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Robber Bees – What are They and How to Get Rid of Them?

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Beekeeping is full of surprises – some pleasant and others not so pleasant. In beekeeping circles, you might hear the term robber bees being thrown around. You might also encounter the phenomenon in your own beekeeping. You might think that robber bees are a subspecies of bees, but that is not the case. Robber bees are regular honeybees that invade another beehive and steal honey. They open capped cells, eat as much honey as they can, and fly back to their beehive. This article will take a look at robber bees, how robbing happens, and how to prevent robbing.

Of course, the resident bees of a beehive will not be happy about having their honey reserves taken away. Fights between the robbing swarm and the resident swarm often result in many honeybees dying on both sides. Due to excessive loss of honey resources and colony numbers, the bees of a robbed beehive may abscond.

Why does Robbing Happen?

Honeybees love hoarding resources. They keep the stocks so that they can survive hard times with ease. They do this with quite a lot of zeal. A honeybee colony will look for nectar or honey from any source they find near them. As a result, any poorly guarded beehive is fair game for them. A weak honeybee colony quickly finds itself vulnerable to being robbed.

To bees, robbing is part of their foraging behavior. It stems from honeybees moving honey from absconded hives whose resident bees do not eat up all the honey. In the wild, other bees may discover the empty beehive and help themselves to any honey they find in it.

When does Robbing Occur?

Robbing for honey has higher chances of happening at certain times. Honeybee colony strength and climatic conditions are the main factors that influence robbing between honeybee colonies. A honeybee colony fighting a disease, parasite or pest invasion is weak, and as such cannot fight off an invasion by robber bees. It may also have many weak and deformed bees that cannot fight off beehive invaders.

The strength of a honeybee colony is measured in foraging power, number of bees and their ability to keep the beehive going. An important factor in colony strength is the queen bee. If the queen is not laying enough eggs, the number of bees in the colony gets low.

Inadequate food supplies are likely to cause bees to rob other colonies. In late summer and fall, bees looking for nectar find that it is not plentiful around them. Early spring is also a tough time for bees since the first nectar flow has not arrived. The scent of a beehive and honey can be detected from afar by bees. They may check out the beehive and decide to use it as a source of food for their colonies.

How to Identify Robber Bees

Identifying robbing in honeybee colonies is easy for beekeepers. It is however difficult to identify specific bees as robber bees. A hive that is being robbed shows some signs that help you detect robbing. The presence of robber bees can make a calm or weak hive suddenly have a lot of activity. Too much coming and going of bees more than usual at the hive entrance is the dead giveaway. Inexperienced beekeepers might think a weak colony has turned its fortunes around, only to find the colony decimated by robber bees.

Bees crawling all over the beehive is often a sign that robbing is taking place or about to happen. Robber bees not knowing the proper entrance of the beehive will probe for entrances. They will  repeatedly check out cracks and openings that may be on the beehive. If the hive scent is getting out through any opening or gap in the beehive, robber bees will be on that gap. They may even use it to enter the beehive.

Robbing leads to fights between honeybees of opposing colonies. Fighting bees roll and tumble on the landing board or in the air. You will need a close inspection to see this. If you see fighting, be sure that the beehive is under attack. Fighting bees appear black and shiny due to losing hairs in the fight. Both attackers and defenders of the hive can have this appearance. It is thud difficult to tell which bees are robbing, and which ones are defending the hive.

Tips and Hints

  • Bees die when they fight robber bees. Some of the robber bees die too. You will notice a sudden increase of dead bees on the landing board or ground around your beehive.
  • Dead bees and honey attracts other pests and predators such as wasps. They may accompany robbing bees or come around the hive soon after. If you see these, be on the lookout that a hive is being robbed.
  • Robbing bees rarely have pollen on their legs. Their goal is to move honey and nectar to their beehive. Only the bees of the hive at which action is taking place will have pollen since they are coming from foraging or moving it within the beehive.
  • Due to overall increased beehive activity, the noise at the hive is more than usual.

Other Signs

Another sign of honeybee robbing is that flying bees sway from side to side at the entrance instead of landing and entering the hive. Some robber bees will sway side to side at the hive as they wait for an opportunity to enter the beehive under attack.

Wax comb on the landing board is a sure indicator that there is robbing. Robber bees rip open cells and comb to reach nectar and honey. Some of the comb falls off and may also be noted on the bottom board during inspection.

Gorging on honey makes robber bees heavy. They are usually the only bees flying away from the beehive they are robbing. You will see them crawl up a wall of the hive and then fly from there. At the start of their flight, they dip toward the ground as they take off. This is because they are loaded with honey, Honeybees leaving the beehive to forage under normal conditions are light and do not dip toward the ground. They do not climb higher up along the hive’s walls but take off from the landing.

How to Protect Against Robber Bees

Robber Bees

Seeing your honeybees losing their honey is a sad spectacle for any beekeeper. You can avoid it by taking a few measures and integrating robbing prevention in your beehive management regime. These preventive measures lower the likelihood of robbing happening. In an apiary, robber bees can be from another hive within the same apiary. Other times, robber bees come from a colony that is not yours.

Use an Entrance Reducer

Preventing robbing is better than managing it. Entrance reduction is one of the first ways you should explore to prevent robbing. Get those entrances smaller when food resources start dwindling in the environment. Honeybees find smaller entrances easy to guard. Even weakened honeybee colonies benefit from an entrance reduction.

Be Wary of Italian Bees

Italian bees are a problem for beekeepers in respect to robbing. The subspecies tends to get to robbing with higher frequency than other honeybee subspecies. Beekeepers with Italian bees are generally more vigilant about robbing. The vigilance extends to beekeepers with an apiary that can be reached by Italian bees kept by another beekeeper. You can find out if there are beekeepers near you with Italian bees in their apiary through beekeeping associations and clubs. Local agriculture and apiculture authorities may also have information that is useful to you.

Protect the Queen

Not having a queen bee is not very good for honeybee colonies. A hive without a queen is more vulnerable to robbing that a beehive that is queenright. This is one of the things you should make sure for strong honeybee colonies that cannot be easily robbed. The queen bee produces pheromones that bind the honeybee colony together. They can easily identify intruder honeybees and those from their home colony.

Place Feeders Inside the Hive

Honeybee feeders are important for keeping honeybee colonies going. Feeders placed at the entrance of the beehive can however turn disastrous for your honeybees. The feeder attracts other bees and sometimes wasps to the beehive. If the bees from other colonies find your colony weak, they will attack it. During shortages of nectar from the lands around your beehive, use feeders placed inside the beehive. You should also be careful not to spill feeding syrups when refilling honeybee feeders. The same applies to spilling honey during honey harvesting. Spilt sugar syrup or honey in the hive or on the ground around it can attract bees from other colonies and lead to robbing.

Utilize Robbing Screens

The manufacturers of beekeeping supplies have not been left behind. They have robbing screens available for purchase. These robbing screens are very effective at discouraging robber bees from entering a hive. They do not hinder resident bees of a beehive. A robbing screen is very useful on weaker honeybee colonies that you do not wish to combine into one.

Ensure a Strong Colony

Small and weak beehives are vulnerable to robbing. Beekeepers can combine such beehives to have one strong honeybee colony. The queen bee from one beehive can be sold off or killed. You can also use the queen bee to improve the genetics of your other beehives.

Stopping Robber Bees

An attack by robber bees is a very disruptive event for both honeybees and beekeepers. If unstopped, it can result in a entire honeybee colony being decimated. Its food reserves are taken from it and can starve. Once robbing of a specific beehive has started, it does not end until the hive has very little honey left. Usually, robbing is started by the bees of one colony and then other colonies join in. Many honeybee colonies attacking a single hive lead to all honey being stolen in most cases.

Identifying robbing early on gives you a chance to address it. If it has not been going on for long, you can help mitigate some of its effects. If you do not have a robbing screen installed all the time on your beehive, consider having one to use in the event that you will notice robbing early on.

Steps

  1. Carry a bee smoker with you. While smoking does not stop robbing, but it helps keep bees at bay while you work on the beehive. The already agitated bees may be more aggressive than usual, so make sure to have a smoker with you when approaching a hive where robbing is happening. Set the smoker next to the beehive you are working on for maximum effect.
  2. Entrance reduction is useful in preventing and stopping robbing. When the hive is under attack, reducing the entrance helps resident honeybees improve hive security. Closing the beehive can be done after about 20 minutes with the entrance reduced. Resident bees that are out foraging have a short window to get back into the hive. This prevents you from locking out too many resident bees from the beehive.
  3. You may also decide to cut losses and seal up a beehive immediately you see it being robbed. The robber bees in the hive will be dealt with by resident bees. Once locked, the beehive must be sealed for some time so that robber bees cannot gain access into the beehive. They will soon forget the location of the hive and move on to other food sources. A hardware cloth or screen that cannot let bees through should suffice. Keep the beehive closed for several days until robber honeybees give up.
  4. A colony in a closed up beehive should be fed with water and pollen or sugar syrup. Beekeepers that do not feed their colonies in closed up beehives find very many bees dead when they come to open the beehive. With a weak colony, this further loss if numbers adds to the poor state of affairs.
  5. Throw a wet towel saturated with water onto the beehive. It confuses robber bees but allows residents to access the beehive from underneath it. Evaporation of water from the towel helps keep the beehive cool too.
  6. Spreading strong-smelling compounds on the beehive that is being robbed is done by some beekeepers to confuse robber bees. You may explore this method of stopping robber bees in your apiary. The strong smells of camphor, eucalyptus oil and menthol mask the smell of the beehive. Vicks Vaporub is especially suited for this use.

 

Open all the Hives

From chaos comes order. If you believe in this maxim, open up all the lids of all the beehives in your apiary. The attacking bees will quickly find their beehive under attack, and as such, will stop going out to other beehives. In doing this, you keep all your bees in their beehive and stop robbing. However, this method of stopping robbing results in a number of bees from each honeybee colony you have dying. You may lose some colonies in the apiary if they are weaker and get overwhelmed by robbing.

Do not use this method of stopping robber bees with a weak beehive if it is not already under attack. Additionally, this method does not work if robber bees are coming from a beehive not in your apiary.

Opening up beehives leaves them susceptible to other predators. Honeybees in an open hive may be attacked by birds that eat bees. This method of controlling robbing is not one to use by inexperienced beekeepers.

Trapping Robber Bees using a Robbing Screen

Robbing screens are effective equipment in preventing robber bees from entering a beehive. The robbing screen does not prevent the discovery of a hive but keeps the invading bees at bay. It does this by trapping robber bees within a specific space within the hive. A robbing screen is made using wood or plastic, a screen and impervious material. The impervious material does not let the scent of the hive through it. It works with the previous screen to mislead robbing bees.

The design of a robbing screen is such that there is an opening above the impervious material that is used by resident bees. Under the impervious material is a screen. Robber bees follow beehive scents to locate beehives and enter them. With the design of a robbing screen, the scent of the hive can get out through the screen of a robbing screen and is followed by robbing bees. They try getting into the hive through the screen but cannot manage to do so. Crawling away from the screen leads to the hive scent getting less powerful and the bees come back to the screen. In the meantime, resident bees know the entrance they normally use.

A robbing screen has two possible entrances for resident bees. Use one entrance at a time. If the entrance is discovered by robber bees, the beekeeper can close it and open the other. Bees in the hive will learn of the new opening and use it while robber bees remain confused. Most robbing screens have their openings 5-6 inches above the beehive’s main opening.

Trapping robber bees works best when done early. It is even better if you can prevent robbing from taking place. When using robbing screens to prevent robbing, install them early before bees are likely to go robbing. It is also a good measure to install the robbing screens just before harvesting honey in your apiary. This is because harvesting honey can set off robbing sprees by some of the honeybees whose honey you take away. They can invade weaker colonies in your apiary and rob them of their honey. The screens can be left in the beehive until winter.

Types of Robbing Screens Available

There are several brands of robbing screens available to beekeepers buying a robbing screen. They have minor differences in their design and use. The best robbing screens are easy to install in the beehive. They are also easy to remove from the beehive. Some robbing screens are built to fit both 8-frame and 10-frame Langstroth beehives. Robbing screens can be held in place using pins or other attachment methods.

Wooden robbing screens can be challenging to use to some beekeepers. Using them with a slatted rack requires precise lining up with the lowest brood box in your Langstroth beehive stack. They are not flexible and can leave some space on the sides. These spaces may be exploited by robber bees and other predators of honeybees such as yellow jackets. Plastic robbing screens overcome this problem with ease.

An added advantage of using robbing screens is that they keep out drifting bees. It helps with preventing Varroa mite infestations of your honeybee colony by mites brought in by drifting bees. Drone honeybees are the common drifters. They are not very keen on where they spend their night, and are not always met with hostility in beehives where they are not residents.

Recommend Robbing Screens

  1. Homestead Essentials Premium Bee Hive Robbing Screens
  2. Toughtimbers 10 Frame Moving and Robbing Screen

 

Will Robber Bees Kill the Queen?

While robbing is part of honeybee foraging effort, it results in fights between bees. The hive being robbed fights the intruders. Robbing bees may also gang up and fight the resident bees of a beehive. This fighting results in a lot of bees dying on both sides. Sometimes, the queen bee is caught up in the fray. If she is attacked, she may be killed by robber bees. This is usually accidental. Robber bees do not target the queen. They are there for the honey and nectar they may find in the beehive they are stealing from.

It is important to check for the presence of your queen bee after a beehive has been robbed. Once you have stopped the robbing, carry out a hive inspection with an aim to locate the queen bee. In case she dies during the robbing, you will notice her absence early and remedy it. If you do not do this and the honeybee colony remains queenless, you risk losing the colony. Some colonies will raise a new queen on their own, yet others may decide to leave the beehive and set up elsewhere. After robbing, you might notice the queen missing but supercedure cells have been formed. You may leave the colony to raise new queen bees or bring in a new queen bee.

A Final Word

Robbing by honeybees is a very unwelcome event in a beekeeping operation. Beekeepers should take measures to prevent and stop robbing. Take special note of weak colonies and help them avoid being robbed. Beekeepers should adopt prevention of robbing in their beehive and apiary management program. Use the information and suggestions in this article to keep your honeybees safer and help them from invasions by robber bees.

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Ebrey John

Great great article. I got robbed bad last year and lost hive in spring. Not enough honey for winter and brought varroa in