Thursday, October 19, 2006

Return of Robbing

dead bees on roofEven though it has been quiet, I look in on the roof bees everyday — hanging around near the entrance, checking on activity levels, looking to see if any deformed bees are around. You see, this time last year the roof was mysteriously covered with bees creeping aimlessly around, and it turned out that the colonies had a raving Varroa infestation.

This year, not so many creepers... but over the past few days I had noticed a small uptick in deceased bees. This could have happened because of the rain, or because bees tried to stay out too late while the temperature dropped. There were also some drones, victims of their sister's decision to evict, and some deformed wings, so I did not think much of it. Sam and I had retrieved some more bees in the bathroom, too, so now I have another way to consider THAT, because...

Today I went up, and the roof was covered in hundreds (perhaps more than a thousand) of dead bees, and there was a clear robfest going on. Bees were fighting all around me, grouped around every crack in either hive, trying to get in. I was planning on giving Twain some more sugar today, but also ended up trying to take effective action to break the behaviour.

fighting beesOnce bees start to rob, they fight each other like the Dickens at every hive entrance. You can see them rolling around your feet like violent little honey-colored Yin/Yang symbols. They tend to persist, often because the robbing resulted from there being almost nothing else to do!

It looks like there have been battles this AM, but no successful thefts. I pulled the bottom boards to see if there was any torn-up wax (when bees rob, they rip the heck out of the honey cells of the victim colony, making far more damage and mess than the residents would). No sign of that in either colony. Just lots of fighting.

I already had entrance reducers in place, and all extraneous hive openings closed, so I was at a loss for what else to do. Hanging around, smoking would-bee robbers as they gathered around cracks seemed useless. I think Twain was the worse robber of the two, so I pulled up the top of that colony, and went about giving them sugar as planned. Some beekeepers say that opening the top of a robbing colony causes the guard bees to signal the foragers to come home and save the place. That did not seem to happen, since I think both colonies were frantically defending themselves against each other already, and the signal had long ago been given.

hive entrance restrictionsI have only one robbing screen, and two colonies, and it seemed important to balance my response so one colony would not get the advantage over the other. So I went downstairs to seek further guidance from the website, a place of great wisdom. One pamphlet there suggested throwing grass or other plant material over the reduced entrances, making them easier to defend, and/or placing a long board lengthwise across the entrance area, requiring a longer, more complicated, and (once again) more defensible approach path.

I used two makeshift bottom boards gleaned from abandoned political signs left over from the recent primary elections. People never seem to clean those up, even the "law and order" candidates. For plant material, I ripped the leaves off some cornstalks that grew where the birds had planted them (and I hadn't the heart to kill them).

Finally, I went out back and put some sugar water in that bird feeder again, placing a layer of window screen over it to create a honeybee feeder of sorts. Perhaps if the bees find an easier source of sweetness, they will abandon the fight.

Bees are like people in much of this. When times are tougher and gathering for your family is hard, it is tempting to use power to take what you want or need. It turns into a bad habit, quick, and can easily decimate both perpetrator and victim. Let's only hope that some diversion can help.


Phang said...

During a later visit, it seemed that the robbing had calmed somewhat. Making the entrances more complicated seems to have cut off most of the bee-to-bee combat. Nonetheless, bees are grouping around every tiny crack where they can smell honey inside the neighbor hive, even though they cannot get in. You can see a picture at

Pyewacket said...

Hey, I saw this and thought of you:

How cool is that? The oldest bee ever found!