Robber Honey Bees: (A Physical Danger To The Beekeeper, STOP IT!)

Everyone has heard the term “robber bees”. Most beekeepers have seen evidence of robber bees in action, even if they did not recognize the activity as robbing.

I was curious to learn more about robber bees and the dangers robber bees are for the beekeeper, as well as for the bees being robbed. This is what I learned:

Robber bee 2 small

Are honey bee robbers a danger to beekeepers?

Robber honey bees present a potential extreme danger to the beekeeper. When robbing is occuring, the bees are on high alert and much more likely to be very aggressive toward the beekeeper. If the beekeeper has more than one hive, the entire apiary will be agitated and ready to attack.

An apiary agitated by robber bees can become a dangerous event.

If a beekeeper sees robbing occurring they must stop the robbing immediately!
The beekeeper would be wise to spend the time in the apiary addressing the robbing problem than to continue with hive inspection, which is probably why the beekeeper is even in the beeyard.

A honey bee sting into human flesh leaves not only the bee’s stinger, but also a pheromone attractant telling other bees to sting where to sting. This could set off a frenzy in an already angry bee yard.

The good news is that an adult human can live with 1,000 bee stings.
To be fatal to an adult human being they would need to be stung 10-11 times their body weight.
The bad news is, no problem for Africanized bees.

So beekeepers in the southern United States need to be much more on guard for robbing activity because of the possibility of having some Africanized bees. And so should the skinny beekeepers.

Who are the honeybee robbers?

Honeybee robbers are always the foraging honey bees from another hive that can not find enough nectar on their foraging trips and find the risk:reward ratio to be better for stealing than for foraging.
Non-foraging honey bees do not become robbers, they only leave the hive for cleansing runs.

Foraging bees are quite content to work for their nectar when it is available. It is much easier to visit the flowers and gather the nectar they so generously offer than to go to war with a neighboring hive to steal their honey.

The victim hive has worked hard to gather nectar but also worked very hard to process the raw nectar into honey. So stealing honey from them not only represents the loss of the netcar but also the time and energy needed to process that nectar into honey.

They will not give up the honey without a fight!

Do successful robber honeybees tell their friends?

A foraging honeybee, turned successful robber bee, returns to the hive with the stolen honey. She communicates to other foraging bees in the hive the directions and distance to the robbed hive, just like she would when finding any new source of nectar.

Not only are the other bees in the robber bee’s hive get directions, they also get a taste of the honey so they can determine if its worth the fight or not. If there are no other foraging bees returning with better, less dangerous sources of nectar, it becomes a mute point.

Once the robber bees get the message there will be an onslaught of new robber bees showing up to rob the hive. It can quickly become very dangerous for the beekeeper.

This is one very good example of the rule, NEVER SERVICE A BEEHIVE WITHOUT A LIT FUNCTIONING SMOKER!

How does a beekeeper spot robber activity?

A beekeeper can detect if the hive is under attack by robber bees by:

  • Are there guard bees fighting robbers at the entrance to the hive?
  • Are there dead bees at the front of the hive?
  • Are bees crawling all over the hive looking for entrances other than the designated entrances?

Guard Bee

Guard bees will fight any robber bee to the death.
The beekeeper will see bees in the life or death struggle , rolling around on the entrance board or on the ground in front of the entrance to the hive.

Guard bees are guard bees for life. It is in their DNA. They are the strongest, most aggressive bees in the hive. They will attack anything they feel threatens the hive, not just robber bees.

Guard bees are not just at the hive entrance, they can be found throughout the hive. They are the main reason a beekeeper needs to have a smoker with them anytime the beekeeper is going to service the hive.

If a beekeeper takes the lid off a beehive and sees some bees standing on top of the hive frames, it is the guard bees looking at the beekeeper deciding if they are going to attack the beekeeper or not.

Smoking the top of the open hive will drive the guard bees down into the hive and the guard bee will no longer be considering attacking the beekeeper.

Dead bees at the front of the hive

Dead bees at the front of the hive is a good indication that a robber (or guard bee) has been in the death battle and one or the other was victorious. If it was the robber bee that was victorious, the robber bee still has more guard bees to get by before they can rob the hive, and they have already expended a great deal of energy in the recent fight making it less likely they will survive the next upcoming fight.

Bees crawling all over the hive

Less confident (or smarter) robber bees attempt to breach the hive somewhere other than the designated entrances to the hive. These robber bees will be crawling all over the hive in a seemingly random erratic pattern looking for any nook or cranny through which they can gain entry to the hive.

Other tell-tale signs of robbing

Foraging bees take off from the hive entrance and quickly gain altitude on their way out to gather nectar and pollen. On the return trip they will be laden with nectar and visible pollen collect and the additional weight will cause the foraging bee’s return flight path a low slow approach to the hive entrance.

A robber bee’s flight pattern will be just the opposite.
A steep descent to the hive entrance (they are coming in empty) but a low slow flight path out of the hive because they are loaded with honey.

The exiting robber bee will not have any pollen stuffed into the pollen leg-pouches, the robber is only after honey. Pollen is only gathered to rear young, and during a robbing period, the flowers are not producing pollen or nectar so the hive will stop rearing as many young. The pollen is not needed, just the honey.

Robbing activity attracts wasps.
They are there not only to eat the dead bees (honeybees are protein) but also to partake in some of the exposed honey.

What are the signs that robbing has taken place in my honeybee hive?

Recent honey bee robbing will leave chunks of wax, in large quantity, seen at the hive entrance. This is capping wax that robbers tore open to steal the honey inside.
Frame inspection will show jagged-edged comb cells the robbers chewed open.

Robbing can stop almost as suddenly as it started.
Finding a new nectar source, a weaker hive, or even rain can abruptly stop the robbing activity.
The best technique to stop honey bee robbing is interventions implemented by the observant beekeeper.

Why do honeybees rob another hive?

Shortage of nectar available to gather from flowers is the catalyst activating honey bee hive robbing behaviour.
During a 4-6 week window transition period, between spring to summer and again fall to winter, flowers are not in bloom. This is when robbing is likely to happen

It’s all about supply and demand.

The 4-6 week window at end of spring and fall, when there is no nectar flow, these periods of time are referred to as a “dearth”

During a darth, a foraging honey bee from another hive, makes the decision that her best service to her hive, is to try and fight her way through guard bees at the weakest hive she can find instead of searching for nectar that is no longer there.

She is willing to fight to the death to bring honey back to her hive. After all, foraging honey bee is the last stage of a honey bee’s life, so she only has a few days at most before she has worked herself to death.
Workaholic or gladiator, what will it be …..

How do guard honeybees identify robber bees from friendly neighbors?

The guard bees can determine if a bee is a robber bee by its behaviour. Like a shoplifter telegraphs intentions to surveillance, a robber bee telegraphs intentions to guard bees.
Bees without robbing intentions are not challenged

Some beekeepers report seeing robber bees sway from side to side waiting for an opportunity to enter the hive. Much like an offensive lineman in football readies himself to charge the defensive line.

One respected bee scientist states that at any given time a beehive’s population can be up to about 50% non-citizens of that specific hive. If this is the case then robber bees must certainly have some “tells”. A robber bee wouldn’t be good poker players.

What can a beekeeper do to prevent honey bee hive robbers?

Beekeepers can help bees to defend themselves from robber bees by:

  • Using entrance reducers
  • Eliminating cracks in the hive
  • Don’t encourage robbing by poor beekeeper inspection technique
  • Combine weak hives
  • Reduce colony to nuc size

Entrance Reducer

Entrance reducers are wedge-shaped sticks of lumber cut to a specific standard size to fit the hive opening.
The same effect can be achieved by simply stuffing anything into the hive entrance to reduce its size.

Some beekeepers chose to use just plain grass. Using some material such as grass gives the hive bees the opportunity to regulate the entrance size by just removing some of the material selected to block the entrance. The downside is the strength of the material against bees intent on robbing.

Many beekeepers report they just automatically put an entrance reducer in place at the beginning of a dearth.

Another consideration for using entrance reducers would be outside temperature. If robbing is taking place during a hot period of time in your area it would be a good idea to fashion a homemade entrance reducer using stiff screen wire. The screen entrance reducer will allow good hive ventilation.

Beekeepers frequently use entrance reducers during cold weather to help the bees maintain a constant temperature in the hive.

Eliminate Cracks In The Hive

Inspection of the exterior of the hive may reveal some crack or opening that robber bees could use for hive entry instead of coming in through the front door. Seal it or screen it but if you screen it, be very careful. Bees do not like vibration so a hammer is a bad idea.

Don’t encourage robbing by poor beekeeper inspection technique

During a dearth, when robbing is likely to occur, don’t encourage robber bees by exposing honeycomb to the open environment.

During the spring, when there is a lot of nectar available for the foraging bees, the beekeeper may get into the bad habit of cleaning off burr comb and putting it on top of an adjacent hive. During the spring a beekeeper is usually going to get away with this bad habit without consequence.

But during a dearth, if the beekeeper continues this poor practice, they will be punished!

The beekeeper that places comb on top of an adjacent hive during a dearth is inviting all the feral bees that are probably close by the hive, as well as any other robber bee, to come feast on the comb. And they will come by the hoards!

Combine Weak Hives

Robbing occurs at weak hives. The population may only be 50% of expected hive population for that time of year.

Combining hives can bring the hive back up to the expected population instantly and will give the hive not only the needed additional guard bees but also foraging bees. Both will make the one hive much stronger that the combined strength of two weak hives.

Nuc Size

Reducing a weak full size hive down to nuc size hive can greatly increase the hive’s ability to defend itself against robber bees.

Once the nuc has gained strength and robbing has stopped, the nuc can be moved back into a full size hive if it is not too later in the year. If the lateness of the year dictates hive shrinkage in preparation for winter, the hive can be successfully over-wintered in the nuc, if the hive is sufficiently protected from the cold by the beekeeper.

The reason commercial beekeepers have apiaries with a propensity to robbing is because there are too many beehives on a small area and just not enough flower nectar to support that many hives.

The commercial beekeeper is moving the beehives around to different farming / orchard areas to pollinate the farmer’s crop for a fee. Plenty of nectar then.

But when there are no crops to pollinate the beekeeper must “park them” somewhere. That somewhere is frequently a flower-barren area.
That’s why beehives are seen in hive parking stations with big containers of sugar water on top. There’s just not enough available nectar.

Happy Robber-Free Beekeeping

Paying It Forward

Related Topics

Do Bumblebees Rob Honeybee Hives?

Some bumblebees are brave enough to challenge the honeybee for its honey but few ever make it past the entrance guards.
If they manage to enter the hive, guard bees inside the hive gang up and quickly kill the bumblebee.
No honey is lost.

What Happens To All The Dead Bees After A Robbing Attack?

Within a honeybee hive there are designated worker bees to get rid of dead bodies. These are the “undertaker” bees.
Dead bees they can lift, they will fly them away from the hive and drop them on the ground.
Heavier dead bees they simply drag away from the hive.

Robert Donaldson

I am Elizabeth's father, a physical therapist, and someone who has completely landscaped our family home's nearly 1/2 acre lot after losing our home and landscape to the Thomas wildfire in 2017. All landscaping was done to accommodate our wildlife friends, especially the birds and bees.

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