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Robbing Activities - When Bees Turn to Crime

Robbing Activities - When Bees Turn to Crime

You may be alarmed the first time you see robbing activities taking place. You're not alone. Every beekeeper who finds themselves dealing with robbing activities becomes alarmed. And with good reason.

What is Robbing?

Robbing can be defined as the attempt by other insects, typically bees and yellow jackets, to forcibly take resources from a hive. This typically happens when outside resources in the environment are scarce. This causes other bees to become robbers in an attempt to steal honey and nectar to replenish their own stores.

When you see the frenzy associated with robbing activities, you'll know that something is going on. Robbers will be buzzing around the hive, darting back and forth, looking for a way into the hive. When honeybees are the robbers, you might think your hive is in the middle of swarming activities. Look closer, however, and you'll see that many of the bees are attempting to enter the hive rather than exiting.

Guard bees will be lined up at the entrance, defending the hive against the robbers. Fights to the death occur on the entrance board of the hive. Many bees die in the process. A hive that is struggling for whatever reason can be totally decimated. This is one of the reasons why you shouldn't increase the entrances more than the bees can defend when making modifications to the hive, such as when increasing ventilation.

When robbers gain access to the hive, they rip open capped cells of honey, filling their stomachs with honey and nectar, and taking as much honey as they can carry back to their own hive.

Robbing Activities from the Robber's Perspective

Robbing generally occurs when resources are scarce.

Let’s look at it from the robber bee’s perspective. Imagine you’re a foraging bee, and you’ve visited all the places you know to find nectar and pollen, but you’ve come up empty. Resources are scarce — you find yourself in the middle of a nectar dearth.

Then a breeze drifts in with the sweet scent of honey or nectar. It’s your job to deliver these items to your hive, so you follow the scent ... you and every other bee that's out foraging to no avail.

When you get to the location of the stored nectar, you find that it’s guarded. Your instincts take over, however, and you’re willing to fight to the death to gain access to the “liquid gold”. You and the other bees from your hive take on the gatekeepers. If the gatekeepers guard a hive that is struggling or has numbers that are too small to guard its entrances, they'll be killed and the hive's resources will return home with the robbers.

Many bees die in the process as the stronger bees overpower the weaker ones. If the robbers win the battle, they often kill all the bees in the hive including the queen. Then they take all the resources they can carry to their own hive, returning again and again until nothing is left.

Reasons for Robbing Activities

We’ve looked at one of the main reasons for robbing activities — limited resources. But generally, for robbing activities to be successful, one of these other situations must also come into play. These include:

  • A hive whose queen has died
  • A hive that is struggling with pests such as varroa mites or wax moths
  • A hive with decreased populations
  • A hive with entrances too large to be guarded

All these scenarios lead to a hive that cannot defend itself against large numbers of robbing bees whose persistence will eventually pay off.

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Robbing bees are dangerous and aggressive. They can negatively affect your bees and their honey stores if things go unchecked, often wiping out an entire colony of bees. As beekeepers, we may be the cause of robbing activities.

Hives in nature are not built close to other hives. Beekeepers often keep more than one hive in close proximity to other hives. Therefore, it's the beekeeper’s responsibility to address the issue of robbing. Join us next time when we look at what you can do.

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