Once your bee colony is established and producing honey you will have to be on the lookout for robbers. You see, bees from one colony will actually try to steal honey from another colony. In beekeeping this is called robbing, and the bees are called robber bees. A successful beekeeper must know how to identify robber bees, as well as prevent them.
What are Robber Bees
Robber bees are technically forager bees. It is their job to collect food within their flight range. Their flight range is usually 2 miles from their hive. The food they collect is normally pollen and nectar, but robber bees are after honey.
Robber bees enter another hive with the intention of stealing that colony’s honey. To do so they must open the capped cells and then store the honey in one of their stomachs (bees have 2 stomachs). They then return home to their hive. Robbing is not easy for them and they often fight other bees to do so.
To them, this is just typical foraging behavior and they don’t consider this stealing. They are simply after more resources for their own colony.
The first robber bee is a scout bee that will find a weaker colony to infiltrate. She will fight with the guard bees to gain entrance to the hive. After taking honey she will return to her hive and recruit other bees to steal more honey.
Robber bees will enter the hive through any means possible, not just through the entrance. Any holes and cracks in the hive are susceptible to letting in robber bees. Resident bees will fight robber bees to protect their honey stores, and this will sometimes lead to death for either bee.
The colony will try to defend against robber bees, but since robbers only target weaker colonies it can be difficult for the defending hive to stop a large amount of robber bees. They simply do not have enough bees to stop a large colony. That’s why it’s important for beekeepers to know how to identify robber bees and more importantly, how to stop them.
Why do Bees Rob?
Bees rob because they simply want to collect as much resources as they can. That includes pollen, nectar, and even another colony’s honey.
Robber bees purposely choose a weaker or poorly guarded hive to rob. To them, robbing another hive is no different than foraging nectar from plants. These bees are after honey only, and do not take pollen or damage brood.
While robbing can occur at any time of the year, it is most common during the late summer or early fall, when nectar isn’t as plentiful. You will notice that robbing is infrequent when nectar is abundant.
How to Identify Robber Bees
Robber bees will continue to attack a weak hive day after day, if the beekeeper does not intervene. That’s why it is important to learn how to identify robber bees. If you wait too long to take action your colony will be wiped out, and your honey all gone.
One of the first signs a beekeeper may notice is that their previously weak hive is suddenly seeing a lot of activity and a lot of bees. While it may seem like your colony has abruptly gained in numbers, the truth is that your hive may be dealing with robber bees.
Other signs of robber bees require you to be more observant. You may notice bees fighting around the hive. This may occur in the air or at the hive entrance. Because of the fighting that happens with robbing, you will also see dead bees around the hive.
Bees involved in robbing and defending the hive may look different. Bees will lose their hair during the fight so their bodies look shiny and black. Your hive might be noisier than usual too, as robber bees are louder than regular bees.
As I mentioned earlier, robber bees don’t only go through the entrance. You may notice robber bees around the cracks and seams of the hive, looking for a way in. You will also see that these bees do not carry any pollen on their legs.
While normal bees will just fly straight to their hive, robber bees will sway side to side before approaching the hive. This is because they are looking for a way in.
You may also see broken pieces of wax outside the hive. This is from the robber bees ripping the capped honey cells open. Looking at the honey stores you may notice the comb looks chewed and jagged. That is from the robbers chewing the caps open.
How to Stop Robber Bees
It can be difficult to stop robbing once it has started. However, it is important that the beekeeper intervene right away.
To stop robbing you want to close up the hive. If the bees are particularly worked up you may want to begin by using a smoker. This won’t make the robbers leave, but it will help calm them while you get to work.
Now you need to reduce the size of the entrance to a very small opening. It should be small enough for only a single bee to enter. It is important to have a small opening because it gives the guard bees a smaller area to defend. This really helps them when being attacked.
Use an entrance reducer for this, or you can also stuff some grass into the opening. An entrance reducer is made of wood or metal and has a small opening cut out. To use it, place the reducer securely on the hive entrance. Entrance reducers can also be used to keep pests such as mice or wasps out of the hive.
A robber bees screen is also very effective in both stopping and preventing robbers. It stops robbers from entering the hive by covering the entrance with a screen. More on that below.
Another way to stop robber bees is to place a large, wet towel or bed sheet over the hive. Make sure the towel or sheet is completely saturated with water. This will confuse the robbers, but the bees that live there will still find their way in and out of the hive.
Another way to confuse robber bees is to place a large piece of plastic or wood board leaning up against the hive. This will make the robbers hesitant to enter the hive.
If robbing is very bad you can also open up other hives in your apiary. This will make the bees go back to their home hive to defend it. This only works when the robbers are from another hive in your apiary though.
How to Prevent Robber Bees
It is best to plan ahead to prevent robber bees. Robber bees are attracted to the scent of honey. The following actions can help to prevent robber bees.
- Be careful when feeding bees. Spilled sugar syrup will definitely attract robbers.
- Use a top feeder. Entrance feeders can sometimes entice robber bees.
- When harvesting honey, cover your supers until they are brought indoors.
- Never leave open honey outdoors or near the hive.
- Avoid frequent hive inspections during a nectar dearth. Opening the hive causes honey scent to be released, attracting robbers.
- Use a robber bees screen.
Robber Bees Screen
Installing a robber bees screen is a good way to stop and prevent robber bees. Used early and often, a robber bees screen is highly effective at preventing robbing.
Robber bees screens work by using the knowledge that bees are smelling for honey to our advantage. Basically, bees follow the scent of honey to the hive, but don’t know where the entrance is. Therefore, they keep trying to find the entrance based on how strong the honey smell is.
Robber screens work by tricking the bees to go to a screened off area instead of the actual hive entrance. To do this the screen is placed in an area where the honey scent is strongest, like the hive opening. They will be drawn there, but will not be able to enter due to the screen being there.
The bees that live there have a separate, hidden entrance. When you first install a robber screen the home bees will be confused, but they will quickly find their entrance and get used to it.
There are 2 ways to get a robber bees screen. You can purchase one (the plastic screen pictured above is from Amazon), or you can make one. If you’d like to make a wooden one, this is a great tutorial.
Learning how to identify robber bees is an important part of beekeeping. Once you have identified that your hive has a problem with robbers you must take action to stop them quickly. There are several ways to stop and prevent robber bees, including reducing the entrance and using a robber bees screen.