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Robbing bees prey on the weak

Robbing is a term used by beekeepers to describe bees that raid another hive and take all of the honey back to their own hive. Robbing is particularly prevalent during nectar dearths that occur in the warm months of summer or early fall.

The robbing bees may come from within an apiary or from neighboring areas. At first glance the cloud of robbers may look like a small swarm or a group orientation flight but, on closer inspection, the beekeeper will see that the robbing bees are all older foragers. They are in a frenzy, and there may be fighting at the entrance. Although fighting is a sure sign of robbing, if the bees in the invaded hive have already surrendered or the guards have been killed, fighting may be absent.

Robbing is triggered by the smell of honey. It often starts just after a beekeeper has opened a hive for inspection, for feeding, or to remove honey supers. In less than an hour after opening, a hive may be engulfed in a black cloud of invaders.

Robbers are not at all gentle or neat. They rip cells open, leaving waxy shards on the bottom board and jagged, rough edges on the comb. They may kill many bees, including the queen, to get what they want. Although they leave at nightfall, they will be back bright and early the next morning. Robbing is always a case of the strong preying on the weak.

It is difficult to stop robbing once it starts, but here are some things you can try:

  • Completely cover the hive with a wet sheet to keep the invaders from getting in.
  • Close up the hive completely for several days until the robbers give up. Be sure to provide feed, pollen, water, and ventilation for the confined colony.
  • If you don’t have screens, reduce entrances and fill remaining openings with grass.

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.

Rusty

Comments

Jeff
Reply

I had a colony swarm yesterday and while I was waiting for the bees to settle out I decided to add a frame feeder to a starter nuc to get them off to the races. The sugar syrup was laced with anise oil.

Anyway when I went back last evening just before dark I could see the bees flying from my old colony into the nuc and back to the old colony that just split. I think they got the scent of the anise sugar syrup and started to rob even though we have a strong nectar flow on the go (clover flow started over the weekend).

So I stapled some fly screen over the the vent cover hole and I reduced the bottom entrance down to only a single bee being able to get through. I’m really hoping this will deter the robbing. If this works I cannot use the anise flavoring as the bees go nuts for it.

When I saw this last night there was little resistance from the nuc and no sign of dead bees on the landing board. After I placed the reducer on this morning there were a few bees walking in and out so I hope this will address the issue.

If this doesn’t work my only other option is to move the nucs. Also this colony was queenless for a while, she was only released Saturday and has been in that colony for a while.

I think the other colonies have experienced some robbing too, or at least attempted robbing. Damn those Italian bees.

I have noticed some other bees fighting at different nucs. Maybe going forward I will leave the sugar syrup unscented so it doesn’t attract the queen colony.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

I don’t use anise oil unless the reducers are in because I have seen bees robbing it as well. Usually bees don’t rob during a honey flow, so that is unusual. I sometimes have to feed in the fall if there hasn’t been enough honey stored. That’s the time I use the anise oil–when the reducers are already in. I also add it to sugar cakes if I need to feed in the winter. Robbing, of course, isn’t a problem in winter.

Jeff
Reply

Thanks Rusty. I reduced the entrance down to one bee passing at a time. It looks like there may be one or two bees getting by to rob but it is nothing like the other evening when it was a steady stream. On my inner cover I have a 3″ x 3/8″ slot to allow bees to enter and exit and allow ventilation. I took some window screen (hardware cloth) and stapled over it to force the bees to use the entrance reducer down to one bee passing at a time. It has really made a difference. If I get the chance I plan to top up the frame feeder with un-adulterated sugar syrup to help build comb. Our short summers really make it difficult to allow 100% nectar drawn comb. Once the bees are through their first year though a spring feeding may or may not be required.

saffy
Reply

I had a hive that I checked last Tuesday from a nuc that I installed in april. They were doing great honey stores lots of brood queen right, then the following day I think the hive was robbed. weathers been bad got to look in today no honey stores, even some brood cap is damaged cant see queen and can see no eggs or larve!!! do you think I need to requeen? My queen wasn’t marked so how can I check for sure before putting another queen in??

Rusty
Reply

Saffy,

You can just scan each side of each frame. Or if you are uncomfortable with that you can shake each frame over a box covered with a queen excluder. The workers will go through, but the queen can’t. It’s a pretty intrusive maneuver, though. I would stick with scanning.

Russ
Reply

I have had two of my 4 hives robbed by outside hives. I watched them leave the area. They killed a lot of bees and both queens. They were a first-year hive and we had a very dry summer. I added inside feeders not long ago hoping it would help them survive. This is a huge blow to my hives and too late to get new queens. I read previous posts and had already had the entrance closed down to a one bee opening. I made my own sliding door reducer.

I have been plagued by beetles and wax moths after 4 years with dire results. I have read books, online posts and even talked to a local apiary with different suggestions from each. Any recommendations?

Rusty
Reply

Russ,

It’s nearly impossible to diagnose a problem from a distance. In general, though, all the things you mention are the result of colonies that are on the weak side: robbing, moths, and beetles are usually less of a problem in very strong colonies.

So I would look at why those colonies were weaker than the other two. Did you test for mites? Usually, that’s where I start to look because that’s the most common cause of weak colonies these days. Also, is it possible the queens were not strong? Weak queens in the fall can cause problems, too.

For future reference, you could consider equalizing the strength of your colonies before fall. Also, I like to use robbing screens rather than just a really small entrance. In many cases, the small entrance tells the robbers right where to go because all the scent is coming out of one little spot. I’ve found that robbing screens give a much better result.

You will always find a host of different answers because each colony is different. Like children, no two are the same, so there isn’t one answer that will work in all situations.

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