Beekeeping 101: How to Stop Hive Robbing
Robbing is exactly what it sounds like. During a nectar shortage, bees from outside colonies enter your hives and steal honey. They will fight your bees, tear open honey cells and cause serious problems for the colony.
That’s why it’s so important to be able to identify and prevent robbing behaviour. If you don’t stop it in time, you could end up with low honey stores, dead bees and a decimated colony that may not survive the next winter.
Although it can be difficult to stop a true robbing frenzy halfway through, if you see the signs early on, you may be able to prevent it. The key method is making your hive entrance as small as possible so your bees have the best chance of defending it.
Robbing is most common during a nectar shortage. This can be a result of a weather event or unusual temperature. Hot, dry summers can cause a ‘nectar gap’ between spring blooms and autumn flowers. Of course, there’s also a natural lack of nectar over the winter, but bees are prepared for that one.
During a nectar shortage, bees are forced to look elsewhere for food supplies. They will usually attack weaker hives to steal honey – so keeping your hives in great shape is the first line of defence.
When a hive is robbed, the invading bees kill bees and may even kill the queen. They tear open wax cells to get at the honey inside and can remove large amounts of honey very quickly. Worse, ripping open cells spreads the smell of honey far and wide, which attracts other invaders like wasps, yellowjackets, and hornets. These insects are even more aggressive, and will promptly kill off any bees left in the hive.
Finally, robbing can also spread disease between hives. Bees entering a foreign hive can bring in mites and other diseases, or take infestations back to their own hives with the stolen honey.
Prevention is better than cure
It’s always better to prevent robbing than to be forced to fight off invaders. Although you can’t always stop it, you can take measures to avoid attracting robber bees to your hives.
- Don’t ever leave honey out in the open near your hives, as the smell will attract other bees. This includes full supers during the harvest – always extract honey inside.
- If you feed your bees sugar syrup, put the feeder inside the hive and away from the entrance.
- When you’re handling sugar syrup, take care not to spill any around the hive – even a few drops can attract robbing bees.
Looking for signs
You can’t prevent robbing if you don’t know it’s happening. As always, it’s important to keep a close eye on your bees and look for unusual activity – especially during a nectar shortage.
Here’s what to look for:
Signs of fighting
- Bees rolling around in pairs or groups on the landing board or in the air.
- Unusual numbers of dead bees inside or outside the hive.
- Bees that look shiny and black instead of furry – this happens when bees lose their hair in fights.
Signs of invaders
- Invading bees can often be spotted crawling on the cracks and seams on the outside of the hive, looking for a way in.
- Wasps often tag along with robbing bees, so watch for them hanging around the hive.
- Like wasps, robbing bees will sway from side to side while they sit on the hive and wait to enter.
- Unlike normal worker bees, robbing bees won’t be carrying pollen on their legs when they enter the hive.
- Robbing bees are louder than normal bees, so if your hive is suddenly humming with activity, it could be a bad sign.
- Inside the hive or on the landing board, you may notice pieces of wax comb that have been torn off to access honey.
Stopping the steal
If you notice signs of robbing, you need to act quickly. Once the robber bees – and any accompanying wasps or hornets – are in full frenzy, it can be very difficult to stop them.
The first step is closing up the hive as much as possible. Use a smoker to deter robbing bees while you do this – it won’t keep them away for good, but will give you some time. Close any extra entrances and reduce the main entrance to a very small opening – small enough for a single bee. Some beekeepers stuff other entrances and gaps with grass or cover with mesh to keep air flowing through the hive. If you have an entrance reducer, you can adjust the size to your liking with very little fuss.
- Drape a wet towel or cloth over the entire hive. This masks the scent of the honey and confuses robbing bees, but your bees should still be able to come and go from underneath. Keep the hive covered for two or three days, rewetting as needed.
- In smaller apiaries you can use a sprinkler placed close to hive being robbed. The water raining on the invading bees will often send them home whilst also washing away any spilt honey or sugar syrup.
- Lean a wide piece of metal or plastic against the hive, covering the entrance (but leaving space underneath for bees to enter and exit). This is another way to make the entrance less obvious to invaders.
- Use a robbing screen. This gives your bees a ‘back door’ to come and go while screening the main entrance. Because invaders can still smell honey at the main door, they’re less likely to find the second entrance.
- Smear a strong-smelling product like Vicks VapoRub on and around the hive entrance to mask the scent of honey and throw off invaders.
Healthy and strong
Robbing is most common when your colony is weak or sickly, so keeping your bees healthy and strong is your best defence. If it happens anyway, be prepared to act quickly and you may be able to save your hive.