When robber bees invade a hive

beesI should begin by saying I am but a beginner beekeeper, so these are just my observations. I don’t keep them for honey, but for pollination, though my kids would tell me the joy of sticking their heads under a giant honey tap in harvest season is a hard reason to beat.

Recently my dear husband built me a bench, or horizontal, hive (all frames one level, unlike traditional stacks of boxes). Main reason: the lack of lifting required (full boxes of honey can weigh 40 kilos). And now it is stationed right outside my bay window, where I can watch the buzz.

And I have been watching the action. Quite a bit of it. Yesterday I was staring at them as they came and went. And then I thought, I know it’s a sunny day, but my, they are frenetic today. And then I wandered off and started doing something else.

Much later in the day I had a kind of back-of-the-brain moment and had a look at my bee book. My ‘moment’ had reminded me of hive-robbing, which commonly happens in spring when the bees run low on supplies, and go raid other stronger hives for their honey. So my able assistant (my 10-year-old, showing no signs of trepidation whatsoever) and I opened up the hive for a look.

Most people are scared of bees. Frankly it is hard not to be when you open a hive and several thousand come out. But they’re not interested in you really, and unless you muck around with them for a sustained period (which I did) they don’t sting. Anyway,, three weeks ago my bees had ten full frames of honey to see them through spring, before the real nectar flow gets going.

Yesterday they had perhaps three. Despite the fact that it is a reasonably robust hive, and there are plenty of bees, I couldn’t see how they would have eaten seven frames in that period. So I got some honey and dropped a few spoons here and there. The reaction was immediate. They all clustered on each drop as if they were starving.

Sometimes when it’s cold they starve even when they have stores in the hive because they cluster in the middle to keep warm. In any case it was clear they needed more food and to be protected from the local thugs that I was hypothesising were robbing them. So we melted a pile of honey (tonnes left from the last harvest) into some of the empty combs moved the brood (baby bees) closer to the food and closed them up. After dark I closed the entrance and covered the whole hive with a sheet.

Apparently if there are bees hanging out trying to get in, mornings will warn you. When the hive is closed up, there’s your proof – you have robbers. If you don’t do anything about the robbing, they can clear out a hive before you know it and your hive will starve.

And sure enough this morning there was a big bunch of them buzzing around, access denied. The theory is that if you keep the hive closed for 72 hours, the robbers will get bored and go away. So I have a couple days to find out if I have stymied their intentions.

And despite having the hive open for near on two hours yesterday, and fiddling about with their babies and moving them all over the place, neither of us got stung

* Footnote: The robber bees got away with most of our sweet golden loot. But our hive is still busy, and Spring is here with all its pollen. More than enough for our bees and Robbers alike!

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Emily Shaw is an inveterate home gardener and newbie beekeeper.