What exactly is robbing? I posted an earlier question about entrance feeders and robbing was mentioned. Just want to make sure I'm not hurting my bees with the entrance feeder. Sorry, I'm new to this party.
22's description is accurate, but it's quite scary if you ever see a full on frenzy. 10's of thousands of dead bees, dead hives, and it goes on for days. Avoid it at all costs, and take immediate steps to stop it if it does start.
When you're a new beekeeper the specter of robbing - which is a REALLY bad thing -is pretty scary. And the descriptions of it can sound a lot like some other things which are perfectly normal.
Robbing occurs when the bees from one hive (one of yours, or your neighbor's or a free-liviing pack of raiders) finds a poorly defended source of honey. Normally a hive will easily rebuff any foolish honey bee predators that venture too near their entrances. But when you have a new, or a weakened (for any number of reasons) or a very low population the defenders may not be successful in driving off the raiders, espcecially if the prize is very rich and there are a lot of attackers. It is most most common during dearths when there isn't a lot of nectar to be foound and when a hive has already stored up honey for the winter.
Bees will fight to the death to defend their stores and when you have robbing you will not only lose the precious, and irreplaceable to the hive, honey, you can also lose hundreds of bees trying to fight off the robbers. But it's even worse than that. A robbing frenzy whether in one of your hives, or if your own girls turn to crime at some other hive, is an easy way to spread diseases and mites from one colony to another.
So you have to deal with it - and it's easier to have some ideas of how to deal with it ahead of time because it's an emergency when it happens.
The first thing is to differentiate it from other, benign, behavior. One of the common concerns that I had early on was when I saw bees carrying out dead bees from the hive. Was it robbing, or normal mortuary bee activity? Sometimes the act of carrying the corpse can make the carrying bee tumble and turn in the air making it seem like a fight is going on. Pairs of mortuary bees sometimes even carry dead ones together so you can easily think that it's a battle. If you look carefully, though, you'll see that mortuary bees seem casual and unconcerned and once they've dumped the dead one away from the hive, they fly back calmly. Fighting bees will stick with a foe, continuing the fight on to the ground and rolling over and over.
You may read that robbing bees hover in front of the hive waiting for a safe moment to dart straight into the entrance. This is true, but don't confuse that cloud of malignant hoverers with young bees having orientation flights. When young bees get old enough they come out, at mid-day or early afternoon usually, in amazing masses (remember queens can lay 1000+ eggs a day, so that's how big a daily crop of baby bees there might be). They come out and turn and face the hive and fly towards it and back away and spiral up and down. They just look like they're having fun. And some times, too, after a period of confinement due to winter or a move older foragers will also reorient in large numbers all at once. I was watching my bees recently doing this and it struck me that you can tell the difference between a re-orientation crowd and robbing by the quality of the flight patterns and the overall tenor of the activity. Re-orientation is like a crowd on the way to a circus, or a parade, when they know they have plenty of time and will get good seats and have a nice day of it. While there are a lot of bees flying in a swirling cloud, there's just a feeling of lightness to it. And reorientation lasts only about 30-45 minutes, and then whoosh, they fly back inside.
Robbing crowds are different: they have the behavioral texture of a surly crowd surging against barricades and looking for any excuse to push through. It's more like an angry soccer-mob. And they will keep at it for hours, right up to dusk. And be back ready to ruumble at first light the next day.
Another good clue is that robbers leaving the hive are heavily loaded and often exit quickly and drop down flying straight out as they struggle to get altitude to haul their booty away. Foragers leaving the hive and re-orienters are not carrying any weight so they tend to lift lightly upward in either straight flight or circle fairly close in to gain altitude. Returning foragers are heavy, though, but usually very cooperative and polite in their queuing up for entrance to deliver their cargo. Robbers have to dart directly in and get past the guard-bee sentries - they're not in th mood for pleasantries.
And their need to dart directly in is the principal way you can foil them. Robbing screens are gadgets you mount in front of of your reduced-size entrance whuch make the entrance pathway complex. Bees living in the hive will pretty quickly figure out the "secret" passageway into their own lair, but generally robbing screens present a broad screened face to the world - and robbers - while having a just little slot for the home bees to come and go. Apparently robbers can't figure out the key, even though if you have one of your own hives robbing its yard mate, it might have an identical screen contraption on its own hive.
It's useful to have a robbing screen on hand because it can start pretty quickly and you have to act immediately or risk much bigger problems. Sometimes, in emergencies, I've read of people covering their hives with bed sheets to interrupt a an incipient robbing event. Certainly even if you don't have a robbing screen, you should have a way to reduce the entrance down to a one-bee width, to make the desperate job of the defenders easier.
One of the things that can precipitate robbing is exterior feeding contraptions - or open feeding during a dearth period. That's why people sometimes prefer to have the feeding going on invisibly within an empty super above the hive (but below the lid) or with a top feeder.
If you watch your bees whenever you can, you will learn what normal looks like and be able to recognize a full-on assault pretty easily. What's trickier is recognizing the early stages of robbing - and differentiating it from stuff that's perfectly normal. Watching your hives is one of the great pleasures of beekeeping, so indulge in it whenever you can.
Oh and don't be confused when you read or hear somebody recommend letting your bees "rob" a wet honey comb dry. It's just a colloquialism describing using the bees to clean out any traces of honey from a comb you want them to re-use. I try to only have this when it's entirely enclosed within the hive. For instance, I am feeding my hives small chunks of honey-filled comb left over from some slabs I tied into frames. I want the wax, not the remnants of honey. So I'm letting them "rob" it by setting it on the top bars, deep inside the hive. When my bees were cut out of the walls last spring the whole area wah awash in comb bits and discarded slabs which people told me was OK as the bees would "rob" it clean for me. The result was that I had a ding-dong bee-battle frenzy going on for a couple of days until I wised up and collected all the pieces and stored them in the freezer. Within hours, and after a night of heavy ran that washed the drippings away, peace returned to my yard. Now I only feed within the hives.
A forum community dedicated to beekeeping, bee owners and enthusiasts. Come join the discussion about breeding, honey production, health, behavior, hives, housing, adopting, care, classifieds, and more!