When Robbers come Calling

I am not usually afraid of honeybees.  I’ve been around them and worked with them and I generally don’t worry about whether or not they’ll bother me.  Today in the evening I watched as the four or five bees on the porch became twenty, then a hundred, then hundreds.  I walked outside and stood in the bee heavy air.  Nothing new here.  Nothing unusual.  Unless you count the fact that my largest colony is currently an hour and a half away, four thousand feet up in the mountains.

So I went down into the yard.  Everything that had ever touched a bee hive was covered in bees.  They crawled all over the empty boxes.  They hung from the empty observation hive.  The hive my tiny project colony was in was covered.  I popped the top and looked inside.  A boiling mass of bees filled the box so I closed it immediately.  A swarm, I figured.

The only hive left in my garden contained tiny colony, half a frame of bees.  I had no expectations that this colony would survive on its own, it was present to take care of a queen who would be placed in charge of a larger colony when they returned from the mountains.  Swarms will at times take over a weak hive with appropriate resources.  I’ve watched it happen before but this was not the case.

As the evening sun dipped beneath the sky the bees began to exit.  Ten to fifteen at a time they rose in  circles and flew away.  As time went on more and more bees left.  The key tipoff should have been that there were no bees fanning on the landing board.  That’s how a swarm lets the other bees know where they are gathering.  There were none, because this was no swarm setting up shop.  This was a bank robbery.

Honeybees are on average hard workers and honest citizens.  They fly thousands of miles to produce the honey the hive requires.  They labor day and night to condense the nectar into honey under normal conditions.  Sometimes when nectar is scarce, under the load of temptation their work ethic breaks down and they resort to a life of crime as robbers.

Robber bees find a hive by scent, smelling it from a distance.  On arrival they already know they are unwelcome.  The robbers crawl the edges of the hive looking for an undefended entrance and probe the entrance looking for weak spots in the guard bees.  Woe to the colony where a robber tastes sweet success.

The successful robber will flee the entrance and return to her home with news.  A taste of the honey sells the others on the plan of attack.  They return in waves.  First they try the sneak approach, zipping back and forth before the hive.  They are looking for an opening in the guards but there is more to this zig and zag than meets the compound eye.  They are trying to acquire the scent of the hive.  With the hive scent the guard bees will not know to deny them entrance.   Those that succeed in passing the guards immediately steal honey.  Even if the house bees drag them out this ill gotten gold will incite more bees to lay aside the law and join the robbers.

Once the honey frenzy is incited the attackers attempt to overwhelm the target colony.   The guard bees will not go peacefully.   They’ll fight to the death, dragging the interlopers from the hive, killing them when possible.  While they are doing so others will enter the hive.  Inside any bee that gets in the way will be killed.  The queen is no exception.

Bee colonies live by social rules that vary with the season.  In a nectar flow the colony is a sixties love in and all are welcome.  In the late days of summer it is a wild west free for all where might makes right.  In the fall the bees return to their matriarchal life where all are cared for equally (except the drones).  The rule of most seasons is a respect for the colony and the society it forms.  In a robbing frenzy the carefully capped honey cells are ripped apart, leaving ragged edges.  Honey cells are ravaged by dozens of frenzied bees.  Soon the guard bees are overwhelmed and with that the colony loses its drive to defend.   In the evening the massacre slows and fades off.  The victim colony tries to reorganize itself but it is doomed.   The robbers will return with the first light to finish what they have started.  When the comb is picked clean they’ll leave the remaining bees to starve to death.

A strong colony could defend itself.  A minor colony could be defended by reducing its entrance.  With a few guard bees plugging the entrance the robbers would be stymied in their assault.  The honey frenzy would pass and the robbers would recede like the tides.  A robber screen could be applied, misleading the robbers while giving the colony a chance to regroup.  That couldn’t happen to my tiny colony.  The assault had destroyed colony C.

This robbing behavior is most common in a nectar dearth, when the foragers still feel driven to feed the colony and grow its stores.  In the wild it assures that the strong colony grows stronger and the weak colony is destroyed.  As a beekeeper it leaves me watching and waiting for the fall, when the cold weather forces the bees to renounce their lawless ways and again live by kinder rules of bee society, each bee to her own colony, share and share alike.