Each year we get hundreds of calls, walk-ins, and messages regarding robbing behaviors. We were asked to share some of our thoughts, here they are.
Robbing is a behavior that is NATURAL to the honey bee, and it is also practiced by other flying insects such as wasps and hornets. We are going to focus our attention here primarily to honey bee robbing, but it applies to all looters.
The stores within a hive are in high demand in the insect world, so if a defense has lapsed or a back-door is unprotected, theft can and does happen. Humorously we have heard beekeepers point fingers at each other demanding “their bees to behave”. The problem as seen through the beekeeper’s eyes appears to be a genetic issue. Genetics is partly to blame, but animal husbandry also points the finger at the beekeeper. To manage bees is exactly that. We can predict what a bee is going to do and when they are going to do it, in many instances.
Spring Packages and Bloom
At the beginning of the season when colonies are small, forage resources are high. Beekeeping practices encourage additional feeding (we support liquid sugar feeding with supplements) during the build-up. Build-up is during the initial brood-box stage of the colony. Once the build-up stage is met or adequate then most beekeepers stop feeding and let the bees take it from there. Many areas have sufficient summer forage for growing expanding colonies, however, this is NOT the case in every location.
Too many colonies in any location can produce a ghetto environment where bees fight with each other, essentially for life. Other areas may simply not have enough resources. Resources are not just nectar, resources also include pollen, propolis ingredients, and water. With this said, it isn’t just nectar, and pollen, it is also the quality of each, as not all nectar and pollen have equal nutritional value. As a result, a beekeeper may assess their area as ideal for a colony, but may overload it with colonies, or may not understand their local flowers and plants. Knowing plants have blooming cycles is important, and that other plants are needed when one flowering crop matures and wilts. It is also essential to know as the season progresses, the needs of the colony increase dramatically, thus requiring an increase of forage.
A lesson we teach beekeepers is the correlation between wax and honey. Wax is bee fat, and nectar is what produces that. Nectar equals fat. Fat is beeswax. Beeswax allows colony expansion. More comb in the hive equals more area for the queen to lay. More cells with eggs equate to a larger colony. A larger colony can mean more honey, BUT only if there are resources! There is more to this, but it is simple nectar equals wax, wax allows for growth.
Large Colony Versus Small (Honey producing versus a Nuc)
Beekeepers aim for the stars, a honey-producing behemoth colony. The fact is it takes work to get a colony to that level. Perhaps yearly this is accidentally achieved, but the lesson to knowing the ‘why’ is something every beekeeper has to learn.
Big spring packages are viewed by some as the key to a huge honey crop – this is a myth. A honey crop is based on constant nearby forage, available bees, suitable weather, disease control, understanding and practicing mite control/management, and understanding brood and honey placement in a hive.
The saying “a swarm in May is worth a load of hay, a swarm in June is worth a silver spoon, a swarm in July isn’t worth a fly”, is true if you are starting from scratch in a deep super. It is utterly false if you follow our techniques. The key is knowing there are times when feeding is a valuable tool in helping a colony. Helping a colony can cause other challenges. We say this based on experience with small colonies in summer and fall.
Risks and Benefits of Summer and Fall Feeding
The Eco Bee Box Mini Urban Beehive is essentially a Nuc, and is a great learning environment for a new beekeeper. Many lessons are experienced and learned on a small scale, with minimal financial risks compared to the investment of a large spring package. Some of these lessons include queen rearing and management, hive inspections, learning the inner workings of a colony and identification, splits, frame placement, ‘honey up” and “brood down” principal, choosing an ideal location, rodent threats, disease identification, correlation between feeding and colony growth, frame management and grooming, mite control and management, how to harvest naturally with comb honey, beginnings of marketing, and summer/fall robbing.
Due to challenges with either dearth or the colony is small/young, supplemented feeding is a way to increase the colony size. Accessible sugars can induce robbing.
Understanding robbing is essential to beekeeping, both as a beginner and the seasoned pro. If forage is readily available, bees don’t rob. Robbing entails entering a colony that is non-family and can result in death. Foraging bees have a job, find resources and return them to their colony. They don’t want to fight, just get food and go home. Bees will test nearby colonies during a famine, to see if they are protecting their resources. If unprotected or readily available, the foraging bee returns home and signals other foraging bees through their waggle dance. Other foraging bees then descend on the location. Feeding frenzy occurs on plants. Robbing occurs on dead or weak colonies. Full hives can be completely looted in a weekend, depending on local bee and wasp populations.
How to Prevent or Stop Robbing
Having equipment that is in good repair is vital, and set properly. Boxes that are in disrepair may have too many entrances for the colony to maintain. These backdoors into a hive pose robbing threats. Boxes not properly set or aligned also create these robbing holes. Beekeepers may have upper and lower entrances, and access holes in each super – these need to be suitable to the size of the colony. If a colony can’t patrol these access points, attacks can and will occur.
Bearding is a fantastic preventative, as a single bee is unlikely to pass the “gang” of bees. We view summer bearding as a colony showing its strength to nearby colonies.
If the colony is small, such as a Nuc or a Mini Urban Beehive, feeding is highly possible, thus robbing is a potential threat. In these cases, placing a feeder in an empty box on top of the hive with no exterior access is a way to give the colony resources while reducing the risk of robbing.
Leaking feeders lead to robbing.
Those with front entrance feeders can seal up the remaining lower entrance, leaving the upper entrance open. Adding a box to the top and bottom of a hive at once with upper and lower entrances creates risks as this colony can’t defend and expand well all at once.
If your entrance feeder is leaking, it has either too many holes in the lid, or the jar isn’t full enough to create the vacuum needed to hold the liquid in. Entrance feeders work well but need to be kept full or topped up.
A jar feeder can have the lid removed and a new mason jar lid added that has one single tac size hole.
Once Robbing Has Started
We suggest closing up your hive with either a wet sheet or mechanical closures. Place a hummingbird feeder 25 feet away with the same feed you were using. Keep the hive closed up until all the bees relocate to the new FREE source of forage – usually a day. Keep feed in that hummingbird feeder for a week, adding some each day. If this does not work, consider moving your colony to a new location. Some areas have too many colonies that are left to fend for themselves and they beat up ALL nearby colonies. Robbing bees can be relentless.
If the colonies that are robbing had accessible forage or feed, they would leave your colony alone.
Practices that Induce Robbing
Top-bar and Warré hives regularly need comb freed from the side walls. This can cause honey to leak out of a hive, which can alert nearby bees to clean it up. Inspections on any beehive can be messy, and remember…if honey is left on the ground or leaks from the hive, you just created a threat to that colony. A messy beekeeper can unintentionally create conditions which result in robbing. Once robbers find a location, and that location is depleted, then they look for the closest next location to attack. Imagine thousands of bees converging on a weak colony, once it is barren, they then come in enormous numbers and can kill even strong colonies.
Robbing Can Be Used To Help a Problem
Some removals can be extremely difficult. An example of one is a chimney colony. A suggested practice is smearing the exterior of the entrance with honey, repeating until robbers show up. The robbers will clean up the exterior mess and will then enter the hive and remove all the stores.
Always remember bees are opportunists.