Hive Robbing: Keeping Your Colony Safe

What Does Hive Robbing Behavior Look Like?

Hive Robbing: Keeping Your Colony Safe

We actually had a small honey harvest our first year of beekeeping! It was also the year we saw first-hand what hive robbing could look like. After running the frames through the extractor, we realized there was still a bit of honey left in those cells. Being the “new-bees” we were, we didn’t want it to go to waste. So, we put 20 freshly extracted frames out on our front patio. The bees will come to take the excess and put it to good use, right?

Oh yeah. They came.

A short while later my phone rang. It was my neighbor.

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“Um. I think there’s a swarm of bees on your front porch.”

We had created a feeding frenzy. While this wasn’t really a flock of robber bees, in the traditional sense, I gained a real understanding of what robbing might look like.

What is Hive Robbing and What Does it Look Like?

Honey bees are efficient, opportunistic collectors of resources. If given the choice, they’ll stay close to the hive to forage for water, pollen, and nectar.  Of course, if the resources they need aren’t close by they will fly long distances to get what they need – as far as 5 miles from home.

What I did after that first late summer extraction was create a large depot of resources within 100 feet of two honey bee hives. It was irresistible and, in short order, they showed up in droves. There would be no stopping them until the sun went down – and even then, a few stragglers stuck around and spent the night.

This is essentially what robbing is. 

Hive robbing is an almost desperate commitment, en masse, to maximizing a resource. Only, in robbing, that resource belongs to another colony. Bees from one (or more) colonies enter the hive of and steal from another colony.

When you see honey bee robbing, you’ll know. It looks like insanity. Bees are buzzing all around the hive, darting forward and back, desperately looking for a way in. The amount of bees is massive – as much or more than mid-summer orientation time or even a pre-swarm – and continues to increase. Fighting occurs are the entrance as the guard bees of the robbed hive tries their best to defend the colony. It’s a mess.

Why Does Hive Robbing Occur?

For robbing to occur there has to be something to rob. While that sounds simple (and obvious!) digging into the details of the food availability is important. 

It’s early August in Colorado as I write this article. In my backyard are two hives or varying size, both with substantial stores of honey. At another apiary is the same situation. Both have plenty of food available inside, yet no robbing occurs.

Now, let’s imagine one of my colonies begins to struggle. Perhaps the queen dies unexpectedly or they are overcome by varroa mites. As their population decreases, foragers from other colonies begin to test the limits – “can I get inside this hive?” Eventually, the ability of the weak hive to defend itself is overcome by the persistence and sheer numbers of the interested foragers. Honey bee robbing begins.

When Does Hive Robbing Occur?

In truth, robbing can (and will) occur at any time during the active bee season. As I mentioned, bees are opportunistic and if they have the chance to grab a large, easily accessible bounty of honey from another hive, they will do it in a heartbeat.

In Colorado, robbing tends to happen most frequently in early spring and late summer.

In early spring, our bees are coming out of winter and populations are growing. That’s more mouths to feed on the dwindling stores they carried through the winter. With the natural sources of food just beginning to kick off, the foragers might be desperate. 

Often added to this is the beekeeper.

Maybe one of your colonies came through winter a bit on the weak side.  Maybe they ate their way through house and home. You decide to feed them sugar syrup to give them a boost — a necessary act of husbandry.

If they are weak and that sugar syrup is easily accessible to “outsiders,” robbing can occur. 

In the late summer, the population of bees is still quite large (though starting to shrink) and, at least where I live, available flowers are beginning to dwindle away. This is, again, a recipe for desperate foragers who will quickly take advantage of “easy” access to food.

Does Hive Robbing Harm the Hive?

Robbing absolutely harms the colony. A colony is being robbed because it has been overwhelmed. Eventually, all their food stores will be taken. Worse, they offending thieves may end up killing the robbed out colony.

How to Prevent Hive Robbing

The good news is, there’s a lot you can do to prevent robbing! Here are few things to consider:

Keep Strong Colonies: The greatest deterrent to robbing is a strong colony. A large, healthy colony of bees will easily fend off any thievery — not just from other bees, but from wasps, moths, even mice!  Maintaining quality beekeeping practices will go far in cultivating a colony strong enough to defend themselves.

Reduce Access: Sometimes you run into a situation in which a weak colony is out of your control. Perhaps a queen died and you let them naturally replace her — a break in the brood at a time when other local colonies are continuing to grow. Or, as mentioned above, a particular colony needs supplemental feeding of sugar syrup. In these cases, reducing access for robbers is critical. One simple way to do that is to shrink the size of the entrance. The smaller space the weak colony has to defend, the easier it is to defend it. Another method is using a robbing screen. This is a specialized entrance reducer that makes entrance into the hive, for bees not from that hive, quite challenging. 

Feed Intelligently: Have a weak colony you need to feed? By all means, do it! But do it smartly. If you’re using an in-hive feeder make sure the ONLY access is from inside. For example, make sure the box around your hive-top feeder doesn’t have holes or gaps that allow uninvited visitors from outside. If you’re using a Boardman feeder at your entrance, make sure it is fully inside the hive, doesn’t leak, and perhaps consider reducing the entrance size beside it. Lastly, do not use any feeding equipment that leaks. A leak, anywhere, is an open invitation to hungry bugs and critters. 

robbing-screen
Robbing screen – photo provided by Rusty Burlew

Can Robbing Be Stopped Once it Starts?

Possibly. As calmly as you can, light up your smoker and don your protective gear. Use the smoker to get to the hive and significantly reduce — or close up entirely — the main entrance. Find any other possible entrances and close them up. You could even cover the hive in a lightly dampened bed sheet. Leave things like that for at least the rest of that day. Tomorrow, your primary goal should be to find out what this colony needs to get strong enough to defend themselves.

We left those frames on our front patio until after dark, all the while watching through our front window and listening to the loud buzzing. I’d never seen so many bees and wasps so actively buzzing about in such a small space! Well after sunset, when it was dark and cool, I went outside and collected the frames, gently shaking off the bees who stuck around for the after party. I cleaned the patio of all the battleground’s remnants. Dead bees and wasps, bits of wax, honey on the concrete, and all the hive equipment.

It was a good day or two before the foragers stopped looking for their free lunch up there.

I’m just grateful UPS wasn’t scheduled to deliver that day!

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