It’s time to take a break from writing about writing to let you know what’s going on with the bees in the top bar hive in my backyard. Let’s just say, it’s been a challenging few weeks.
To start, let me just say that normally my bees are very friendly critters. Okay, maybe “friendly” isn’t the right word, but they don’t cause any trouble. I can walk around the hive, open the hive, and even just sit and watch the comings and goings of the hive without them being bothered by it.
That all changed a few weeks ago. REALLY changed.
My bees were attacking me!
Let’s back up to a couple weeks before the attacks began. It was a warm spring day in mid-March and I decided to delve into the hive and clean up a mess I’d accidentally created last year that I’d been too chicken to deal with. Early spring, while the hive population was low, was the time to take care of it.
And take care of it I did. Using various kitchen tools (and plenty of nerve), I scraped out a mess of wax and honey and tidied things up a bit. The bees were a bit curious as to what I was doing, but never got aggressive (aka “Sting-y”) over my big hands rummaging around in their home.
See, nice bees. Right? Well….
Fast forward to a couple weeks later. It was another nice day so I thought I’d follow my bee books’ advice and rearrange things in the hive to make space for the bundles of brood the queen would be laying.
That trip into the hive didn’t last long.
Bees were dive bombing me, bashing into me, and, yes, stinging me (two stings, not a crisis, but still a bit annoying). I tried to continue the inspection/rearranging, but it didn’t take long for me to decide the girls did NOT want me there and were not afraid to express this. The little bitches.
In a rush, I closed up the hive (which led to later problems – we’ll get to that).
What in the world was going on with my nice, friendly bees?
My bee books were no help so I went online to find out my hive may have been being robbed. I took note of the “symptoms” and went back outside to see if they matched. At this point I could barely get within ten feet of the hive without being greeted by bee bombers (putting laundry out and trying to mow that day was a blast, let me tell you). But I watched and sure enough my hive was being robbed.
What’s robbing, you ask?
It’s when another set of bees find out your hive has good stuff to eat and invite themselves over. The robbers cause the robbees to go on high alert trying to defend their home making the hive very aggressive even toward their keepers.
Robbing can decimate a hive.Not only do the robbers take all the honey stores but they can also introduce disease and kill the robbee hive’s queen.
Why do bad things happen to good bees?
Robbing can start when beekeepers leave honey and wax laying around – something I am completely guilty of because one of my f-ing bee books specifically tells you to leave the wax out so the bees can clean off all the left over honey after you extract honey from the combs. Teach me to read!
Robbing can also happen when a hive is weak. Now, my hive isn’t weak. It’s pretty darn robust, but when I was making that sting-earning inspection I noticed a supercedure queen cell had been built on the face of one of the combs. Supercedure is when the old queen is nearing her end, so the worker bees begin the work of making a new queen (see below for links to pictures of this).
The pheromones that the queen bee gives off normally keep workers from making new queens (unless it’s swarming time). When queenie gets old, her pheromone levels drop signalling it’s time for a new queen. My bees were in the waiting period between weakened queen and new queen. Not a good place to be.
This pheromone drop also confuses the hive. The bees get more defensive because they perceive the hive as being in trouble. The drop in pheromones also gives robber bees the sense that the hive is weak and so….robbing.
What to do about those little bee burglars?
Go into action mode ASAP! As a keeper, it’s up to me to protect my hive when they can’t do it themselves. There were several suggestions, but I decided to implement all of them at once – I’m not one to wait around.
- First, I covered the hive with a sheet. Besides making the hive look like a scary ghost, the sheet confuses the robbers. They’re not the most brilliant criminals and can’t figure out how to get under the sheet to get into the hive. Oddly enough, the robbee bees do know how to get into their home. Pretty cool, huh?
- Second, I reduced the hive’s entrances. This makes it hard for the robbers to get past the guard bees. How do you reduce the size of the entrance when there are thousands of defense-minded bees buzzing around? You don’t. I waited until dark, pulled the bee-covered sheet back, and taped off the holes leaving a small slit for the bees to come and go.
- Third, I confused the robbers. Since they are going by scent to find the hive entrance, I spread Vicks VapoRub around the hive entrance. The smell of the stuff keeps the robbers from recognizing the entrances as entrances, but the robbees are so familiar with the scent of their hive that it doesn’t confuse them. I know, weird.
It took a few days, but eventually the robbers gave up. I removed the sheet and over the next week, re-opened the entrances.
But there was still another problem.
In my haste to close up the hive during the last inspection, I had left a gap in the bars. My bees decided that gap made a pretty convenient extra entrance at the opposite end from the main entrance.
Unfortunately, a double entrance also means a double dose of guard bees. The hive wasn’t as aggressive as with the robbers, but it was still a bit scary. So, I had to delve in and close up the gap. I wore very thick gloves that day! The bees did a little dive bombing and landed on me much more than usual, but I didn’t feel under attack – which is very nice indeed!
With plenty of prying and squeezing, I eventually got everything closed up. I’m hoping that when I come back from vacation the bees will be back to their normal, friendly selves and we can all go back to being friends.
Any bee- or non-bee-related crazy experiences over the past week? Please, do tell!
For more about bee robbing…
These links were the best resource I found for how to handle and understanding robber bees, as well as queen supercedure. The Country Rubes links have excellent pictures.
- Country Rubes – Robber Bees by Khalil Hamdan, The Netherlands*
- Bush Bees – Robbing
- Country Rubes – Natural Supercedure by Khalili Hamdan*
*Update March 2016 – Khalil Hamdan’s articles on hive robbing (and many other bee-related topics) can now be found at this website.