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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…