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Robbing and fighting and falling in clumps

Last week, Scott Mathews, who lives in drought-besieged southern California, came home to a hive in turmoil. He writes:

I came home today . . . to discover a lot of bees in the air and what looks like combative bearding. [There are] clumps of bees falling from the top entrance and what looks like new piles of dead bees on the ground and a few dead on top of the hive. I only saw one battle occurring on the ground though.

Being new at beekeeping, Scott didn’t know if he was seeing a colony being taken over by another (usurpation), a swarm, or some other kind of attack. The next day, he continued his story with photos:

I have attached a few photos of my hive from this morning (the second day of the attack). . . . There was much more activity the evening before.

Initially there was a clump of bees about 6 inches wide and about 8 inches tall with clumps of bees falling off and re-coalescing at the top entrance. There were also small “battles” occurring on the ground which looked rather one-sided (6 to 1).

After sunset I went back to the hive and noticed that the main entrance (which is JUST over 3/8th inch high) was PACKED with dead bees. So the only open access to the hive is the top entrance which is an opening about 20% of the hive width and just over 3/8th inches high. The photos are the morning after I first noticed the situation and the attack seems to be continuing.

The hive is inside a fenced off area with 6-foot high fencing and is about 12 feet by 8 feet. The 4th side is a block wall. I have gates at both ends. The photos are taken about 7:30 A.M. in sunny Southern California.

In my opinion, this is a classic case of robbing honey bees. Robbers follow their sense of smell to locate sources of food. Air that is leaving the hive is laden with odors, including the aroma of honey. The robber bees congregate in areas where they detect the smell and repeatedly try to get in. Entrances, ventilation ports, space between boxes, cracks in the wood, and poorly fitting joints are all places where the scent can leak out.

Robbing gets worse in times of drought. Honey bees suddenly have a lot of time on their hands with nothing to do, so they are perfectly willing to steal nectar from another hive. The hive being raided tries to defend itself and fighting ensures. Dead bees are commonplace.

Because robbers can do a lot of damage in a short time, and because it can be difficult to stop once it starts, prevention is key. In my own apiary, I’ve had good success with reducing the entrances at the first sign of dearth (especially on smaller hives) and leaving them reduced until the autumn rains begin. Other beekeepers avoid opening hives as much as possible.

An invention called the “robbing screen” also works well. The robbing screen fits over the front of the hive and creates a new entrance that is not in line with the actual entrance. The hive scent drifts out of the conventional entrance and attracts the robbers while the bees living in the hive soon learn the location of the new entrance. Some robbing screens also have a metal plate around the new entrance to further reduce odors from that area of the hive. Any robbers that manage to find the new entrance can be handled by the colony because the number is small compared to the large mobs at the fragrant entrances.

Scott kindly labeled his images, so if you are not accustomed to robbing bees, the photos are quite instructive.

Thanks, Scott, for the share.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Scott-Mathews-robbing-bees
Wherever the scent leaks out, the robbers congregate. © Scott Mathews.
Scott-Mathews-robbing-bees-3
Hoards of dead bees on the ground. © Scott Mathews.
Scott-Mathews-robbing-bees-2
The bottom entrance is so full of bodies, not even the residents can use it. © Scott Mathews.

Comments

Hilary
Reply

I also live in Southern CA and the robbing has been especially bad this year. I have successful stopped robbing in progress by stuffing pine needles in the entrance. It keeps robbers out and house bees come down to clear it away so, that brings more bees down to defend the entrance. Also, the bees will clear as much or as little as they want to over the next few days, allowing them to decide how big of an entrance they can defend. When I got word from other beekeepers of robbing being particularly bad, I stuffed all the small hive entrances with pine needles so they could pick their own entrance size. If the point of cracking of stacking the hive boxes unevenly in those pictures was to vent some heat or to provide an extra entrance, I have found that drilling a 1″-.5″ hole in an upper supper works just as well and is much easier for the bees to defend.

Trudy
Reply

My bees almost got robbed a couple of weeks ago too. Every morning around 6:30 a.m. I look out at my hive and see if there is any activity. Sort of like having my caffeine in the morning. Around 8:30 a.m. that same morning I just happen to glance at it and there were lots of bees heading for my hive. I can only compare it to the flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz. Fortunately my husband and I were able to stop it. We threw a tarp and then closed the entrance with a piece of wood which was covered with Vicks Vapor Rub. Left the hive closed over night and built a robber screen the next morning. The girls were not happy! We went into the hive two weeks later and all seemed to be back to normal. Fortunately the day this happened it was cool, cloudy with a chance of rain so I needn’t worry about them over heating.

Dick Barnes
Reply

Hello Rusty…. I love your blog, and learning something from every posting. Thanks for all your efforts. I second your idea of robbing in Scott’s beeyard. It’s common in a dearth, which many areas of Southern California are in right now. My three backyard hives are in residential Long Beach, with lots of watered gardens, trees, etc., so we’ve got stuff in bloom now. More rural areas are harder hit. If I suspect robbing or any other upset, I drape a wet sheet over the hive Again, thanks for your great work!

Brian P. Dennis
Reply

Can you buy ‘liquid smoke’ in the US (used instead of a smoker)? Sprayed on the bees, I have read it deters robbing (but I have not tried it). Placing a sheet of glass or a board in front of the entrance would have the same effect as a ‘robbing screen’. If the robbers are dusted with flour, it might be possible to find where the robbers are coming from. If possible, the robbing hive should be removed – failing that, the robbed hive should be moved. In the autumn, in the UK, entrances are reduced and hives are not inspected – any cracks etc. should be sealed. Apart from robbing, wasps (‘yellow jackets’) can be a problem – I have lost a strong colony this year from a wasp attack, despite reduced entrance.

Tom Rearick
Reply

Brian,
A sheet of glass will not work as a robbing screen because the scent of the hive cannot pass through it. The robbing screen works because the robber’s ability to follow scent trails leads them into the screen. Whereas, the native bees, emerging from their hive, encounter a screen, climb up, and re-adjust to a new entrance. They return to their hive by virtue of a visual memory.

More on this at http://www.beehacker.com/wp/?p=1030.

Brian P. Dennis
Reply

Tom Rearick says that placing a sheet of glass in front of a robbed hive will not work. I have never had to try this but it is the standard advice in the UK.

Rusty
Reply

Brian,

I know nothing about this one way or the other, but I would like find out. It sounds interesting.

Brian P. Dennis

If robbing starts reduce the entrance to one bee space using an entrance block and/or grass. This enables guard bees to protect the colony more efficiently. Placing a sheet of glass in front of the hive entrance so that bees have to go around the sides for access can also help.
National Bee Unit
Food and Environment Research Agency
Sand Hutton, York. YO41 1LZ
Telephone 01 904 462 510 e mail nbu@fera.gsi.gov.uk NBU Web site: http://www.nationalbeeunit.com
May 2011
©Crown copyright. This sheet, excluding the logo, may be reproduced free of charge providing that it is reproduced accurately and not used in a misleading way. The material must be acknowledged.

Lynette
Reply

I am also in dry southern CA. This is my first hive, lots of brood and active bees but they have not stored much honey. I have been told to feed them but have not found an easy safe method and am worried about causing robbing.
How do I build this mesh safety net?

Thanks Rusty, I love your site!

Rusty
Reply

Lynette,

There is a photo of one here. If robbing was occurring, you would close the two lower entrances.

Scott Mathews
Reply

Rusty,
Thanks to your wisdom (and your blog) I have learned loads about keeping my bees.

After several days I am certain you are correct about the robbing situation. I stuffed the upper opening to reduce access to raiders. 2 days ago I had NO bees flying. Not a single one. Yesterday I had about a dozen or so at the upper entrance and noticed that the lower entrance has been almost cleared of bee corpses. I’m going to wait a bit longer before I open the hive for inspection. I need to determine hive strength, stores and other conditions.

I will definitely be building a moving screen similar to the one you linked.

I’m glad that I experienced this situation (even though it was freaky scary) AND that I could share it with you and your other readers.

Scott Mathews
Reply

I guess I’ll have to get into the hive today! I have honey leaking out the front door! yikes

Rusty
Reply

Scott,

And leaking honey will attract even more robbers . . .

Scott Mathews
Reply

Well, That’s that!

The colony was totally devastated. I opened the hive to find stacks and stacks and stacks of corpses. No honey left. Collapsed combs (partially melted). Gnawed wax everywhere. A few wax moths have already moved in but no hive beetles. Loads of dead capped brood. A few stragglers hanging around but not enough to consider it a colony. Probably less than 200. It was too dark for me to see if the queen survived. But that doesn’t matter.

I’m gonna chalk this one up to experience and drought.

It’s not a total loss. I harvested about 3 1/2 gallons of honey 2 months ago. (I doubt that weakened them as they had 1 1/2 mediums of honey remaining).

When I get a job I can buy a new package and take better care of them next time, with my new moving/robbing screen installed when they move in.

I may be down, but I’m not out!

Rusty
Reply

Scott,

I’m glad to see you are maintaining a positive attitude. I too had to learn the hard way; those are lessons we always remember.

Kelton Temby
Reply

Ah gee Scott, that sounds heartbreaking. Guessing you don’t have 2 hives to try to manage this? Wonder if there’s a beekeeping association in your area. Maybe you could at least get your remaining supers nicely cleaned up on top of a healthy colony, so you can store them, and have good comb ready to go for your next round. Really sorry to hear the story, I’m going to work on both my hives tomorrow and get robbing ready as best as I can.

Kelton (Aussie transplant to So-Cal)

Shanna
Reply

I finally got bees this spring for the first time. They were going great and upon the previous check (late July) they had filled the hive body with comb and a super full of honey. We added another empty super and swapped a few of the empty frames and full frames around. Today we cracked open the box to discover no new comb, and the relocated honey gone. We removed the newest super to look into the first one (which was supposed to feed them this winter) and were horrified to discover all of the honey gone out of that one as well. Upon looking into the hive body, we discovered most of the frames were empty, uncapped comb. In total there was maybe 6-8 oz of honey left in the hive. There were no dead bees, no shredded comb and the bottom board was clean of almost all debris.

And to top it off, it does not appear that we have lost any bees at all—the hive body was packed with bees, there was a small cloud flying around us and a good amount milling around in the empty super. I haven’t noticed any fighting, save one time this past May; I heard a buzzing noise even though I was in the house. I went outside and there was a cloud of bees, perhaps 25 yards wide. They were darting back and forth and sounded angry. About 15 minutes later it subsided and there was a beard of bees hanging out on the porch, waiting to get back in-it had appeared that my hive won the battle. I’ve tried to find an article on missing honey (but not from robbing) but have had no avail. Any answers?

Rusty
Reply

Well, Shanna, there are so many things I don’t know that I can only guess. I would like to know where you are (what state or province) and also whether there is any brood in the brood box, and whether you have a queen.

However, my guess goes like this: Your bees had a good spring and everything was fine until the summer nectar dearth hit. Then your bees could find nothing to forage on, so they began eating their stored food. Now, going into fall, they have virtually nothing to take them through the winter.

It may seem like they ate it really fast, but your summer colony is much, much bigger than a winter colony and it is also more active, so it can tear through a lot of honey in a hurry. That same amount would have lasted much longer in a winter colony.

If you have a queen and she is laying at least a little, the colony can remain viable as long as it is fed. If you don’t have honey saved from that hive, you will have to feed syrup, candy boards, or something similar to get them through the winter. In the spring, you will have to feed pollen as well, if they don’t have any left.

It is an unfortunate situation, but fairly common, especially in years with long, hot summers and little rainfall.

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