Monday, August 29, 2005

Robber Bees

bee confrontation cartoonThe bee population in these parts has been acting weird since last week, and the time finally came to determine whether there was really something wrong. However, if I knew how to formulate such a conclusion myself, I would not have needed so much determination. So I posted this on our beekeeping club's online bulletin board for beginners:

Date: Thu Aug 25, 2005  7:24 pm
Subject: Fighting Bees in Late Summer
Over the past week, there has been an increase in bee-to-bee combat: does anyone know what the cause could be, whether it is significant, and what I should do?

Probably the main questions are:
  • Is this a heat-related or seasonal behavior?
  • Is this a human management problem (like robbing)?
  • Is some intervention advisable?

I noticed a bit of fighting after working the bees last week. I had moved two frames of brood from my strong colony to my weak one, and after found a few dozen dead bees. It seemed possible that I had transferred too many bees with the brood or had not let the frames stand long enough before moving them.

But today, a week later, after cleaning up and feeding more sugar water, another (but smaller) number of dead bees appeared. I saw two fights, though they appeared to be drones getting beat up (the other dead bees were workers). Also, the fighting seemed concentrated around the stronger of the two colonies, not the one that received brood.

After such nice days, lovely cooler weather, and a plentiful sugar water supply, it seemed odd for something that seems stress-related to appear. Your thoughts welcome!

I also posted the query to And got the same answer. Which was:
  1. I screwed up by allowing any bees at all to transfer with the new capped brood: they might put up with it in Spring, but not in late Summer; and
  2. My feeding, by being at the wrong time of day (not early AM or evening) and with too many openings in the weak hive, had triggered some robbing.

So like a good little girl, I did a couple of things: on Friday evening I closed the second entrance to Wilde, and I cast baleful looks at Twain. Ta-Dah.

Big whoop.

On Sunday (8/28), I went up around 11 AM (notice how I still had not learned my lesson?) and there was a full scale robbery on: hundreds of bees in a cloud at the entrance to Wilde, a brawl, carnage, awful, and MEAN.

The previous excuse for a response had not been enough. So I quickly put in an entrance reducer on the only remaining opening in the weaker colony, and fed the heck out of Twain (home of the bloody minded bees). AFTER running downstairs in desperation, logging into my computer to get information and advice, I learned that Italian honeybees are well known for this behavior. Apparently everyone knows. I must have been late for class that day...

So today I worked out how to make an anti-robbing screen, another item which – if I had been paying attention – could have prevented the whole apiary cataclysm in the first place. You can see the details in the "Thwarted" photo page at right.

Finally, in order to churn some good out of this, I wrote a little article on this comedy because our club newsletter requested submissions. If there are more misconceptions, I hope they edit them out. The unexpurgated version is pasted below. Sigh.

The Thieves of August

Guilt, blame, and recrimination are such ugly experiences, yet they are the most natural things in the world at the scene of a crime. I'm talking about theft, assault, and murder, all taking place between neighbors and sisters. What is the world coming to? Late summer, my friends.

Yesterday morning my apiary became a bit of a killing field. By 11 AM, it was all abuzz with a full scale robbing attempt by the strong upon the weak. My gangbuster Italian colony was attacking my poor struggling Carniolans, and what was meant to be a peaceful Sunday morning bee feeding in front of curious visiting family members turned into another round of beginner scrambling.

Since hindsight is 20-20, problems in this picture are already becoming clear. Who demonstrates beekeeping in August? Why had my bees been aggressive even after the temperatures cooled? In times of nectar dearth, what was I doing opening hives or feeding in the middle of the day? Why didn't I know that Italian honeybees are notorious robbers?

And it gets worse. There had been other warnings. But here might be the main point: for the beginner, so much of beekeeping is to know what you are seeing. Let us not overlook a more subtle point: you also need to know what you should not be seeing. This is very hard to teach in a short course. This is very hard to teach without benefit of a late summer dearth of nectar. But sad experience is a great instructor. But maybe I can tell you what happened at this particular crime scene, and you can undertake a more successful neighborhood watch.

The perpetrators were first spotted fighting with unidentified bees shortly after the beekeeper messed up the process of moving two frames of brood between colonies in early-mid August. This seemed like a turf war, one gang eliminating some interlopers from their territory (something the beekeeper should have done ahead of time). Except that was only part of it.

There was also suspicious activity for some time at the back entrance of the smaller colony, a group that had never been all that keen on their sugar water before, but had taken to importing suspicious quantities. Law enforcement attempted to identify the suspicious characters frequenting the back door to the establishment, but found she was clueless.

As often happens in crime-ridden neighborhoods, gang members with crummy attitudes starting congregating in additional locations, annoying law-abiding citizens, including neighbors. Perhaps you could tell me what business honeybees had hovering over the floorboards of the back porch, occasionally bumping the sliding door and the exiting dog. A person on the street said, "Why are all these bees suddenly hanging out in my yard?" I got stung watering plants in the yard, and – for the first time – it was one of mine.

Finally, the Mid-August Massacre might have tipped off law enforcement. Dozens of dead bees carpeting the apiary between the colonies, more fights in plain sight. So I called in backup.

In the midst of this sorry saga, let us give thanks for the goodwill of experienced beekeepers, including those who answer queries on the MCBA bulletin boards and the good people at BeeSource. Because they were right that I was beginning to see robbing, but even being told did not help me to go straight.

Closing the back door to the weakened colony was not enough: common sense, not that I had any. That same afternoon, both colonies got more sugar water, since they are being raised from packages. This was the gasoline on the simmering coals of gang war.

I don't know how long the robbing went on, though there were only a couple of days between visits this time. There is an entrance reducer in place now, and I am going to make this groovy anti-robbing screen I found on bee source. I'm thinking I may not have a Carniolan colony anymore, but cluelessness can also mean pigheadedness, so I am still going to try to bring them along.

If any of this contains advice to wise, it would be:
  1. The bees of August are not the easy going girls of Spring, and you cannot treat them the same;
  2. Changes in bee behavior mean you are seeing basic shifts in the Bee Operating Protocol, that predictable pattern we need to manage them. Knowing when something is different is your only hope of bringing them back to that safe sameness we count on;
  3. Those particularities between bee families – like Italian bees rob and Carniolans tend to build population a little late for our area – can suddenly get really important, even to a beginner who did not pay enough attention in class; and
  4. An autumn Goldenrod flow would really help right now.

1 comment:

Bikerdude said...

Owen says honey is good. I can't wait to try some DC honey!