Honeybees and Robbing

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Ford
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Robbers – we’re not talking about the human variety, but honeybee robbers. I love just about everything that beekeeping offers, but dealing with a robbing situation is one of my least favorite parts. Unfortunately a few weeks ago we had to deal with some robbing going on in our beeyard.

This summer we decided to try our hand at making some nucleus colonies – “nucs” for short. These are small starter hives that we are hoping to overwinter. Since the nucs were doing well we decided to open them up to add another super to give them more room to expand. Hindsight is 20/20 – we probably should never have opened them up right then. Let me explain why. First, we were in-between nectar flows – the spring/summer wildflowers were starting to go to seed, and the fall flowers such as goldenrod and asters had not yet begun to bloom. Secondly, we had not had a good rainfall in several weeks.  This can reduce the amount of nectar in the available flowers. This is called a “dearth”, and this lack of available nectar can lead to robbing. Honeybees forage for nectar and pollen to make honey, beeswax, and the other materials they need to survive. When nectar and pollen are hard to come by they may try to “forage” in other hives – this is what we call robbing. 

The morning after we did some work on the nucleus hives, we noticed a lot of activity near their entrances. From a distance this can look like a good thing. After all, who doesn’t like to see a healthy, active beehive? But it can also be a sign of a serious problem. I put on my beesuit to get a closer look. When I looked at the nucleus hives up close I quickly realized that a robbing situation was going on. First, there were many bees flying around the hive as if they were looking for a way to get in – they seemed to be almost “frenzied” – not what a typical hive looks like. These bees were trying to find a way in without going by the guard bees, unlike the bees that live in the hive that would know exactly where to go. Secondly, I could see bees fighting with each other near the entrance to the hives and several dead bees around the entrances. We wanted to stop this quickly – the nucs are very small hives, and if they lose too many bees, or too much honey, they may not be able to make it through winter.

Preventing robbing is the best defense. However, if robbing has already started, there are some ways to stop it, or to protect a small or weaker hive. One trick we have learned over the years is get an old bed sheet, wet it down, and drape it over the hive so that the edges touch the ground. The bees who live there will find their way under the sheet and to the hive, but the robber bees will not. We quickly put two wet sheets over the four nucs to stop the robbing.

Another very important thing to do is to reduce the size of the entrance to the hive. This helps the guard bees to be able to defend the entrance to the hive. As shown in this picture, we used some shims and tacks to reduce the entrance to the size of just one bee.  You can use just about anything you want, but it’s important to get the entrance reduced. We also tacked screen over the upper entrances to block access, but still allow for ventilation.

We kept the sheets over the hives for about two days. I used a watering can to wet them down periodically to keep them from drying out. After removing the sheets I kept a close eye on the hives for a few days in case the robbing started up again. However, we were lucky and did not see further signs of robbing. Mother Nature also helped out, as the day after I removed the sheets we had an all day, steady rain. This kept all of the bees at home, and may have helped to stop the robbing. I left the entrances reduced for a few weeks until the fall nectar flow had begun, and the bees would be busy harvesting that nectar source. 

My advice to any new beekeeper would be to try to prevent robbing at all costs, as it leads to the unnecessary loss of bees and honey. Do not open hives if you suspect that there is a dearth of nectar, such as during a drought or at the end of a blooming season. If you must open a hive during a dearth, try to work quickly so they are not open for a long time, and open them closer to dusk, so neighboring hives do not have a chance to begin robbing. Also be prepared to check on them frequently for any signs of robbing.

If you do notice robbing occurring, act quickly to stop it. Robbing only gets worse with time, not better. Reducing the entrance is a must!  Putting a wet sheet over the hive will also deter robbers. 

As always, different beekeepers have many different ways of dealing with robbing. It’s always worth asking local beekeepers what works for them and doing a search online for other ways to control robbing since many options exist.With some good planning, you should be able to avoid most robbing situations.

Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith.  You can visit them at beesofthewoods.com.

Photos by Jennifer Ford and Keith Freeman