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BLUF: (Bottom Line Up Front) If you have robbing you need to stop it immediately! Damage progresses quickly and can devastate a hive. Just make sure they are robbing and not orienting first, then if it’s robbing, do something drastic. Close off the hive, cover it with wet cloth. Open all the strong hives to make the strong hives stay home and guard their own hives. But do something even if it’s as simple as closing off the hive with screen wire completely. Then you can assess what you want to do to let them fly (small entrance, robber screen etc.). Bottom line, you cannot let robbing continue. You need to stop it now.
Sometimes during a dearth the strong hives will rob the weak ones. Italians are particularly bad about this. Feeding seems to make this worse or sometimes set it off. Prevention is best. When you see that a dearth is setting in, reduce the entrances on all the hives, preferably with screen wire rather than wood as it confuses the robbers more and doesn't restrict ventilation too much. This will slow them all down some. But you need to have an eye on them to see that the dearth is over and open them back up during a flow.
I've noticed that queenless hives get robbed much more often than queenright hives. I had always thought it was because the robbers kill the queen, and they probably do, but when I make a nuc queenless in the fall just before I combine them with another nuc they seem to get robbed almost immediately.
One issue is being sure they are being robbed. Sometimes people mistake an afternoon orientation flight with robbing. Every warm, sunny afternoon during brood rearing you'll see young bees orienting. This is a short lived occurrence. It usually lasts an hour or less. Robbing, on the other hand only ends for the day at dark or when the hive is empty of stores. The orienting bees will hover and fly around the hive. This is easily mistaken for robbers who also hover around a hive. But with practice you'll learn what young bees look like doing this. Young bees are fuzzy. Young bees are calm compared to robbers. Look at the entrance. Robbers are in a frenzy. Local bees might have a traffic jam at the entrance but they will still be orderly. Wrestling at the entrance is pretty much a give away, but lack of fighting at the entrance does not prove they are not being robbed, it just proves they have overcome the guard bees. One sure way to tell if they are being robbed is to wait for dark and close the entrance. Any bees in the morning who show up trying to get in are probably robbers. Especially if there are a lot of them.
If you already have robbing occurring, here are some ways to stop it. A really weak hive can be closed up with some #8 hardware cloth for a day or two. The robbers can't get in and eventually get tired of trying. It helps if you can feed and water them. A little bit of pollen and a few drops of water will get a small nuc by. More will be required if there are more bees. After you open back up be sure to reduce the entrance. If you can feed, water and ventilate for 72 hours, you can close them up when they are full of robbers and force the robbers to join the hive. Another variety of confining them is to stop up the entrance with grass. The bees will eventually remove it, but hopefully the robbers will give up before then.
Anytime you are reducing an entrance to stop robbing, use screen wire instead of wood. The screen will do more to confuse the robbers. Robbers tend to use smell rather than remembering where the entrance is. This is also the principle of a robber screen.
A "robber screen" can be built from scratch or from a screen door from Brushy Mt. It is a screen that covers the area around the door and has an opening in the top (you will have to make the whole affair or cut a notch in the wood of Brushy Mountain's screen door to make an entrance on the top.) This forces the robbers to turn a couple of corners to find their way in. Since they seem to go by smell this confuses them. It also stops skunks.
Vicks Vaporub around the entrance will also confuse the robbers because they can't smell the hive. It does not confuse the bees that live there.
A weak hive will sometimes get totally robbed out so there is not a drop of honey left. They will quickly starve. If you can't control the robbing it's better to combine some of the weak hives than let them get robbed out and starve. If you only have one strong and one weak, you can steal some emerging brood from the strong hive to boost the weak hive and shake off some nurse bees (the ones on the open brood) from the strong hive in the weak hive. Or you can just combine the weak with the strong. It's better than all the fighting and starving.
Copyright 2006 by Michael Bush