Another apiculture-flavoured tale of daylight robbery, literally, to follow the post on hive and bee thefts last week.
However, this time it’s not dodgy bee-suited perps with badly inked prison tats offering cheap nucs down the Dog and Duck.
Like other offenders, the robbers this week wear striped apparel, but this time it’s dark brown and tan, or brown and yellow or black and yellow.
I am of course referring to honey bees and wasps (Vespa vulgaris and V. germanica), both of which can cause major problems at this time of year by robbing weak colonies.
The season here – other than for those who have taken colonies to the heather – is drawing to a close. The main nectar sources have more or less dried up in the last fortnight. There’s a bit of rosebay willow herb and bramble in the hedgerows and some himalayan balsam in the river valleys, but that’s about it.
Colonies are strong, or should be. With the dearth of nectar in the fields, the foragers turn their attention to other colonies as a potential source of carbohydrates. Colonies need large amounts of stores to get through the winter and evolution has selected a behavioural strategy – robbing of weaker colonies – to get as much carbohydrate from the easiest possible sources.
Like the nucs you carefully prepared for overwintering 🙁
At the same time, wasps are also wanting to pile in the carbs before winter 1. In the last fortnight the wasp numbers in my apiaries and equipment stores have increased significantly.
Jekyll and Hyde
Within a few days in late summer/early autumn the mood and attitude of colonies in the apiary changes completely.
During a strong nectar flow the bees single-mindedly pile in the stores. They alight, tail-heavy, on the landing board, enter the hive, unload and set out again. There’s a glut and they ignore almost anything other than bingeing on it. Inspections are easy. Most bees are out foraging and they are – or should be – well-tempered and forgiving.
But then the nectar flow, almost overnight, stops.
Colonies become markedly more defensive. They are packed with bees and they’re tetchy. There’s nothing to distract them, they resent the intrusion and they want to protect their hard-won stores 2.
At the same time, they quickly become more inquisitive, investigating any potential new source of sugar. If you shake the bees off a frame and leave it standing against the leg of the hive stand there will be dozens of foragers – many from nearby colonies – gorging themselves on the nectar.
If you spill unripened nectar from a frame they’re all over it, quickly forming a frenzied mass – probably from several different hives – scrabbling to ‘fill their boots’.
They also closely investigate anything that smells of nectar or honey. Stacks of equipment, empty supers, hive tools, the smoker bellows … anything.
And it’s this behaviour that can quickly turn into robbing.
The foragers investigate a small, dark entrance that smells of honey … like a nuc in the corner of the apiary. They enter unchallenged or after a little argy-bargy 3, find the stores, stuff themselves, go back to their colony and then return mob-handed.
Before long, the nuc entrance had a writhing mass of bees trying to get in, any guards present are soon overwhelmed and, in just a few hours, it’s robbed out and probably doomed.
This is the most obvious – and rather distressing – form of robbing. Wasps can do almost exactly the same thing, with similarly devastating consequences.
Prevention is better than cure
Once started (and obvious), robbing is difficult to stop. About the only option is to seal the target hive and remove it to another apiary a good distance away.
Far better to prevent it happening in the first place.
The best way of preventing robbing is to maintain large, strong and healthy colonies. With ample bees there are ample guards and the colony will be able to defend itself from both bees and wasps. Strong colonies are much more likely to be the robbers than the robbed.
For smaller colonies in a full-sized hive, or nucleus colonies or – and these are the most difficult of all to defend – mini-nucs used for queen mating, it’s imperative to make the hive easy to defend and minimise attracting robbers to the apiary in the first place.
The underfloor entrances on kewl floors are much easier to defend than a standard entrance and small entrances are easier to defend than large ones. ‘Small’ might mean as little as one bee-width … i.e. only traversable by a single bee at a time.
You can even combine the two; insert a 9mm thick piece of stripwood into the Kewl floor entrance to reduce the space to be defended to a centimetre or two. If – as happened tonight when returning wet supers to the hives – I don’t have a suitable piece of stripwood in the apiary I use a strip of gaffer tape to reduce the entrance 4.
Gaffer tape is also essential to maintain the integrity of the hive if some of the supers are a bit warped. Wasps can squeeze through smaller holes than bees and the quick application of a half metre along the junction between boxes can save the day 5.
The poly nucs I favour have a ridiculously large entrance which I reduce by 90% using foam blocks, dried grass, gaffer tape, wire mesh or Correx.
Don’t tempt them
Finally, reduce the inducement robbers – whether bees or wasps – have to investigate everything in the apiary by not leaving open sources of nectar, not spilling honey or syrup, clearing up brace comb and ensuring any stored equipment is ‘bee proof’.
You don’t need to inspect as frequently at this time of the season. The queen will have reduced her laying rate and colonies are no longer expanding. With no nectar coming in they should have sufficient space in the brood nest. There’s little chance they will swarm.
If you don’t need to inspect, then don’t. The ability to judge this comes with experience.
If you do have to inspect (to find, mark and clip a late-season mated queen for example 6 do not leave the colony open for longer than necessary. Any supers that are temporarily removed should be secured so bees and wasps cannot access them.
If you’re returning wet supers after extraction, do it with the minimum disruption late in the evening. These supers absolutely reek of honey and attract robbers from far and wide. Keep the supers covered – top and bottom – gently lift the crownboard, give them a tiny puff of smoke, place the supers on top, replace the roof and leave them be.
In my experience wet supers are the most likely thing to trigger a robbing frenzy. I usually reduce the entrance at the same time I put the wet supers back and try to add wet supers to all the colonies in the apiary on the same evening 7.
I generally don’t inspect colonies until the supers are cleaned out and ready for storage.
- I’m not entirely sure I understand why though … they’ve been rearing young all season on a protein-rich diet of insects but switch to carbs in the early autumn. Most of the wasps involved in robbing will die off during the first frosts of winter.
- Lots of anthropomorphisation going on here … all these are simply behavioural traits driven by evolution.
- Nucs often have poorly balanced bee populations, with lots of young bees and few guards, for example.
- Don’t just slap a strip of tape across the entrance as you’ll find there are a line of dead bee stuck to it when you remove it. Instead, fold a strip lengthways and stick it to itself. Stick this narrow, now non-adhesive strip, lengthways along the middle of a second strip. Then seal the entrance. It’e easier to do than write! Use waterproof gaffer tape.
- Wasps and bees can chew through this sort of tape; it’s useful for temporary ‘fixes’ and to prevent access in the first place.
- Really? If there are eggs present and pollen going in she’s probably OK. She’ll be easier to find in the Spring as there will be far fewer bees in the box.
- Theoretically so no one colony is induced to rob others as they’re all too busy with the bounty that’s just been dumped on top of their own home. In reality, I don’t know whether this really makes a difference.
We’ve got a terrible problem with wasps this year in Lincolnshire. More wasps than I can remember for many a year. I’m adding robbing screens for wasps rather than bees this year!
Wasps seem ‘smarter’ than bees in finding their way in … this year they’ve leant to negotiate the overlapping window panes in our bee shed and are being a real nuisance. I’ll be interested to hear whether they learn to circumvent your robbing screens. I’ve not discussed these as I’ve never really used them.
I thought the reason wasps start to crave sweetness in late summer/autumn was that previously their larvae excreted sugar. With the queen no longer laying worker larvae, they no longer have this sugar source so turn to rotten apples, honey and ice cream.
I made the mistake of eating a ‘hedgehog’ on the beach this week – vanilla ice cream rolled in clotted cream and honey covered hazelnuts. You can imagine the result. Poor Tommy had them crawling on his face trying to get his ice cream dribbles.
You might well be right, but I’m not sure I see why … those getting the ‘fix’ are all doomed and most won’t breed. There must be some sort of explanation in terms of evolution (I’m a biologist – it’s what explains almost everything where money isn’t involved, in which case it’s economics). Something to look into during the long winter ahead.
The ‘hedgehog’ sounds absolutely disgusting, let alone what happened to Tommy. Just because those four ingredients are delicious doesn’t necessarily make the combination appealing!
Maybe a basic survival instinct to keep going as long as possible? Or because they still have a few queens and males to bring up in the autumn?
You’re wrong about the hedgehog – it was fabulous, even with several wasps trying to steal it!
Possibly … seems a selfish act without reproductive benefit if there aren’t queens being produced.
I’m still unconvinced about the ‘hedgehog’ 😉
also ensure the ocupied frames are as close to the entrance as possible.
Also this article I found very good (by Dragoslav Ilic) :
Robbing, that frightful word that makes beekeepers’ hair stand on end. Hard battles have been fought and special tactics have been devised, but as a rule, the battle was always lost. Perhaps the reason lies in the wrong tactics or delayed beginning of the battle.
Many beekeepers seldom visit their bee yards. When they do go to see them after a longer period of time, they are astonished by the sight. Bee colonies, left in the best condition, healthy, strong and filled with honey, do not exist any longer. All the indications show that robbing was committed. Therefore the culprit is known; its name is robbing.
Everyone who is seriously into beekeeping could see how robbing destroyed the mating nooks and swarms. All this creates an ugly and dreadful picture about robbing. However, is this picture true or false?
A bee flying around a hive knows exactly about the state of the colony in that beehive. It has a scanner, which gives it a precise picture about it. That scanner is one of its most important organs of perceptions, a sense of smell – antennas. A bee has an extraordinary developed a sense of smel. It distinguishes a lot of smells and even in small concentrations. If antennas were removed, a bee would become unable to live. A sense of smell is essential for discovering the source of food. A possible source of food might be someone else’s beehive as well. However, not every beehive is a suitable source of food. Bee colonies that live in each beehive will not allow, even at the risk of their lives, some stranger to carry away the food, which means life to them and which was made by working day and night. From such a hive the bees around it will not even try to take food because it would mean their death penalty. But sometimes the bees estimate that the bees inside the hive do not need honey, and that they can take it. Which bee colonies can they rob? Or, what indicates that they can do that? The attacked colonies always have some deficiency. As a rule, it is the queen. Bees in the hive are also aware of lack of the queen, due to the absence of pheromones, but so are the bees from the other bee colonies. A queenless colony that has just come out of the wiinter is doomed. In the absence of the queen, there is no brood, no teeming of young bees. The old bees, due to their age, disappear every day. The strenght of the colony diminishes by the day, and its defenses get progressively weaker. When the bees outside sense that they can breech the defensive cordon, they attack, penetrate the hive and take all the honey away. If robbing colony did not have any honey in its hive, the honey that was brought would mean the continuation of life. Therefore, nothing exeptional has happened because robbing means taking away from someone that cannot be saved and giving to someone whose life depends on it. Regulated by nature in an extraordinary way, robbing is biologicaly useful and justified. It means the survival of species in nature. In the bee yard, it means fewer dead colonies due to the lack of food. If there were no robbing, the colonies having food but destined for destruction would die, while the colonies which are biologically sound but without food would die too. Without robbing, the number of destroyed colonies would be greater both in nature and in the bee yard.
The following three experiments can demonstrate that the absence of the queen in the beehive is the only important cause of robbing:
Experiment no. 1
We carry out the colony ‘A’ swarming in the same hive in which it was located by separating the hive into the section ‘A’ and the section ‘B’. The queen that was already there remains in the section ‘A’ but we put another mated queen in the section ‘B’. After a certain period of time when both colonies are stabilised and when the foraging bees chose the colony, we draw all the bees and the queen out but leaving the whole quantity of honey. It is to be expected that the robbing will be committed in the section ‘B’. However, it does not happen that way. Robbing was not committed in the section ‘B’. What kind of invisible force keeps the honey in the section ‘B’? That force is the smell of pheromones from the section ‘A’, deceiving the bees arround the hive so that they get the impression that there is also a queen with a normal colony in the section ‘B’.
Experiment no. 2
We leave only the queen, around a hundred of ageing bees and honey in the hive in which used to be a good, strong colony while we draw all the rest out, including the bees and the brood. Will robbing be committed in this hive? It certainly will not. Does the reason for it lie in the defensive power of the remaining bees or is something else in question?
Defensive power of a hundred bees is almost negligible, but the defensive power of pheromones of the queen is enormous. That will be to a greater extent shown by the experiment no. 3 which follows on the experiment no. 2.
Experiment no. 3
We leave several thousands of ageing bees and honey in the hive wherein a good, strong colony used to live. We draw the queen, all the remaining bees and the brood out. Later on robbing will take place: the hive will be attacked, the bees killed and the honey taken away. How is it possible that several thousands bees did not succeed in defending themselves, their hive and the honey in it, while around a hundred of bees and the queen in the experiment no. 2 could accomplish it successfully.
Food means survival for all living creatures; so it does for the bees, and that is why they carry it away from the other hives into their own hive. The aim of robbing is not to kill, but to transfer the food. If the host does not try to stop it, there will be no killing but only taking away of food. The experiment no. 4. will confirm it.
Experiment no. 4
We separate a couple of hundreds of young bees and young unmated queen in the hive with honey. In order to provoke robbing, we feed them with sugary syrup. The robbing will occur with the attack of this hive, taking all honey away but without killing the bees and the queen. Young bees, like other young creatures, are fearful and will not fight the attacking bees, but will only withdraw aside. Anyway, there will be neither fighting nor battle and so there will be no dead bees.
In the experiment no. 3 the robbing causes killing of all ageing bees because they fight the invaders. Dead bees can be found on both sides, so that a larger number of dead bees is found after robbing in comparison to their number in the hive before the robbing.
One or several colonies can participate in robbing. The bees participating in robbing are even well organized. They place ostensible guarding; i.e. each bee on a hive’s entrance is on guard and does not allow bees from colonies other than their own to enter the hive. Therefore, only one colony can take part in robbing and it will be the one that first discovered the source of food. The following experiment proves it.
Experiment no. 5
We place the beehive with honey but without bees in the middle of the bee yard. After robbing took place, we shall not be able to find a single dead bee. It means that the robbing was committed by only one colony.
Bees from one or several colonies can take part in robbing. It will be shown by the following experiment.
Experiment no. 6
We place a beehive with honey but without bees in the bee yard. In contrast to the previous experiment where there was a single entrance to hive and where the first robbing colony succeeded in establishing control of the entry, in this experiment we shall make possible for the bees to enter from all sides. This has been done in order to prevent the first robbing colony to have a complete control of the entrance into the hive. We can find quite a large number of dead bees on the bottom of thr board. That points out that several colonies took part in robbing and also that there was fighting and killing among them.
It could be concluded from all the above mentioned that the robbing was only committed against the colonies in destruction. At this moment, a question could be raised that if it is the case why the robbing attacks the mating nooks since they are not the colonies in destruction but the ones in formation. The answer is very simple because the bees also view them as a colony in extinction: they have no queen, they are without bees of all generation, and they lack the brood in all phases. There are two critical moments the robbing occurs in the life of a bee colony during the year concerning food. The first moment is the period of coming out from winter when stored food supplies in the hive have been consumed and nature still cannot offer new ones. The other critical moment is the end of summer and the beginning of autumn. That is the last moment when it is necessary to provide sufficient food supplies for the forthcoming winter which is rather difficult because the sources of food in nature run dry. The robbing is only the last act in the process of colony destruction. If the robbing was committed in March, destruction of the colony must have started in October of the previous year when the colony entered the winter with the old queen. Therefore, we should not only see the end event, the robbing, but we should also pay attention to the facts that had been happening to the attacked colony in the previous period.
The bees are not to be blamed for the robbing in the bee yard. The main and the only responsible culprit is always the beekeeper who, owing to delayed and inappropriate application of measures of precaution, contributes and provokes the occurence of robbing in the bee yard.
Colonies that are destined for destruction will be destroyed but those with a chance of surviving should not be destroyed – robbing will save them.
The only real measure against robbing in the bee yard is to rear and breed biologically sound bee colonies throughout the year.
Nature has not bestowed upon the bee colony any needless features. Robbing is, therefore, necessary and useful.