Monday, August 13, 2012

Robbing Bees and Top Bar Hives

Our Soprano (Italian Bees) hive was robbed this past week.  Robbed to the point, that only a handful of bees remain, no drones, and no queen.    I had just checked on the bees the previous Saturday, to make sure the queen was still producing brood.  Something I was told should be done at this stage around once a month.  I actually had to pull the cover off the hive, and pull out a comb or two to make a visual check.  Otherwise, I would just take a peek through the observation window and verify activity.  Everything looked good.  This hive was installed in May. 
Unfortunately the information on robber bees was limited in the books and articles I read, or the DVD that I watched for beginner beekeepers.  While I was concentrating on making sure the queen was present, comb was being built,  honey and capped brood were present and no ants or beetles were squatters, I was never worried about robbing bees.  I read that top bar hives are less prone to robbing bandits of bees.  I’m not sure this is true.  I have found plenty of YouTube videos showing top bar hives under attack.  There are other cases to be made for a top bar hive, but I’m not convinced that the elimination of robbers is one of them.
The information I’m presenting, relating to robber bees is what I’ve literally learned this past weekend.  I guess it takes a tragedy to learn your lesson.  It’s a long article, not something I like to do, but hopefully it will provide you with some knowledge, I wish I knew before this last week.
Let’s start first by offering a basic understanding of how the hive works.  Of course there’s the queen, drones (there to mate with queens), scouts, and workers (cleaning and caring for brood, or gathering of pollen/nectar).  There are also sentinels or guard bees.  They are given the task to remain at the entrance and verify that the returning bees actually belong to their hive, and to protect until death the entrance into the hive.

A newly established hive, considered a weak hive, may not have enough guard bees, to hold off an all-out assault.  I believe this to be the problem with our hive.  They just didn’t have enough offspring to generate the numbers of bees it needed.  Now it is not only the weak hives that are attacked, though more common, it can happen with well-established hives.
Robbing bees typically appear in the fall.  Typical does not mean an absolute.  We’re in full summer mode in central Florida.  Their objective is to steal another hives honey stores for their own. It’s a lot easier taking what has already been gathered.  This can occur during times of the year when there is little or no nectar flow, and during the fall when the robbers are worried about having enough honey in their own hive to last them through the winter months. 

A scout bee is sent out to look for abundant food, and may come upon the weakened hive.  They enter grab a mouthful of honey and head back home.  Then they send out directions to the other roving bandits and before you know it, your hive is completely surrounded.  It will be a battle royale.  It was with ours, it totally decimated our hive. 

The hive entrance looks nothing like a normal function.  There are bees flying chaotically all over waiting for their chance to gain access to the hive.  They are fighting, stinging and biting each other.  There will be dead bees all over the ground at the front of the hive, and if the robbers gain entrance there will be dead bees in the bottom of your hive. They are loud, and the tone is not the normal humming sound, it's definately turned up a notch and you can tell there is anxiety.

Unfortunately, once they know they have access, they will continue to come back until everything is gone.  We will be moving our hive to a new location when our new colony arrives.  We don't need to make it easier for the same group of bandits to find our hive again.

Learn when your nectar flows are in your area.  Just because flowers are blooming does not mean there is nectar.  It just means there is pollen. Not all flowers produce nectar.  They need nectar for making honey, which is their main source of food.  When the nectar is not flowing, you’ll need to feed your own bees until they are an established hive, or do not have enough stores to feed themselves during the limited nectar flow periods.  I went by the book, and I believe I ended the feeding way too soon, and didn’t start up again when they needed it to.  I found a chart/management calendar from the University of Florida, that will be helpful as I move forward. I would guess most of the Universities in the country would have something similar.
Until the hive is well established, keep a limited hive opening.  My top bar hive has three holes.  Since I followed the instructions again, literally, it said to remove the second plug after about 6 weeks.  This made perfect sense to me, especially in the heat.  I didn’t want the hive overheating with our hot temperatures.  Reducing the entrance allows the guard bees the ability to only have to defend a small entrance and not several.  A weakened hive will not have enough guards to manage an all-out assault.   Also, the plug should be put back in when the nectar flow has stopped, and in the fall when robbing is more common.  You can also tape off part of the remaining opening to only allow 1 or 2 bees to enter or exit at any one time.   Even a well established hive should have an entrance reducer installed in the fall to help avoid robbers. 
I've also learned that this is a totally natural occurrence.  If you see the robbery in progress you can try a couple of things;  put a wet sheet over the hive.  Your colony of bees will manage just fine, and allow them to handle only a few robbers at a time, it also makes it more difficult for the robbers to get access to the hive opening.  You can also spray water on the bees, not hard, but like rain fall.  Some of your bees will be in that chaotic scene.  You're basically tiring them out. I've read a couple different articles both positive and negative with this option.  But if you're desperate, you may want to give it a try.
I am disappointed with myself for not knowing this information. Hopefully it will help others.  I know that beginning beekeepers have a hard time getting a colony established.  But we'll keep our chins up and try again just as soon as we can get another hive.  Live and learn.


  1. Here I am, doing nothing to promote it and have a hive of bees in the eves of my house. Seems to be getting larger and larger ! Don't want to kill them yet don't really want them filling the attic with least they don't seem to be africanized variety as they are friendly in that we don't get attacked. Even tho there are literally thousands.

    1. I'm sending you an email. We may try and take them off your hands.


We love to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to stop by.