Houston, we have a problem. I was out in the field the other afternoon and we were getting ready to head back into the lab when we got a phone call. One of our visiting scientists said there was a case of robbing going on in another yard that we call “Mushroom.” Although I had heard of robbing, Rob has included some pretty graphic photos and a video about it in his blog this week, I had never witnessed it before and so I was ready to see what the fuss was all about. When we got to the yard, I was told that it was best I stayed in the truck considering the scene. It appeared that one of the hives was being attacked by hordes of bees. It was a scary site and considering I only had my veil with me I was perfectly fine with waiting it out in the truck.
So what is robbing and why is it so detrimental to a hive?
Robbing usually occurs during nectar dearths that take place in early fall and in the heat of summer. Bees from a stronger hive will smell honey in a weaker colony and proceed to raid it, stealing all the honey and taking it back to their own hive. Bees can smell honey when a hive has been opened for one reason or another, or if there is a second opening; and they waste no time making their move. They are vicious. Frenzied bees race to the hive and fighting occurs at the entrances as desperate guards try to keep the robbers from entering the hive. Usually this attempt is futile and soon the hive is invaded and its combs are ripped to shreds, left ravished and empty. Robbing devastates a colony, killing many bees and if it is not stopped in time there will be no honey left in the hive, causing the bees to starve.
Italian bees are generally thought to rob the most often and queenless colonies are robbed more frequently than queenright colonies. Strong colonies often prey upon weaker colonies as they have a far less chance of defending themselves when under attack. So what does one do in attempt to save a colony that is being robbed? The first thing to do is to seal up the entrance of the hive being robbed and also any holes being used as a second entrance and other crevasses that may act as an opening. You can do this with a number of materials such as a wet cloth or even duct ape, but make sure to allow for ventilation and hydration. You can also put a robbing screen on the entrance of the hive. This will confuse the robber bees and help them to turn away while still allowing for the resident bees to enter and exit the hive. Eventually, after trying and failing enough times to get into the hive the robbers will give up trying to invade the colony. The strategy that we used was to first seal up the hive, move it, and then put a dummy colony in its place. Putting a dummy colony, or empty hive, in place of the hive under siege tricks the robbers into believing that all the honey is gone from the hive. They return to their own hives and spread the word that there is no reason to go back to the invaded because there is no more honey to collect. This settles down the bees so they are no longer in a spastic frenzy to attack.
Sitting there in the truck watching the poor, helpless colony being ravaged by stronger bees made me angry. Silly, I know, but I felt so sorry for the bees that were taking a serious beating by the ‘thieves.‘ “Get your own honey,” was all I could think. By the time we reached the hive, I think it was too late for them and they met an unfortunate fate and their successors made off with the honey. The hive, well, it’s still duct aped sitting by the barn, but there is little we can do about this one. Hopefully we’ll have some better luck next time and be able to thwart the raiders before they inflict too much damage.