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Robbing bees: questions and answers

What is robbing?

Robbing is a term used to describe honey bees that are invading another hive and stealing the stored honey. The robbing bees rip open capped cells, fill their honey stomachs, and ferry the goods back home. They will fight the resident bees to get to the stores and many bees may die in the process.

When does robbing occur?

Robbing can occur anytime during the year, but it is most evident in the late summer or early fall, especially during a nectar dearth. Robbing can often be seen in the early spring as well, most frequently before the first major honey flow.

Why does robbing occur?

Honey bees are compulsive hoarders. They will collect nectar or honey from any source they can find, and that includes a poorly guarded or weak hive. Personally, I think “looting” is a better description because, like human looters, they tend to prey on the weak and vulnerable, especially a hive with a problem.

Think of it like this: It is a hot August afternoon. It hasn’t rained in weeks. The flowers are long past their peak and the few that remain are crispy. A gang of bored workers with too much time and not enough to do is hanging out, looking for trouble. Suddenly, one of the gang picks up on a scent . . . sweet! It’s coming from a nearby hive where the beekeeper has spilled some syrup. A few scouts check it out and believe they can overpower the lethargic guard bees lounging in the heat. Within minutes the dancers post directions on CombBook and the siege is on.

How can I recognize robbing?

Sometimes a weak hive will suddenly come to life. You, a new beekeeper, are ecstatic because a hive you thought was dying is now thrumming with activity—bees are everywhere. You think the colony has finally turned itself around. But when you go back the next day, no one is home. The honey frames have been stripped clean, bees lie dead on the ground, and the small colony is decimated.

At other times, the signs are more subtle:

  • Fighting bees tumble and roll—sometimes on the landing board, sometimes in the air.
  • Dead bees lie 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 that are attracted to the dead bees as well as the honey.
  • 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 never carry 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 as the robbers rip open new cells.
  • 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.

What can I do to prevent robbing?

It is much more effective to anticipate robbing and take preventive measures than to try to stop it once it starts. Here are some strategies that may work—at least some of the time.

  • Reduce entrances at the first sign of a nectar dearth. Bees can successfully defend their hive if they have a large enough population and a small enough entrance.
  • Many beekeepers have observed that Italian bees rob more often than other sub-species. If you keep Italians, you should be more vigilant.
  • It appears that queenless hives are more vulnerable to robbing than queenright hives. Make sure all your hives are queenright as robbing season approaches.
  • Entrance feeders seem to promote robbing more than other feeders, probably because the food source is so near the hive opening. Use some other type of feeder during nectar dearths.
  • Small or weak hives are particularly vulnerable. Consider combining such hives before a nectar dearth.
  • Commercial robbing screens are highly effective devices that allow the resident bees to get in and out while discouraging the robbers. These can be especially valuable for use on weaker hives that you do not want to combine.

What can I do to stop it?

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. Get the smoker going and set it next to the hive while you 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). Close up the hive completely for several days until the robbers give up. If necessary, be sure to provide feed, pollen, water, and ventilation for the confined colony.
  • 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 from 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 mask the hive odor and 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 your hives at will. This is not a good strategy for an inexperienced beekeeper.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

Reggie Rodriguez
Reply

Thanks for the informative post! I’ll be smiling about CombBook all day now!
-Reggie, 2nd year beekeeper in Petaluma, California

Emily
Reply

Great advice! Some yellow Italians tried to rob my dark bees recently because their own hive was very low on stores. Luckily my bees saw them off.

Tom
Reply

This is the best, concise treatment on robbing that I’ve found. Thanks!

Ken
Reply

I had this just last week. Italians robbing, or attempting to rob, my Carniolans. I was feeding them to be sure of enough winter stores for a southeastern Idaho winter. I removed the entrance feeder and put a vented cover on the main entrance, leaving only the small 3/4-inch top entrance open. This did the trick. Many of the little blond Italians perished in the incident. I concluded that my newly acquired (early summer) colony, which went queenless much of the time, was doing well enough that I don’t need to continue to feed them. The robbing stopped by the 2nd day and now life is back to normal. I learn a lot from these bees every day!

Trccscott
Reply

Rusty, I sure m having a hard time figuring out whether I m seeing robbing going on or a bloom of new workers.

I seem to have a lot more activity at a hive that was a package I installed early April and see a lot of behaviors for robbing you describe. The only thing I do NOT see are dead bees or fighting going on. I see lots of bees carrying pollen landing and entering with all the other bees, but no fighting.

At this point I have put on an entrance reducer with the smallest opening until I can figure out what is really happening.

Does not seeing fighting/dead and/or pollen carrying bees returning and entering rule out robbing?

Rusty
Reply

My guess it that it is not robbing, but a lot of bees taking orientation flights. About three weeks after package installation, your first bees would be born. Those bees would be nurse bees for a week or so, but as they get older they become foragers. As new foragers, they circle around the hive in ever expanding circles in order to learn their whereabouts. Without Google Maps, they have to learn the terrain the hard way. Robbing can happen in the spring, but it is not nearly so common as it is the fall. Lack of fighting doesn’t rule out robbing, especially if the hive is weak, but I think you are seeing normal spring activity.

trccscott
Reply

Thanks Rusty, it does appear it was new foragers after further observation and checking on it yesterday afternoon.

Scott

ryan
Reply

I put up a robbing screen on the lower entrance and screened over the upper entrance. The robbers hover and crash into the screen and eventually give up. It was amazing how well it worked.

Stephanie
Reply

I have a problem, I am a first year beekeeper and I think my hive is being robbed, I have tried reducing the entrance, placing a wet sheet over the hive and placing a screen over the entrance. There is still fighting, I have also noticed that at any given time there are 5+ bees that are not able to fly and they are wiggling their abdomen. I have no idea what’s going on please help!

Rusty
Reply

Stephanie,

Are you talking about a new hive as in a few weeks old? Are you feeding them syrup or something that will attract robbers? Are you sure they are fighting? Are the bees not flying on their backs or on their feet? Are their abdomens up in the air? Just trying to get a clear picture . . .

Stephanie
Reply

Rusty, I got the nuc last July and all looks very healthy. I have not fed them, I left all of the honey for them and there was some left last month, with some un-capped honey and there is a lot of pollen going in. They look like they are fighting, they actually attack, sometimes two or more against one. They are just crawling around on the ground and are buzzing like they want to fly. Their abdomens are down and curled looking. I took pictures today of some of the dead. It looks like a couple of different types of bees and a drone.

Rusty
Reply

Stephanie,

That certainly sounds like robbing. Other bees probably caught the scent of the uncapped honey and are trying to get it. I wouldn’t worry about the bees on the ground. That’s pretty common and normal, although I don’t know exactly why it happens. As soon as the nectar flow starts, the bees will be busy with foraging and the robbing should stop. In the meantime, it sounds like you are doing everything right.

Stephanie

We reduced the opening to 1-2 bee size, but it has been in the 60-70’s here in Eastern WA and today I came home to a beard. We took off the reducer and they went in and there was no fighting. Ahhh I can sleep tonight! Thank you. 🙂

Eric
Reply

One of our hives was robbed absolutely dry and all of the pollen has been snatched, too! The queen is still there and there is a lot of capped brood. Should we pop the feeder back in there? If so, what ratio of sugar to water to ensure they can at least build some stores? Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Eric,

At this time of year I would go with 2:1.

manni
Reply

Hello.

I am a first year keeper too. And our winter in Oz was extremely cold and although my hive was very healthy and had a lot of capped frames prior to winter, my hive had died over the colder months. I went away on holidays for the winter and came back to a nonactive hive and when opened I only found 30 or so of my bees bundled in the very middle of the hive. There was still plenty of capped honey frames and no brood anywhere. I have taken out almost all of the frames with honey and cleaned up any that had signs of worms or anything other than healthy bee frames. (Found a colony of slugs in the bottom of the hive as an example.) I have left the hive down to one box with only very little honey inside. And immediately there was all this activity the next day (beginning of spring here) but I am positive it is only robbers.

Is there any chance that a new hive will swarm or some of the robbers may stay and start a new colony? What is the best next steps for me to take? Do I just close it up and buy a new package? Since it’s spring could I possibly trap a new swarm in there?

Please help.

Rusty
Reply

Manni,

A recently used hive make an excellent “bait hive.” If there are swarms in your area, you have a good chance that one will find your hive and move in. That said, many beekeepers increase the chances of it being found by adding a lure of some kind. I’m sure you can buy a commercial lure in Australia, or some people smear lemongrass oil on the landing board or put a few drops inside the hive.

Whether you catch a swarm has a lot to do with how many colonies live in your immediate area, and it’s entirely possible you won’t catch one, in which case you might want to buy a new package.

Nick
Reply

Hello there. I have a question about robbing. This is my first year beekeeping and so far it’s been a bitter sweet experience. I started with 2 hives this year, one of my hives swarmed last week (I don’t think I gave them enough space) and then it was shortly after. But my other hive I think was being robbed as well the next day. There was a lot of activity going on outside of the hive and some fighting. I checked inside the other day and noticed there was no bees in the bottom chamber, yellow jackets were going in and out at the entrance as well… My bees seemed to be hanging out in the brood box above the main chamber, it looked like there was now only 2 frames of bees in the hive but they have 16 deep frames full of capped honey.

They definitely don’t seem to be defending the hive entrance anymore. I blocked everything off hoping they will start defending again eventually. I’m not sure what type of bees mine are. They are grey to black so I was thinking they are carni. Not sure if this has anything to do with there small population now because this was a very active and seemingly strong hive or if they simply just been getting beat up by raiders.

Any suggestions would be highly appreciated, thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Nick,

By the time the wasps are freely moving in and out of the hive, things are in bad shape. You did the right thing by blocking the entrance, but now you should check to see if the queen is alive. Sometimes the wasps will kill the queen, and then your hive is in trouble. Also, you want to protect all that honey or it will be stolen if the bees can’t defend.

Two frames of bees going into winter doesn’t sound promising, regardless of the type of bee. Carnis keep smaller winter nests, but that is really small. Like I said, the first thing would be to look for your queen and see if there is any brood.

Alice
Reply

My goodness, your site is wonderfully helpful!

I have a quick question. About how long (on average) does it usually take bees to get used to having a robbing screen on the hive? I put one of the Brushy Mt robbing screens on a hive about three days ago (early in the morning before the bees were out) and there is still a pile of bees behind the screen trying to get out, and very few coming and going through the small top entrance. We are nearly into fall down here in the deep south, but there is still some pollen coming in. I had two hives robbed out completely last year, so I’m a bit paranoid. 🙂

Thank you!

Rusty
Reply

Alice,

I kept robbing screens on two small hives most of the summer and they still like to hang around behind the screen. They look like they’re stuck there, but the hives are functioning just fine so I don’t worry about it.

Alice
Reply

Rusty,
Thank you so much for your quick reply! I just went ahead and put robbing screens on all of my hives and will not worry if they do not all seem to “get it”. Thank you so much for all you have put into your fantastic site, and for taking time to help others.

Alice

Steve
Reply

I am a first year beek in New Zealand where it is autumn. I have two new-ish langstroth hives, one box high, one with Italians and the other with carni’s. Both suffered from varroa, and after 3 oxalic acid vaporiser treatments failed to control them, bayvarol strips were placed in both hives. Shortly afterwards the carni hive was severely robbed. To control the robbing, I reduced the entrance down, first to 75mm, then 50mm, and finally 1 bee width as the robbing continued. I put a frame of uncapped honey into the carni hive as all stores had been robbed. Today is a sunny day, and with virtually no activity outside the robbed hive, a quick check inside confirmed my fears. The uncapped honey is gone, many dead bees lay on the bottom board, and the remaining live bees are moving very slowly. Is there anything I can do to halt the collapse of this hive? Appreciate your advise.

Rusty
Reply

Steve,

The smell of the uncapped honey probably drew the robbers back. I doubt the colony is worth saving, but if it has a queen and there are enough bees to keep themselves warm, you can try. Remember though, they have zero food going into winter. Here’s a post you might want to read. It was very popular with your fellow beekeepers down in NZ: Should you try to save a failing colony?

Rusty
Reply

By the way, Steve. Protect your other colony from robbing. You don’t know if it was your bees or other bees that did the robbing, but you don’t want a repeat. I think beekeepers underestimate how often it happens.

Steve
Reply

Thanks Rusty, I appreciate the advise and found the article helpful.

Penny
Reply

Rusty,

I have not taken that final step to start keeping bees, I have no fear of them, in fact tend to play with the wild ones visiting my garden. I do not interfere with their gathering, but will offer my hand as a resting place. My friends think I am nuts, but it has been my experience that unless I agitate them, they are quite willing to take a break and let me observe them up close. My fear is that I will do something negligent out of ignorance that will cause their demise. It is all a new language to me, and I fear my new pets could come down with a condition that if I knew what I was doing could be prevented or cured if caught early enough. My other fear is that I live in southern Illinois and am smack in the middle of farm country, I would hate to bring an animal into my life just to have it poisoned by my neighbors. Am I being too cautious, or my fears really a detriment to having a few hives.

Thank you so much for your time.

Penny

Rusty
Reply

Penny,

You should go ahead and try it. You can never be totally prepared for the things that will happen. Even after decades of experience, beekeepers are often surprised by things that go right or wrong, but the trip is well worth the effort.

Kiwi
Reply

Hello Rusty,

I am a beginner beekeeper in NZ and appreciate all the information, advice and time you give to this site. For me it is invaluable to read differing opinions and solutions.

Just thought I would share my experience of robbing. Fortunately I was present when one of my hives came under attack. I had just fed the hive and was sure I hadn’t spilt any sugar solution. The more I watched the worst it got with an obvious line of flight of robber bees flying in from a neighboring apiary. I had read in “Practical Beekeeping in NZ’ to use a garden sprinkler to simulate rain so that is what I did. Set up the sprinkler to rain down over the hive Result – my bees went into their hive, the robbers left and the water washed away any sugar I may have spilt. Once things had settled down I turned the sprinkler off, reduced the hive entrance and kept a close eye on the hive. The robbers came back the following day so I turned the sprinkler on again and left it on for several hours. Fortunately they didn’t come back after the 2nd day but now I have experienced robbing I will certainly be more careful with my feeding. This event was obviously caused by me and could have devastated my hive had I not lingered to watch and enjoy my bees.

Rusty
Reply

Kiwi,

You were lucky to catch them in the act. By seeing it, you understand it, and you will be ready for the little mongrels in the future. Good work.

andy
Reply

Rusty- This past Sunday I went to check my hive and there was robbing going on(dead bees, fighting, etc.). I threw a wet beach towel over my hive and reduced the size of the entrance. The attackers kept it up and I made a screen and put it over my entrance. The attack continued on through Monday. Today I notice that my foragers are going out, but they have no pollen when they come back. Is this significant? I still have bees trying to get into my hive, but not nearly as many.

Rusty
Reply

Andy,

I don’t think the lack of pollen means anything. They bring in what they need the most. Brood nests are shrinking this time of year so they may be collecting less pollen. Keep on the robbers though. They may start up again.

Stosh Kowalski
Reply

So I noticed this morning I have a robbery in progress! I went over to check and see how things were looking (I went into the hive yesterday) and noticed bees rolling around on the landing board, attacking each other. Bees were also clustered around the edges of the telescoping top. Most interestingly, I noticed two instances where a workers physically grabbed another bee and flew off with it across the yard where I lost sight (is there a bee murder site somewhere out there?). When I lifted off the telescoping top to expose my screened inner cover it looked like a war zone. Must’ve been a hundred bees all there fighting each other (on top of the screen; not in the hive) and several dozen bodies. I immediately got my gear and started smoking the hive to confuse, well, everyone; I put in my entrance reducer, taking the front entrance down to about 1.5″, and adjusted the telescoping cover so the vents were smaller and in the rear of the hive (although if they get in they still can’t get through the screen). I also think I’m going to step out to the woodshop and make a robber screen as featured in one of your other robbing posts.

I guess my question is, how long do I leave the countermeasures in place? Will the robbers keep returning, or when do I open up the entrance? Frankly, I’m tempted to leave it in for a while because I’m fighting off a heavy varroa infestation right now (lost between 1/3-1/2 my colony I think) and it’s weak overall. Any other suggestions would be welcomed!

Rusty
Reply

Stosh,

I don’t want to go too deeply into it at the moment because I’m in the midst of preparing a post on the use of robbing screens. Long story short, I now leave them on some hives during the entire season. Really, there is no reason not too. And as you can see, the screened inner cover is much safer than propping the lid, which is why I never prop lids. In fact, I also close off my upper entrances as soon as the dearth begins.

For now, keep the entrance small, keep the top screened, and work on that robbing screen. Opening a hive often starts a robbing frenzy because we often inadvertently break honey cells and the smell floats out of the hive and alerts everyone for miles around. It’s normal; you just have to be ready for it.

Stosh Kowalski
Reply

Robber screen in place! We’ll see how it goes…. bodies everywhere and fighting still going on outside the hive. Just wish I could get them to wear uniforms so I’d know if I’m winning or losing!

Stosh Kowalski
Reply

May I ask how to completely stop a robbery, or how long it goes on? I’ve closed up the whole hive except for a 1.5″ entrance, put up a robber screen (which I think is keeping the robbing bees from going in), but 4 days into it, it’s still looking like a war zone. Got home early enough today to check on the hive before dark and there are still masses of bees fighting and dying on the platform the hive sits on and on the landing board (outside the robber screen though). How do I break this up? Otherwise I’m just going to eventually run out of workers. Even though it’s in the low 90s, should I go ahead and completely seal the hive until the weekend? Of course, that will mean the death of all my workers stuck outside too. 🙁 Options appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Stosh,

Robbing is really hard to stop. You can try throwing a wet blanket over the hive, which holds most of the scent in. You can try locking it down at night and moving it somewhere else. I just use robbing screens, but I put them on before it starts, which is a big help. You could try put out an open feeder away from your hives as a diversion. I don’t know an easy method.

Elena
Reply

Hi Rusty,

I got the recommended robbing screens on last night with one slide window open on each, upper right of the screen. Massive confusion with the girls this morning, coming back with pollen and bumping into the bottom of the screen. Hopefully, they’ll sort it out soon. I’m only seeing one of the “drone robbers” bumping into the bottom of the screen this morning. I’ll send a pic.

Charlie
Reply

First year beekeeper here. I did my first harvest two days ago and unknowingly set the harvested super in front of the hive. When I told my mentor what I’d done, he said I most likely created robber bees because once they get the taste of honey outside the hive, they become relentless in their pursuit of it and will possibly invade my other hive. I’ve been reading all the suggestions so far but wondering if there is anything in particular I can do to cause them to not become robbers. I’m already feeding them 2-1 sugar water inside the hive. The hive just swarmed about two weeks ago and the new queen hasn’t really gotten established yet. The hive is very strong with low mite count and no hive beetles. Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Charlie,

That’s the opposite question I usually get. I think the best you can do is protect your other hive from potential robbing by reducing their entrance and using a robbing screen.

Ellen
Reply

Hi Rusty, interesting reading all robbing Q&A here. I am also in NZ and observed robbing of our weak hive building up in front if my eyes. I put a screening and amazingly they just shifted to the stronger hive next door. As they were already in big numbers it looked overwhelming. Put robbing screening that one, tried sprinkler (short deterrence) and wet.

Last night we closed off both hives and with an open mesh bottom and a Warre style quilt/roof that should be fine.
Our theory was that any bees outside the hive in the morning would be robbers. BUT in between arriving bees I saw a couple with pollen.

This leads me to question: do some bees overnight elsewhere as they may have misjudged their journey?

They are all trying to get in, find a way, would our bees don’t also try tongued acway in? How can I distinguish any homecoming bees from robbers this early morning?

Thx, Ellen

Rusty
Reply

Ellen,

You are correct that robbers do not carry pollen. Other than that, their flight behavior is noticeably different. Still, you may have to just sacrifice any of your bees that stayed out overnight. Most will find their way in, but some will not.

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