are and reduce the robbers. I live in Kentucky and tomorrow the high is 92 degrees. I am using screened bottom boards so that should help with the heat.

Two questions:
1) Do you think the weather is to hot to seal them in for 24 hours?
2) Is 24 hours enough to reorient?

Thanks,

Caden

Rusty
Reply

Caden,

I’ve been having a discussion with Cliff over at BeeSmart about his instructions. He will be changing them to say that, if robbing is already taking place, you should put the robbing screens on immediately. (It is better to lose some bees to getting lost than all bees to an attack.)

I always put my robbing screens on at mid-day and the bees figure it out within a half hour or so. If you think robbers are following the resident bees in, change which door is opened. If watching them struggle to find the opening makes you nervous, don’t watch(!).

I wouldn’t lock the bees inside in the heat unless you have a screened bottom and a screened cover.

Caden Welsh
Reply

Thanks for the speedy response Rusty!

So when putting the screens on immediately during a robbing frenzy, do you close both entrances or keep one open?

It’s so hard for me to not watch but you’re right. I know they won’t have any trouble finding the new opening, it’s the continued robbing I’m worried about.

Got it, no trapping. I’ll put the other screens on during the day tomorrow.

Thanks Again,

Caden

P.S. Do you take donations for your expertise? If not, can I send you some of my Louisville honey? 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Caden,

I certainly do take donations and they are greatly appreciated. There is a link in the right-hand column of the home page and the blog pages. As for honey? I have more than I can handle! (A very good year!)

janet fowler
Reply

We didn’t know about robbers, but now it’s September and we have a lot of activity, but no honey. Help.

janet fowler
Reply

We have 8 hives and none of them have honey stored. What do we do? It is now late September.

Rusty
Reply

Janet,

If you have no reserved honey, you have to feed. Most likely, you will have to feed all winter into spring. I don’t know how far north you are, but I’d start with about 400 pounds of sugar.

LA
Reply

Is there any harm in leaving the BeeSmart robbing screen on year round, even in fall and winter? Seems that mice can’t get through the small upper entrances, though I suppose they could chew through the plastic even though it’s pretty tough. It’s October in Central Ohio though the weather has been unusually warm with some rain so the bees are still foraging and robbers are still a nuisance. Two days ago I put the metal mouse entrance guard on my hives (http://www.brushymountainbeefarm.com/Universal-Entrance-Reducer-and-Mouse-Guard) but the bees seemed stressed trying to keep the robbers away. So now I’m thinking of re-installing the BeeSmart robbing screen until a cold snap and then install the metal mouse guards.

Rusty
Reply

LA,

I certainly don’t think there is any harm in leaving the BeeSmart robbing screens on, but I think the top entrances are plenty big enough for mice. Mice have a skeleton that is very pliable, and they are able to squeeze themselves through incredibly small spaces. BeeSmart makes a mouse guard that can be used with their bottom boards. In the fall you just remove the robbing screen and add the mouse guards. The openings are quite a bit smaller than the robbing screen openings. #4 hardware cloth (4 openings per inch) if often used for mouse guards, too. In any case, your metal mouse guards should work just fine.

LA
Reply

Thanks for your quick reply, Rusty. I appreciate your feedback and all the great information I always get from Honey Bee Suite. I’ll look into the Bee Smart bottom boards and mouse guards for next year (the hives weigh a lot right now to switch things around), but sounds pretty convenient.

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