Robbing is the bee behavior of stealing honey stores from a nearby hive, usually ending in the collapse of the hive that has been robbed.
Why do bees rob another hive?
It is standard knowledge that a strong antagonist or opportunist beehive will send out Scouts to locate vulnerable beehives during a fall nectar dearth in order to pinpoint and establish coordinates that will be delivered back to the offending hive. These coordinates will be used in the recruitment robber bees that will locate, invade and rob honey stores.
These devious scout bees work incessantly to gain access into other hives. When the robber bee scouts are successful, usually by persistence and sheer stealth, they need only to snatch a sample of honey from the defending hive and return home to recruit other cowardly bees. The recruiting of robber bees is remarkably exponential in nature and once a few bees begin robbing, soon becomes a constant stream of robber bees fighting to gain full access onto the victim colony's honey stores.
Robbing is a serious threat to the survival of the targeted hive.
Robbing is a serious problem and one of the biggest causes of hive collapses for beekeepers. Large colony hives or multiple hives have considerable advantage and can easily overpower the defenses of smaller colony’s hive. After the victim hive loses its defending guard bees the hive is open to any bee hives in the neighborhood. The robbing event has several components that are an enormous threat to backyard beekeepers, often leading to the complete loss of the home colony.
Learn how to identify robbing and how to stop it!
Robbing normally happens in the fall but it can also happen in the spring or during times of drought. In the fall, beekeepers often decide to begin harvesting honey from their hives, which will leave the bees frantic to find a replacement food source (usually the honey from another hive). In the spring, if temperatures are very warm and there is not enough rain for plants to start blooming, robbing can also occur.
Oftentimes targeted hives are thought to be the "weaker" hive. It is important to know that a hive targeted for robbing may be completely healthy in every way, it is only that it has a smaller number of bees compared to the hive that is preying on it. A colony of bees in the traditional Langstroth hives have an enormous numbers of bees in the colony because the size of the langstroth hive box compared to a warre or most topbar hives. This makes these smaller volume hives more vulnerable to robbing. The robbing situation is clearly proportionally disadvantageous to beekeepers who use smaller volume hive boxes and practice the beneficial management practices of leaving honey for the bees to over winter on vs the typical management style of a fall honey harvest.
The robbing problem is also intensifying as bee breeders are selecting from colonies that survive and one of the tactics for bees to survive better then their neighbor colonies, is to develop strong robbing behaviors. These queens with strong genetic robbing behaviors are selected as breeding stock and are sold as “package” bees to hobbyists. The robbing problem is also intensifying because more backyard beekeepers and hobbyists are getting into beekeeping, so hives are in much closer proximity to one another.
After fielding hundreds emails and calls from discouraged beekeepers each year who had to either relocate their hive or watch as their hive was devastated by robbing, we started to work on a solution.
Watch the video below to see our latest invention, the Robber Bee Scout Trap. Made with love and intention not just for beekeepers but for the bees. We are sure this new method will bring you some relief this year.
How did we do it? We set up a research apiary with 7 hives several years ago in a location that has many large apiaries nearby and had been known for intense robbing. Year after year we tried many different prototypes and each year we would be forced to remove and relocate the experimental hives, usually in a cloud of robbing bees.Two years ago we started having good success by actually trapping the robber scout bees and last year we were 100 percent successful at stopping the robbing at our experimental apiary.
Are my bees being robbed or are my bees just active?
Over time you will be able to tell if your hive is being robbed or if the activity you are seeing is something else, such as orientation flights of young bees or drones being kicked out in the fall.
In these scenarios you will see lots of activity at the front of the hive. Remember that robbing normally occurs during the fall, this is not a time you would be seeing orientation flights of young bees. But in the fall you would see some “wrestling” at the front of the hive when the drones are being kicked out.
Signs of robbing
It's a good idea to use this convenient checklist to begin training your eye to recognize robbing, which is not an easy job. Robbing involves a lot of subtle behaviors that can be easy to miss if you're not looking closely, and then all of the sudden most of your honey and many of your bees will be missing!
Robber bee awareness check list
1) Are there bees hovering around the sides and back of your hive?
2) Are there bees being hauled off the landing board that are alive ?
3) When you look into the window, do you observe bees that are scurrying along the window headed for the back of the hive?
More advanced stages of robbing and what to look for:
4) Is there tussling, scuffling or wrestling at the entrance of your hive ?
5) Are there honeycomb wax uncapping littered at the entrance?
6) Are there dead bees on the ground below the entrance?
7) is there more activity at the front of the hive then usual?
Observation is your friend when it comes to picking up robbing behavior. Pull up a chair, and start noticing the behavior of your bees. Bees that belong to your hive will be doing their usual maintenance and hive care, while bees that don't belong will look like they are surveying the scene.
Bees hanging around the back of the hive
Robber bees can often be seen hovering around the back of the hive, while your bees will have no need to be searching for a new entrance. In fact, robber bees often investigate by zigzagging back and forth in about four inch movements. This can get confused with the normal bee behavior of bobbing up and down, so noticing the difference may take some patience and a keen eye.
Bees fighting at the front of the hive or on the ground
This does not guarantee robbing, but if you see many fights happening on the landing board, on the ground at the front of the hive or bees hanging on the legs of intruder bees to remove them, this is one sign of robbing. Make sure it is worker bees fighting and not a worker bee and a drone who is being kicked out for the fall. If it is late summer you may see a large amount of dead bees on the ground in front of the hive. This can be an indication that there has been some fighting. Seeing dead bees during winter months at the front of the hive is normal, as the bees may not be able to carry the dead colony members in the cold temperatures. And you may still see this same pile of dead bees in the spring once the snow has melted.
Bees scurrying inside the hive
Looking through the window you may see some bees that have slipped past the guards and they are scurrying to the back of the hive to get to the honey stores. Over time you will be able to distinguish this from the colony just being in a bustling mode due to a heavy nectar flow. Seeing bees fighting inside the hive is a sure sign of intrusion from another colony.
Wax cappings on the front of the hive in large quantities
In this picture, with this large amount of cappings on the front of the hive, this hive has been taken over not only by robbers but a mouse as well. Robbers don't take their time to nicely uncap the honey stores as they are in a hurry to get out before being caught.
You may see combs that have jagged edges where it was once capped but chewed open by robbers.
If you look inside the hive you may see a large amount of wax cappings (crumbles) on the bottom of the hive floor.
What do I do if my hive is being robbed? Stop the robbing right away!
Robbing is difficult for new beekeepers to identify and is often mistaken for afternoon orientation flights or a strong nectar flow. After sitting with this problem for several years and have finally come up with a solution to stop robbing before it ever begins, our Robber Bee Scout Trap. With the trap installed before robbing season, it allows for instant detection the day that scouts begin probing the hive, because suddenly the beekeeper will observe bees getting caught in the trap.
The time it takes for the hive to collapse once robbing starts is a very short time span, usually in a day or two the hive is unrecoverable. There is very little a beekeeper can do once the robbing commences.
Some things we've tried in the past and other popular techniques are:
Putting a stick in the entrance
Putting grass in the entrance
Throwing a wet sheet over the hive
Screening off the entrance to one bee space is the typical defense, but used with minimal success. These solutions are very short term, the hive can quickly overheat in just a few hours and any entrance reducers must be removed. The targeted hive often looses substantial numbers of the colony due to the fighting and can never fully recover.
The sure-fire solution we've found is to move your hive three miles away from the robbing location.
If your hive is being robbed as we speak, then it is important to take action now!
Watch this video to find out how we can address robbing immediately with things you may have lying around:
Look for other openings that robber bees may be entering the hive
If a hive is really getting robbed out, sometimes robbers have found an additional opening into the hive. Check that there are not some top bars or spacers that have a gap between them. And check that bees are not able to get through the back of the hive
Feeding bees can stimulate robbing
Always be careful when feeding a hive and always feed the bees with a dish inside the hive. Putting an open dish of honey outside the hive will attract bees and yellow jackets from all over. Even with the feeding dish inside the hive, the smell of open honey will be an attractant for others. (Read our Winter Feeding article) Consider closing off part of the entrance with screen mesh (if the bees have not propolised the entrance themselves) to reduce down the entrance.
If the hive has been robbed out and there is still a colony of bees, you will want to reduce down the entrance (with the screen) to an opening where only one or two bees can fit through. If you need to build them back up, carefully feed them (Read our Winter Feeding article) or combine them with a stronger hive.