Why Do Bees Rob Other Hives?​

A bee colony is a bee family focused on survival. The term “robbing” itself may sound malevolent — yet the only intent of the bees is to keep their family alive. They're ready to do anything for this – even attacking another beehive and battling to the death.

Beehive-robbing mainly occurs in the following situations:

  • When nectar is scarce
  • If a colony is smaller, unhealthy or queenless
  • In poorly managed bee colonies

When Does Beehive Robbing Happen?

Bees aren’t likely to rob other beehives when nectar’s available in their environment. That’s the case in times of so-called honey flow — when plants are blooming and producing enough nectar.

A part of the nectar’s processed into honey and stored in the cells covered with wax. The other part gets mixed with pollen and serves as the bee bread — food for the brood and young adult bees.

Bees store the nectar for times when natural nectar resources are scarce. That won’t keep them from looking for food throughout the year, though. In times of honey flow, a colony can get big and strong. Forager bees will search for food in weaker beehives as a result. Although this usually occurs during summer, a weak colony may be in danger at any time of year.

Here are some pointers for when to recognize a weak colony:

  • Smaller colonies with fewer guard bees
  • Colony has a poorly enclosed or protected entrance
  • No queen be present in the colony
  • collapsing colony infected by varroa mites
  • Excess nectar or honey on the ground outside the hive
  • More colonies located close to one another within a large apiary

What Does Beehive-Robbing Look Like?

The most common sign of a bee robbery is a high number of bees flying around a beehive.

The robbing bees need to fight their way into the hive through the entrance, which is secured by guard bees. The role of guard bees is to stop and examine all the incoming bees. Their eyesight’s good enough to spot the incomers, but it’s not the main sensory channel for the recognition of their family members.

Bees recognize each other mostly by odor cues. If the detected odor doesn’t match the one representing the colony, guard bees reject the incomers. This means there’ll be a huge fight, resulting in dead bees at the entrance of the beehive.

Robber bees attack a colony until they’ve collected as much food as possible. This can take up to hours or even days — until the honey source’s completely exhausted.

Sometimes, wasps join a beehive robbery. While robber bees are focused on stealing honey supplies, wasps go for the brood. This can wipe the entire colony off the map completely.

How to Stop Beehive-Robbing

Before robbing goes into a frenzy resulting in a lost colony, beekeepers can stop it in various ways:

  • Remove all sticky, sugary substances — honey and sugar syrup — around the beehives
  • Don’t work on a bee colony during a bee robbery
  • Check the hive for any damage and cover the openings well
  • Make the entrance of the beehive as small as possible so only a few bees can enter at a time
  • Use an overhead sprinkler to irritate the robber bees
  • Don’t use smoke or any chemicals in the beehive — it can do more harm than good

How to Prevent the Beehive Robbing

Some beekeepers face beehive robberies constantly. If you’re one of them, consider moving your bees to another location. If needed, replace the queen bee and/or feed the colony well to make it stronger.

Other basic preventive tips:

  • Use an entrance reducer
  • Keep your inspections short
  • Inspect one colony at a time and do it fast
  • Be careful not to leave any traces of honey or wax laying around after inspecting or feeding your bees
  • Keep all your colonies equally healthy and strong
  • Work your bees later in the day as not to give the robber bees too many opportunities to steal during daylight

Beehive Robbery vs. Orientation Flight

Bees from one colony can be seen around another beehive or entering one also during their orientation flights. These take place every day and don’t last long. It’s the young bees that are orienting, and they usually return home peacefully. If not, an accidental drift may have occurred.

What Is Drifting?

Drifting is a behavior associated more with middle-aged and older bees. It’s a movement of individual bees from their beehive to another. This phenomenon occurs during orientation flight and can be accidental or planned.

If accidental, it happens because of orientation errors during the flight. A planned drift is a part of a bee reproductive strategy, though. Bees tend to keep themselves fit by brood-raising elsewhere or laying eggs in other nests. One way or another, it’s more of an individual act that’s nothing to do with damaging or hurting another colony due to lack of food.

Take Care of Preventive Measures

Careful and brief examinations, smart queen bee management, sufficient honey supply, secure beehive entrances, and a clean environment are the key to stable beekeeping. Keeping your bee colonies strong and healthy will prevent them not just from being robbed constantly, but also from robbing other hives.

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