Robbing Bees

Well, it’s happened. I’ve got robber bees in the apiary. I’m suspicious it’s not the first time, just the first time I realised something was amiss and put in the effort to figure out what was wrong.

Here’s what I saw in my afternoon check of my 24 hives.

Hive with wax cappings out front

Hive with wax cappings out front

That’s little crumbles of wax out in front of hive C3. None of the others have it. If you look, you can see dirty foot prints all over the landing board. That’s honey being tracked out by the nasty old robber bees.

Wax and honey foot prints

Wax and honey foot prints

I think those dead bees died in battle, it breaks my heart.

Robbing can happen in any apiary at any time but is much more common when there is a dearth and a strong hive finds it easier to take from a weak hive than to go foraging. With 24 hives you’ve always got a strong hive and a weak hive. And with winter setting in, it’s fair to say there’s a dearth on. There are some flowers scattered through the garden, 2 trees in bloom (a lemon scented gum and a flowering pear) and plenty of weeds in bloom around the area, but 29 hives on the property (5 are owned by a local university) means a lot of bees who need more than some scattered flowers to be satisfied. Add in the fact that it’s been dry so the flowers probably don’t have as much nectar as they might. The icing on the cake is we’ve recently requeened many of the hives and so there might be more brood and young bees than would otherwise be in a hive this time of year – more mouths to feed – and I think we’re in the middle of a high risk time for robbing.

Once robbing starts, you have to stop it post-haste. I looked online for options and what we settled for was jamming some mesh into the robbed hive. The theory being the robbers can’t get in and eventually give up on what was easy pickings. We installed the mesh at dusk mainly because that’s when we discovered the problem and had time to suit up. We did a VERY QUICK check in the hive (it was getting cold and dark) to make sure there were still honey stores. There were (phew) but we could see plenty of uncapped cells (nasty old robbers). We saw some bees, not many, but it was the super and we thought the bees were cleverly huddling around the brood in the box below.

Hive entrance blocked with mesh to keep robbers out

Hive entrance blocked with mesh to keep robbers out

The next day, we went back into the hive in the middle of the day. There were bees trying to get in past the mesh. We figured they had to be robbers as this colony was all trapped inside.

Robber bees trying to get past the mesh

Robber bees trying to get past the mesh

It was sunny and warm (20 C/68 F) so we were comfortable checking out the brood of C3. We were afraid something was wrong. Well, there was. There was no brood, no queen, no bees. The colony was GONE. There was still a lot of capped honey in the brood and the super. No disease or nastiness in the brood. We clearly caught the robbing early in the proceedings with one frame emptied out and a couple more with some cappings damaged.

So, what happened to C3? I have 2 theories related to a swarm we caught on 16 May (VERY late in the year for swarming).  The swarm was hanging on the back of a hive in row B, the row in front of C3, and we had no way of determining where it came from. All the hives were collecting pollen the next day as if life was normal and a queen was laying. It was a small swarm and we put it in a nuc at the end of the B row. We checked it a couple of times and spotted the queen and a beautiful brood nest and each time there were more and more bees Anyway, my theories are:

1) The swarm we caught was really a colony absconding. Perhaps not all the bees absconded initially and they migrated to the swarm hive?

2) It was a swarm and the new queen left in C3 failed in her mating flight? The bees then slowly died out as the brood hatched but wasn’t replaced (no queen cells or laying worker activity).

I’m a bit troubled that I hadn’t spotted that C3 was dead/dying. I check on the apiary most days, sometimes multiple times a day. I’ve been doing this and looking for dead bees because of our pesticide incident. Each hive has had activity, some more than others, but all hives have comings and goings. In fact, C2 was the worry and we opened it to check the brood which was present, but not impressive. It’s winter so we don’t open the hives unless we really need to. It’s winter so we don’t expect them to all be bringing in lots of pollen. It’s winter so moderate activity is fine.

Nuc containing the swarm

Nuc containing the swarm

All this navel gazing wasn’t fixing the problem in the apiary. We had a good swarm (caught in late autumn – the silly buggers) and an empty brood + super. So, we put the C3 hive boxes in the place where the nuc had been standing (end of B row). We chased away all the robber bees from inside the hive. We put the 4 nuc frames with all the swarm bees on them into the centre of the C3 brood box (we saw the queen, very nice looking lady if I do say so myself). We then put on the queen excluder and put a piece of linoleum on top of the excluder. We topped that with a full-depth super, about 1/2 of full of capped honey and topped it all with the lid. The lino with the super on top works well in this climate. The lino helps keep the heat in the brood (or the brood plus the first super, depending on the strength of the hive) but allows the bees to sneak around it to keep out wax moth and to get at the honey stores and even to store more honey in one of those odd mid-winter flows.

We also reduced the entrance on all the hives to discourage robbing (and reduce air flow to help the bees keep the hives warm).

Now we just watch (23 hives, not 24 any more) and see. Which is what we’ve been doing and which landed us in this less-than-desirable position so I’m not overly confident.

Here’s C3 at the end of B-row where the nuc used to be, with its bees settling down after the move and negotiating the reduced entrance. You can see the old C3 spot in the top left corner of the photo. Not far, but hopefully far enough to confuse any zealous robbers.


It’s been 3 days since we made this change in the apiary and so far, so good…


About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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19 Responses to Robbing Bees

  1. pattigail says:

    Wow, robber bees. Who would have thought…I had no idea keeping bees was so complicated..but then I had no idea keeping chickens would be as complicated as I tend to make it. I guess nothing is easy. Are the robber bees from one of your hives or are they “strangers”? Just curious. Good luck with it all.

    • hobacaitbe says:

      Me too, Patti, I had never heard of robber bees. And YES, you do make keeping chickens just a little bit more complicated than it needs to be. Lil still wants an indoor coop in the cellar.

      • Lil needs an indoor coop for poor Miny.

        Now that you’re home, you can do all the complicated stuff and let her put her feet up (and pet Wrigley).

        • hobacaitbe says:

          I’m still healing. Wrigley and I have been doing a 2 mile walk each day so Lil can put her feet up.

          • Walking Wrigley doesn’t sound like too much hard work. How about cleaning out the chicken coop every morning? Surely that would advance your healing by giving you great stretching exercise 🙂

            • hobacaitbe says:

              This 2 mile walk is about all I can do. It is very scary how run down my body got. I did clean out the run a few days ago. Now that it is warm here, the ladies and Jack are roosting out in the run at night. This means that the coop does not need to be cleaned very often. I cover the floor of the run with old leaves, 6-8 inches deep, which the chickens shred and turn into almost ready compost. With chicken poop included.

              • That’s the same thing we do. Old leaves and, for a special treat, cut grass. They scratch and turn it over (and poo in it) and it just sort of vanishes. We marvel at where the organic matter goes!

                I’m sorry you got so run down – internal bleeding will do that to you. I hope Lil, Wrigley, Jack and the girls are helping with your recovery.

    • I’m almost certain the robbers are ours. And probably from multiple hives which would explain the dead ones in front – they fought it out for the booty. Crime doesn’t pay!

      Yes, keeping bees can be complicated, or you can leave them alone to sink or swim – they are wild animals, after all, we just give them a convenient home. As for chickens, well, there’s no doubt they’re complicated. Unless you just don’t care. Who couldn’t care about such sweet creatures?

  2. John from Victoria says:

    To an old amateur beekeeper like me this story is fascinating.
    I am relieved that you have rebounded from last year’s disaster and are back writing your online garden journal. I also have chooks and a dog, when disaster struck your girls I felt really depressed, silly bugger me. I know only too well why you stopped writing.
    Going back to the bees, I really hope that this threatening el niño does not eventuate next summer (80% chance, they say). It would make things really tough for bees and apiarists as it did in 97 when honey production stopped for several years in the southern aussie states and a majority of hives just died. We’ll know better in a couple of months… touch wood.

    • Thanks for sympathising about my disaster. I have more chooks, but they’ll never be the same as those first 3, silly bugger me 🙂

      Yeah, el Niño is a real problem for bees. Even if I manage to keep the hives cool and provide plenty of water, the trees are hoarding their water and there’s just no nectar for the poor bees. Last year was bad enough, I want my summers much milder!

  3. Emily Heath says:

    Is it worth feeding if there’s not much food out there, or do the colonies have enough stores to get by?

    • Each hive has several full honey frames. There’s not point in feeding. They aren’t robbing out of hunger, they’re robbing because they’re greedy. Or, actually, I think it’s because they’re smart. There’s ready honey within a couple metres of their hive and no one is guarding/using it. Evolution would have done them a disservice if they’d decided to leave it there for the rats/bears/beetles…. As long as they don’t rob when someone’s home, I’m happy.

      • Emily Heath says:

        Ah good. Here some of the colonies have been getting so low on stores during the June forage gap that we have had to feed sugar syrup to keep them alive.

        • My goal here is to never need to feed my bees. I’ve done it in the past though I’m not sure it was strictly necessary. I leave heaps of honey in each hive and the weather and flora conspire to make dearths reasonably short-lived. In a pinch, I steal a frame of honey from one hive to feed to another, but I’m not sure I’m managing the colonies closely enough to always know when that would be necessary. There is still one hive that I’m really worried about – it’s got stores, just not much activity.

  4. It is fascinating to hear how the social structure of bees plays out. I knew they had war but didn’t know they had criminals. Thanks for sharing!

    • Oh, they have it all, thievery, murder, even regicide. What most disturbs me is the incest angle – a queen could mate with her own drone (who isn’t just related, he’s her actual clone). They’ve got guard bees so the police are on hand but what they are missing is a good legislative and judicial branch in this society!

      • Emily Heath says:

        I don’t think a queen would mate with her own son, hopefully not… I’ve read that drones can smell when a queen is related to them and avoid her… also the mating flights occur before the queen begins laying, so once she starts laying sons and daughters she won’t be going off to mate again?

        • Good point, she only mates once then lays all her eggs so she’s safe from mating with herself (whew). She still runs the risk of mating with a brother which is the clone of her mother (moral issues abound there – did I hear anyone mention Oedipus?) but I hope you’re right and the boys smell the relationship and stay away.

  5. Pingback: Another One (Two Actually) Bites the Dust | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

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