Once, while taking a casual stroll through the apiary, I noticed something odd.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and it seemed to be business as usual in most of the hives except one.
Around the entrance, there seemed to be some kind of commotion.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was most likely witnessing bees robbing the hive, but I was very new to beekeeping, so I didn’t get too close, but I kept watching them.
It seemed to me like a welcoming party gone rogue. Bees flying in circles. And for whatever reason, they couldn’t find the entrance of the hive.
I thought that perhaps the weather had something to do with it. It was a particularly warm day, and I figured perhaps they were celebrating the rare siting of the sun since the weather had been quite chilly. Looking back on that day, what I probably witnessed was a case of bee robbing.
You, too, will most likely experience a similar bee-robbing frenzy at some point during your beekeeping journey. Thus, it is important that you not only know what to do to prevent hive robbing but also be able to stop robber bees after you’ve identified their presence.
Robbing Bee Behavior Explained: Why Honey Bees Rob Other Hives
Understanding first what bee robbings are all about will help you to successfully stop bees that are robbing your hives.
Luckily, beekeeping terminology tends to be pretty straightforward. In this case, robbing simply refers to bees from one hive taking it upon themselves to raid and rob the honey pantry of another hive. Just because the tiny creatures are enterprising doesn’t mean they don’t have their vices.
As long as the weather allows, bees are geared toward storing food in preparation for a season of scarcity. As long as there’s an empty, usable comb in the hive, they’ll be working hard to fill it up. I envy their sense of purpose.
Sometimes, nature plays a nasty trick and provides good foraging weather yet no nectar. Sometimes humans help with the elimination of wildflowers which cuts of the bees supply.
Whatever the case, the bees don’t stop looking for food. And when this happens, the bees begin to search and look for other hives to rob.
How Robbing Bees Can Significantly Impact a Hive if You Don’t Stop Them
Robbing bees are dangerous in many ways and can negatively affect your honey bees if robbing behavior goes unchecked.
The first and most obvious is that it can result in multiple bee deaths and possibly wipe out a colony.
Second, robbing bees can also spread mites and diseases across hives, watering down the efforts you have made to keep your colonies healthy.
Third, it may encourage a beekeeper to rear queens from a certain colony, having mistaken high harvest as efficiency. Yet, a significant portion of the harvest could have been robbed from another hive.
The main reason robbing occurs is that beekeepers exist. When we put several hives within a few feet of each other, we cause an anomaly that probably wouldn’t occur naturally.
Therefore, it is our responsibility to deal with it, and the responsible thing to do is to prevent robbing bees before this behavior occurs.
Understanding Robbing Bees: A Fierce Bee Robbing Scenario Played Out
So imagine you’re a foraging bee, and you’ve visited your usual nectar spot only to find nothing. Then a light breeze delivers the scent of stored nectar, filling your senses and beckoning loudly for you to collect your share.
You couldn’t possibly say no, so you follow that scent. But you’re not the only one. Your sisters also got a whiff of the good stuff, and they are right behind you.
With the drive for sugar being paramount and overpowered by the urge like a bee possessed, you and your sisters head straight in through the entryway of this new hive, fighting with the gatekeepers at the entrance yet spurred on by the possibility of sweet victory.
Some of your sisters fall in the fight, but the cause is too great to turn back. Fortunately for you, the enemy is small in number, and you quickly overcome them, leaving a trail of death as you claim your prize in liquid gold. It’s the bee equivalent of Game of Thrones.
The strong overpower the weak and take everything from themselves. They don’t take prisoners, and they’re not keen on survivors, so they may even kill the queen. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of why and how honey bees rob other hives.
Bees of the Italian variety are particularly notorious robber bees. They tend to be prolific, and their numbers multiply very fast. As a result, in times of dearth, they have way more mouths to feed than other races, such as Carniolans or Caucasians.
Although they are known to be calm, they are more aggressive than the latter two races. That said, any bee race is capable of this robbing behavior.
3 Instances When Hive Robbings Are Most Likely to Occur
Three instances increase the likelihood of robber bees. Having a better understanding of these instances will help you to prevent and even stop robbing behavior eventually.
1. Nectar Dearth
Whenever food is scarce, looting begins. When spring hits, blooms from different types of trees and wildflowers, and the neighborhood gardens and lawns are filled with a buzz of activity.
In a few short weeks, you welcome summer, and by then, the blooms that nourished our six-legged friends have transformed into fruits and seeds of various varieties, which is great for our pallet but leaves nothing for the bees.
The promise of anti-oxidants and body cleanses isn’t enough to get bees to switch diets, and they are still on the hunt for nectar. It’s still warm, so they are actively searching outside the hive for good sources of nectar. If, at that time, they come across a small colony that has put aside some food for a rainy day, then they seize the day.
2. Hive Inspections
Whenever you take a peek inside the hive, you create an enormous entryway giving outsiders direct access to the honey stores. Since honey is stored in frames closest to the roof/outer cover, opening the hive creates vulnerability of the stores, and bees from the other hives in your apiary are quick to take advantage of this.
3. External Feeders
If a feeder is located outside the hive, then it attracts more than just one colony. It’s like an invitation to explore the new frontier with a guaranteed reward.
How to Identify Robbing Bees in Your Hive
Identifying bees that are trying to rob your hive is the first step towards actually stopping robber bees. Since they don’t have cartoon masks around their eyes like Zorro, it takes some experience to identify robbing bees.
The following three situations will help you identify if you’re dealing with robbing bees.
Commotion Around the Hive
A robbing bee darts around in front of the hive seeking an opportunity to fly right into the hive. Wasps do the same thing. They don’t have the usual courtesy to land on the landing board and politely seek admission. That wouldn’t work anyway.
Their plan is to literally barge in, and they don’t even care enough to cause a distraction. This is quite hard to spot, and most of us are alerted to the robbers’ presence when a robbing situation is in progress.
Bees Fighting at the Entrance & In and Around the Hive
You will notice a lot of commotion, and if you move closer, you will find bees fighting each other. You are also likely to find the area around the hive littered with dead bees. In a few sad cases, you may find a robbery in progress that seems to be peaceful.
What’s likely to have happened in that scenario is that the weaker hives were quickly overpowered. If that’s the case, the invading robber bees will be leaving the weaker hive on full stomachs. Once again, this is a little hard to spot, but there are tell-tale signs that they are shipping off the goods. They tuck in their hind legs when their honey stomachs are full.
If you take a peek into the hive, you will also notice that the honeycomb has been torn apart quite roughly. Robbers have no time for finesse.
At the end of the robbing event, you could lose a swarm and potentially harvestable honey.
5 Ways to Stop Robbing Bees After You’ve Confirmed Hive Robbing Behavior
It’s not going to be easy, but you definitely need to salvage the situation once you notice the robbery in progress. Here are five methods recommended by beekeepers when they need to stop bees from robbing.
1. Close Off the Hive
This is your first line of defense when it comes to stopping robber bees.
You can use some leaves or blades of grass and stuff them in the entrance. It allows air in, and the bees can push it out later when things calm down. The idea is to keep as many of the intruders out.
2. Apply Vapor Rub Around the Entrance
Applying a vapor rub or chest rub like this allows you to mask the scent of the hive and serves to confuse the robbers. The natives don’t suffer this confusion, so they can still make their way into the hive.
3. Open the Other Hives in the Apiary
In an attempt to stop robbing bees, some beekeepers will opt to open other hives in their apiary.
This forces the bees of each hive to rush and defend their own territory. The problem with this strategy is that it assumes the robbers are from the same apiary, which might not be the case. If the robbers are from elsewhere, then you may have caused even more problems.
4. Wrap a Wet Towel Around the Hive
It confuses the robbing bees, keeps the hive cool, and the locals can still find their way into the hive.
5. Move the Hive
If you have another space available a couple of miles away, close to the hive and take it away. If you don’t have that option, then you can move the hive under attack within the apiary and place a saucer of honey in its place.
Robbers tend to keep at it until they have taken every last drop of honey they can find from their victims. Placing the little bit of honey there convinces them that the robbery is still on.
Once they’ve cleared the saucer, they move out, and that’s that. But you should keep the hive away and close it off until nightfall just to be safe.
4 Ways to Prevent Bees from Robbing Your Hives (Now and in the Future)
If pesky robbers have already set their sights on their target hive and by now have a presence, then it may already be too late for the following prevention methods now.
However, moving forward, there are methods that you can implement now as a beekeeper to reduce the likelihood of dealing with robber bees in the future.
The following are four tried and true robber bee prevention methods that you can use to help stop future robbing bees.
1. Limit Your Hive Inspections During a Dearth
Opening up the hive releases all sorts of scents into the air, including the enticing aroma of honey. Setting a frame of honey aside in the open is like a loud gong beckoning non-resident bees to come and get it.
If you do need to get into the hive, don’t dally. Keep the time that the hive is open to an absolute minimum.
2. Use Entrance Reducers
The hive is a vault. It houses two precious commodities, bees and honey. When you think of a vault, then you may have a better idea of how to prevent robbing. The first thing to do is to reduce the size of the entrances with something like this to the hive.
Most vaults will only have one access point, and the process of getting intends to be quite complicated, which limits those who could possibly have access.
Reducing hive entrances makes it difficult for a large number of bees to access the hive at once. The smaller the entrance, the easier it is for guard bees to inspect each entrant to the hive. If you smell different, you are denied admission.
Reducing the entrance works best before the heist begins. That’s why it’s important to understand the nectar flow in your area. Once you sense a dearth, reduce the entrance of the hive. Don’t wait for the robbing to begin.
If you have a smaller, weaker colony, you can keep the entrance reducer throughout the season. Space allows the bees to move in and out of the hive easily enough, even though there might be a little bit of a traffic jam at the entrance.
3. Avoid Using Entrance Feeders or Open Feeders Near a Hive
When a couple of worker bees stumble upon the scent of syrup nearby and investigate, they could catch a whiff of honey from the hive next door where the feeder is. In times of a dearth, always go for an internal feeder.
Be careful to ensure you don’t spill any syrup around the hive because that, too, can spark off a robbing frenzy.
4. Get a Robbing Screen
This is a fixture you can buy or make yourself. The idea is to confuse the robber bees. Bees rely more on scent rather than sight to go about their business. When the sweet smell beckons the robbers, they follow it to the entrance of the hive, but they don’t really have the smarts to figure out how to get around the screen placed in front of the hive.
The inhabitants know their way around, so they figure their way in and out of the hive. The foreigners get stuck trying to get through this force field, and that gives the guards at the entrance the upper hand since the ‘secret’ passageways on the side slow the robbers down.
Can You Adopt Robbing Bees?
Yes, you can. Once they’ve made their way into a hive and you whisk them away to another location, you can get them to join the new hive, but it can’t be situated in the same apiary, at least not at first.
Robbing bees tend to be older worker bees, so they have a map of their surroundings and will always go home if the home is simply a few yards away.
If the hive is moved about 3 miles away, the bees have to adapt to their new surroundings and can be assimilated into the new colony.