Robbing is precisely what it sounds like. Bees from other colonies enter your hives and take your honey if they are experiencing a shortage. The invaders will fight your bees, steal the loot, and wreak havoc on your colony.
A busy hive has a lot of activity at the entrance, but scavenging bees' typical behavior looks distinct from robbing. Many new beekeepers often mistake a robbing situation for high traffic volume and increased productivity. That's a common mistake, but don't fall into the trap. Beat the buzz and learn how to recognize and prevent hive robbing.
Recognizing Robbing Behavior
Working bees move with a purpose; they come straight out of the hive and move away quickly. They are weighed down with nectar and pollen and land solidly when returning to their hive.
Other times, regular activity at the hive's entrance appears unusually busy when young worker bees take their orientation flights. They orientate themselves to the beehouse by hovering up, down, and back and forth, facing the hive. You'll see several young bees moving around the front of the colony, but there's nothing hostile or frantic about their exploration.
Contrary to these everyday busy situations, robbing appears violent and sinister. Here are some of the warning signs you may see:
- Intruder bees move toward the hive without the weight of nectar. They won't go right into the entrance. Instead, they hover around, waiting for an opportunity to slip past the guard bees.
- Bees fighting with each other at the entrance or on the ground in front of the hive. These are the guard bees defending their colony against intruders. They are engaging in mortal combat, which is a sure indication of robbing.
- Robbing bees leave the colony heavily weighed down with honey rather than empty-handed, making flight tricky. They tend to climb up to the top of the hive before flying away.
Why Does Robbing Occur?
There's no set reason why robbing occurs. Truthfully, it can happen anytime throughout the active bee season. However, for intruders to rob, they need something to take. In other words, the colony must have an adequate honey supply for robbing to occur.
But there is another factor that influences robbing patterns. One colony begins to struggle, and another takes advantage. For example, one colony has an influx of varroa mites, and their queen dies suddenly, along with a large percentage of the population. Another hive tests its limits and attempts to enter the other beehouse until it gets through and takes the remaining honey.
Hive robbing may seem inevitable, but there are several things you can do to prevent it. Consider these tips.
Maintain Solid Colonies
The easiest way to deter robbing is by having a robust colony. A large, healthy population of bees will undoubtedly protect their hive from any possible prowlers.
Following proper beekeeping practices will help you develop a group strong enough to defend itself and its beloved honey. Another way to ensure that you continuously maintain a strong colony is to purchase your bees with intent. The B Farm has varroa-resistant bees for sale that are a great way to help prevent a weakened population within your hive.
Use an Entrance Reducer
Although strong colonies are the best defense, sometimes a weakened colony is inescapable. Maybe a queen dies, and you allow the colony to replace her naturally. Or perhaps the colony needs additional feeding. In these cases, reducing the beehouse entrance is crucial.
A simple fix is to use an entrance reducer or clumps of grass to limit the access to the size of a single bee. The smaller gap makes it easier for the weak colony to defend it. Another method is using a robbing screen, a specialized entrance reducer that makes it quite difficult for potential intruders to enter the beehouse.
Never leave honey out in the open, especially near the hive during a shortage. Easy access tends to encourage a robbing situation. If you're using an in-hive feeder, ensure the only access is from the inside. Additionally, avoid using a Boardman feeder—but if you do, be sure that it's entirely inside the hive. Lastly, don't use any feeding device that leaks, as they can serve as open invitations.
Always use caution when handling sugar syrup, and avoid feeding your bees out in the open. The slightest amount anywhere but in the feeder can trigger disaster. Avoid spilling even a single drop when feeding your bees. Also, when harvesting honey, keep it covered after removing it from the colony.
Stopping a Robbing Attack
Don't waste a second if you see a robbing situation in progress. Use one or more of the following suggestions to cease robbing and prevent catastrophe:
- Get into your protective gear and light up your smoker as calmly as possible. Use the smoker to make your way to the hive safely.
- Find any possible entrances and block them off. Narrowing the entrance to the hive is still a good option even after a robbing situation is underway. However, use caution if the temperature has turned hot, as it may weaken air circulation.
- Soak a bed sheet in water and use it to cover the hive under attack. The sheet prevents raiding bees from finding the entrance. Your bees shouldn't have trouble finding their way in and out. Refresh the sheet as needed during dry, hot weather. Be sure to remove it after one or two days, as robbing behavior should cease by that point.
After stopping a detrimental situation in its tracks, your next major goal is determining what the colony needs to build back enough strength to defend itself.
As previously mentioned, there's no specific reason a robbing situation occurs. However, now you know how to recognize and prevent hive robbing.
Remember that using preventative measures is always better than de-escalating a violent situation that has already started. You may end up with low amounts of honey, several dead bees, and a weak colony that possibly won't make it through the winter if you cannot stop it in time.