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I'm Being Robbed! What Can I Do About Honey Robbing?

By Chary Elam

Honey is in the air—literally! When honey supers are pulled, the air is filled with the wonderful aroma of honey, beckoning other hives to take advantage of a free food source. Unfortunately, robbing can kill a perfectly vibrant hive within a matter of hours if left unmanaged.

Signs of a robbing situation

  • A sudden increase in hive activity
  • Fighting at the entrance
  • Dead bees at the entrance or on the ground in front of the hive
  • Higher-pitched hive sounds (agitation/desperation)
  • Bees gathering around the cracks and seams of the hive
  • Bees swaying as they try to get inside the hive (normally bees fly straight into a hive, but robber bees tend to sway back and forth as they try to get past the guard bees)
  • An overabundance of wax particles at the entrance or on the bottom board (under the hive if the screen is open)
  • Once a robbing frenzy has been identified, take action immediately! Waiting could be detrimental to your hive.

Video courtesy of Stan Gore

How to stop robbing

(more than one of these can be done at a time if necessary)

  • Reduce the entrance: If you don’t have an entrance reducer, then use a stick, a handful of grass, or anything that will block part of the entrance to reduce it to a size that allows only a couple of bees at a time to come in or get out.
  • Install a robbing screen and leave it on for several days.
  • Cover the hive with a lightweight damp sheet: Why damp? A slightly wet sheet will keep the hive cooler. The sheet will no doubt trap multiple robber bees, but it will allow time for the hive to gain the upper hand while not allowing more robbers in. Leave it on at least overnight. Robbing should subside by morning.
  • Run a water sprinkler over the hive: Setting up a water sprinkler, creating a “rainstorm,” will shut down aggressive robbing quickly. Bees can’t or won’t fly in the rain, so simply create rain! Run this sprinkler for several hours if possible. It doesn’t have to be set very high—just high enough to cover the entire hive, including the entrance.
  • Tape seams and cracks: Probably one of the most common mistakes beekeepers make is allowing hive boxes to fall into disrepair. Excessive openings at corners and seams can and will become an access point for robbing bees. During a robbing event, duct tape any entry point and wrap seams to prevent the hive’s aroma from continuing to attract robbers.

You see the yellow duct tape? Duct tape works great for sealing box seams when a hive is under a robbing attack.

Post-robbing care

  • Check the hive for damage: Inspect the hive that experienced the robbing as soon as possible. Doing so early in the morning (before lunch) could help to prevent another robbing frenzy. Note: Robbing is accentuated during the peak of the day (typically mid-afternoon).
  • Excessive dead bees on the bottom board will be removed by the remaining bees, but any help you can give them means less work for them.
  • Be prepared to reduce the hive size: Often after a severe robbing event a hive will have lost a substantial amount of population. If this happens consider the box-to-bee ratio and reduce the number of boxes to fit the number of bees left.
  • Feed internally: Keep in mind that the hive has lost a lot of its resources.
  • If the hive didn’t make it, which can happen, promptly break down the hive components and store them properly for future use.
  • Replace hive equipment: Any hive boxes that have rotten corners or are worn, allowing gaps, need to be replaced. Simply take the frames from the old box, place them in a new one, and place it back on the hive.

Photo and description courtesy of BIP, Dan Wyns, What Robbing Looks Like

"The debris on the bottom board of a hive that has been robbed out will have a large amount of chewed wax capping flakes and some dead bees. The small number of dead bees present indicate that the colony had dwindled significantly. Robber bees may rob honey before or after the colony died." Dan Wyns, Bee Informed Partnership

How to prevent robbing

  • Return honey supers at dusk while other hives aren’t out foraging (or looking for the opportunity to rob other hives). This allows the hive to clean up the excess honey in the supers overnight, eliminating the aroma of honey in the air the next day.
  • When post-harvest feeding, avoid spilling any syrup around the hive.
  • Feed using internal feeders only. Area feeding and boardman feeders can attract feral colonies as well as other hives looking to take advantage of a weak hive.
  • Make quick work of inspections. The longer a hive is open, the greater the chance of robbing. Get in and get out!
Remember, summer dearth is right around the corner. As soon as we rob honey, the honey robbers go on the hunt!

    Hive inspections during a nectar flow

    Even though we want to avoid disrupting the bees during a major nectar flow, once a month you’ll need to go in and look for the following:

    • Laying queen: Eggs and larvae present
    • Good brood pattern: A good indicator of the health of the queen and colony
    • Signs of disease such as European foulbrood

    This inspection can and should only take a few minutes. Beyond that, check back once a week on the progress of your honey supers. If it is more than two weeks prior to the end of your area’s nectar flow, add another super when the current ones are more than 75% full. Adding another super when the nectar flow is nearly over will not yield any honey and can actually be an open invitation for small hive beetles to take over or open the hive up for a robbing event. Too much space is never a good idea.

     Watch as Blake shows us how to do a hive inspection during a honey flow.

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