Honey bees have numerous enemies in nature, including wasps (especially yellow jackets), wax moths, hive beetles, and yes, even bears. However, it might come as a surprise for some of you to learn that honey bee colonies also sometimes attack each other. Namely, when food is scarce, an army of honey bees might decide to steal the reserves of honey from a weaker colony. Of course, the robbing bees and the bees from the colony that is being robbed look pretty much the same.
So, how exactly can you tell your hive is being robbed? The key signs that indicate the hive is being robbed include bees flying around the bottom and the back of the hive, bees fighting near the entrance into the hive, as well as noticing dead worker bees and little pieces of wax near the entrance.
The most important thing to keep in mind is the fact that honey bees will not give up their honey reserves without a fight. Therefore, you will always be able to notice increased activity around the hive when robbing occurs.
We will consider all of these signs in more detail below as well as the actions a beekeeper can take to stop and, preferably, prevent robbing. But before we delve into this, let’s talk for a minute about why robbing happens and the time of the year when hives are most at risk from being robbed.
Robbing Behavior In Honey Bees
When thinking about who might steal the honey from a hive of honey bees, one might never suspect it might be the honey bees themselves. However, the truth is, robbing bees are not some especially aggressive species of bees – they are just normal honey bees who are desperately searching for food. In fact, robbing can happen between two colonies in the same apiary (but might also happen between different apiaries).
So why do bees rob? Well, usually this happens when sources of nutrition are scarce. Therefore, robbing activity usually increases during the fall and winter. If a colony of bees has not prepared adequately for the winter, and the sources of nectar outside start to dwindle away, they might resort to robbing another hive if it is available. Hives that are weak and vulnerable for whatever reason are at a higher risk of being robbed. A weaker hive might simply be a hive with a lower number of bees.
How To Recognize Robbing Behavior
If your hive is being robbed, you’ll want to know about it as soon as possible so you can take some measures to stop the robbing. As we have already mentioned, the first sign that should lead you to suspect bees are trying to rob a hive is increased activity around the hive. However, increased activity alone does not necessarily mean a hive is being robbed. This is why it’s important to be able to tell the difference between robbing and increased activity because of a heavy nectar flow which is perfectly normal.
Robbing vs Normal Bee Traffic
So how exactly can you tell which bees are robbers and which are not? When bees are busy gathering nectar, there might be a lot of activity around the entrance, but it will essentially look different than robbing. The foraging worker bees will be flying in with nectar and then flying out in search for more. There will probably be some workers on guard duty around the entrance.
One thing to keep in mind is that the foraging workers will be flying straight out of the hive, quickly flying upwards and away since they are not weighed down by anything when leaving the hive. When coming back they will be carrying nectar which makes them significantly heavier.
On the other hand, robbing bees will be flying out of the hive burdened with honey and this can be quite easy to notice. They will be heavy and therefore flying really low at the beginning of their flight, or even crawling on the ground near the hive. This kind of behavior would never happen in normal conditions.
Young Workers or Robbers?
Robbing bees are attracted by the smell of honey, so you might be able to notice them flying around the hive trying to get to the source of the sweet smell. This means they will be sniffing around any crack or little hole there is in the hive – not just the entrance. Additionally, robber bees might be spending a lot of time around the entrance, swaying from side to side and waiting for the opportunity to get inside.
There is one thing you should keep in mind when you notice bees hovering around the hive, though – these might as well be young worker bees orienting themselves. Young worker bees that are just starting to forage might exhibit behavior similar to robbing bees. They hover up and down and from side to side close to the hive. However, in the case of young workers this behavior will generally be peaceful, and in the case of robbers you might notice the bees getting agitated and frantic.
Physical Signs Of Robbing
As we have mentioned, the changes in the behavior of bees in and around the hive will probably be the first thing to lead the beekeeper to start thinking about robbing and it’s necessary to know how to tell the difference between robbing and normal traffic. However, if you play detective for a bit and look around the hive you’ll be able to tell for sure if your hive is really being robbed. What you’d be looking for are dead worker bees near the entrance and traces of wax around the hive.
Namely, bees will never let workers from another colony enter the hive without putting up a fight. Robbing will always lead to fights and there will be deaths on both sides. When robbing bees enter the hive they will break the wax caps of the honeycomb to get to the sweet honey. As a result, you’ll be able to see little pieces of wax near the hive and especially the entrance.
The Telltale Signs of Robbing
To summarize, here is a list of signs of a hive being robbed. One of those might or might not mean there is a robbery going on, but if you notice two or more of these signs at the same time it’s probably safe to say your hive is being robbed:
- The number of bees flying around the hive and especially the entrance seems larger than usual
- The bees flying around the hive seem agitated and/or more aggressive
- Bees trying to enter the hive through the bottom or the back of the hive
- Increased commotion around the entrance into the hive
- Bees fighting each other near the entrance
- Bees swaying from side to side as the fly around the entrance and generally around the hive
- Dead worker bees close to the hive
- The hive seems noisier than usual
- Small pieces of wax near the entrance
- Bees exiting the hive weight down by honey and thus flying lower than usual
The Consequences Of Robbing
Obviously, a hive that gets robbed will lose a lot, if not all, of its reserves of honey. This will greatly reduce the chances of the colony living in the hive that has been robbed of surviving the winter. Moreover, every hive has bees guarding the entrance, and those will always put up a fight with the robbers, resulting in deaths on both sides. Ultimately, the fighting might reach the queen and she might end up dead or injured, in which case the colony is probably doomed.
However, there is another problem with robbing besides honey being stolen and bees getting killed. Namely, robbing can also encourage the spread of all kinds of diseases and pests that can harm the bees. As bees from different hives come in contact with each other, this makes the spread of disease much easier than usual.
How to stop honey bees from robbing?
The most effective way to help bees defend their hive from robbers is by reducing the entrance. Entrance reducers can be bought online, but you can easily make them yourself too. The principle is simple – the smaller the entrance, the smaller the area that bees have to defend from the aggressors. You’ll also want to make sure that there are no other openings on the hive through which the robbers might get in.
How to prevent robbing?
Taking preventive measures is much more effective than trying to stop robbing when it’s already happening. To prevent robbing, make sure you never leave honey or syrup out in the open as the smell can attract robbers. It’s also advisable to reduce the size of the entrance of the hive during the times when sources of nectar are scarce.
Yadav S., Kaushik H.D. (2017) Diseases and Enemies of Honeybees. In: Omkar (eds) Industrial Entomology. Springer, Singapore
Ryan Willingham, Jeanette Klopchin, and James Ellis. Robbing Behavior in Honey Bees. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in1064