I’ve been robbed!

Or more specifically my bees have been. It is an unpleasant part of keeping bees – the fact that although fascinating and amazing creatures that can be a pure joy to watch toil away, there is indeed a dark and sinister undercurrent to the colony. Okay that might be a bit dramatic but let me explain.

At times of a nectar dearth – or when there is a shortage of nectar producing plants in the environment – honey bees and wasps will go on the search for alternative sources of sugar. You are probably familiar with this if you have ever tried to drink a can of pop at a picnic only to be surrounded by yellow jackets! This is particularly problematic in the fall when there is nothing blooming and (insert my emotional spin) the days are cooler indicating that they are running out of time before the frost comes and honeybees will be confined to their hives (and wasps will die off). Therefore, it seems, searching for sugar picks up a more frantic pace.

So when a wasp or honey bee is lucky enough to find wooden boxes packed with delicious honey they will do everything they can to get inside and steal that precious resource. This can be especially devastating when it is a honey bee that finds the hive because they will excitedly fly back to home base and tell all their sisters about the awesome score. And if this new colony is bigger and stronger they will be able to overcome the defenses of the weaker colony and a looting fest will begin.

This wasp is searching for a way into my hive.

And so it was on one of the last warm sunny days in October that I decided to head over to my bee yard and take a peak at how my bees were doing. I wanted to check on the bucket feeder, see if there was still brood in some of the frames, elevate the back of the hive so that any water that formed inside from condensation during the winter could drain out the front, and just get a general sense of how my colony was doing. I knew the risk of robbing was fairly high – and I had already had a bunch of bald-faced hornets trying to break-in in September. So I went late in the afternoon in order to reduce the time that other bees could be flying if they did happen to find my hive. I also had everything I needed out and ready to use so I could work as quickly as possible and get my hive closed back up before it was discovered.

I got the bucket feeder off, the back corners raised up on some shims and had just started to pull a couple to frames to take a quick look when I was alerted to a loud buzzing coming from my colony. I looked around and just about every bee seemed to be standing with their bottoms pointed up in the air and fanning their wings (hence the buzzing). This is done when they are releasing their nasonov pheromone – which is what makes their hive smell uniquely like them and therefore can be used to orient returning foragers to the hive when the smell has been disturbed by the hive being opened. I think my bees were using it like a homing device – trying to call their sisters home because they were under attack (I haven’t read if they typically do this in robbing situations so this my hypothesis based on what I saw). Anyhow I was now alert to my bees acting a bit out of character so I stopped what I was doing and looked around. Dozens and dozens of bees were flying all around my hive. Fearing this was the beginning of a robbing situation I worked quickly to reassemble the hive. And sure enough when I stepped back I saw frantic behaviour by a large number of bees at the hive entrance. Their were far more bees than I would expect at this time of year…and the bees near the entrance were fighting. When a bee from the other colony was trying to get inside one of my bees would grab onto it and they would tussle about biting and trying to sting one another. This is a terrible situation as the bee that is stung will die, but the bee that did the stinging will also die, having sacrificed her life for the survival of her colony. So I sealed all of the entrances completely to keep my bees that were still inside safe, and to keep the robber bees from getting in and taking the resources.

With the entrances closed the robbing bees are trying to find a way in. There are bees fighting and dying in the foreground.

I went back a little later, about a half hour before dark, to reopen the entrance. I was hoping that any of my bees that had been out foraging would be able to return to their home. But as is typical for late October, the temperature had already dropped dramatically and I feared my bees would be too cold to make it back inside. I drove home with a heavy heart.

The next morning I discovered that I had brought my work home with me! There was a lonesome bee sitting at the top of my kitchen cabinets. I suspect she had been attracted to my bee suit which would have been covered with that nasonov pheromone, and had mistakenly hitched a ride home with me.

The next week was filled with tense days. Every day I would drive over to check the hive. And just about every day that the sun was out and the temperature was above 12 degrees Celsius (just warm enough for the bees to fly) I would find my bees getting robbed. I kept the entrances closed as much as possible, though I was concerned about air flow. Thankfully I had purchased some entrance reducers that closed the entrance but provided air holes too small for the bees to fit through. Then finally I got the idea to tent my hive. I have a screen tent that we use on our family camping trips to put over the picnic table to make dining a bug free experience. So knowing my bees had nothing they really need to forage for in the environment now I decide to try screening them in – or more specifically screening the other bees out! I want to be clear that I have NEVER read about anyone doing this and I cannot say it is a recommended method of stopping robbing. I also would not have tried this if the weather was nicer and their was forage for my bees to get. But I figured with only a handful of days left that might be on the borderline of being warm enough for the bees to fly I wasn’t likely going to do any harm to my bees by giving them a confined (and safe!) area.

My tented beehive – hopefully it will keep my bees safe for the next few days until the weather turns cold and the other colony is no longer flying.

I went to check on them today and for the most part they were clustered inside the hive – it was only about 10 degrees Celsius and rainy. There were dozens of dead bees on the bottom board – a result of the robbing I am afraid. And the cluster is not nearly the size it was only a few short weeks ago. I lost a number of bees in the fight, and I suspect I lost some of the ones that had ventured out on a foraging or cleansing flight the day the robbing started. I am very concerned about their ability to get through the winter. The only saving grace is that on a quick check there is still a lot of honey in there. I haven’t given up hope and no matter what happens I am so grateful to have gone through the amazing learning experiences that I have had over this beekeeping season. I was not prepared for beekeeping to be such an emotional roller coaster, and could have done without the devastation of the robbing event, but with all of it have come many lessons. I will winterize my hive in the next week or two, and plan to watch my colony very closely. I am prepared to feed them if need be. And my fingers are crossed – though pretty sure this is also not a recommended method or one that caries any scientific merit.

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