Friday, October 5, 2012

Pirate Bees

Bees are pirates.    I'm not kidding.

We're talking pillage and destruction.  Marauding and mayhem.  Pirates of the Caribbean in my bee yard. 

There were screams and cries of, 'Take no prisoners, me hearties!'

Seriously.   That's totally the way it happened.

Sort of.  

Our bees were perfectly behaved all season until late September.  We worked them with smoke and veils, but no gloves.   Then they got a little testy.  

We have a hummingbird feeder that the bees use as much as the hummingbirds.  All summer long, there was an uneasy truce between birds and bees.   Some hornets would show up  and some yellow jackets and one monster yellow flying thing that was twice as big as a hornet, but generally it was orderly.   Busy, but orderly.

Then one day I looked out and the bees were in a frenzy around the feeder.


Noisy and agitated and dropping in clusters from the feeder.    Not normal behavior at all.   In fact, it reminded me a lot of the behavior that I saw on Linda T's blog when she posted about robbing.

So I decided to walk up to the hives to see how they were doing because I figured those were my bees acting that way.    Also,  the hives really smell of goldenrod honey right now, which can bring in robbers.   Also, I was using boardman feeders [upside-down quart mason jar units] on both hives, something else which often encourages robbing.

And sure enough,  things at the hives were frenzied and loud.   Both hives had large clusters of bees at the front entrances and bees were trying to get in the hives along the top cover edges and seams between the boxes.   And they were all over the boardman feeders.  And I could see some combat on the bottom boards out front.

When I opened the back window of the Tardis to check things out, there were more clear areas of combat going on, but no large clusters of bees dropping out of the entrances and the bees between the frames looked pretty calm.

Then I saw bees flying inside the hive.   Not normal!

Bees don't fly in the hive.   They walk.   Just like you don't run in the house, they don't fly in the house.   So when I saw a couple of bees in the back window flying [or trying to fly], I knew they were robbers.  Sure enough, in a second, they were being surrounded and attacked by the home bees.   

Even with all that activity, it looked like the hives were holding their own for now so I zinged back to the house and researched what to do to stop robbing.  

Then I suited up, gloves and all.

The first thing you do is take out the boardman feeders and close up the hive entrances so that there's just a small entrance for the home bees to defend.    Any other bees that get caught in there are either killed or forced to join the hive.  

The Lang was easy to tighten up because it had an inner cover.   I took out the boardman and closed up the entrance with an entrance reducer.

Here it is with the smaller entrance.   Much easier to defend.

I already had small entrances in the center of the bottom front for the Tardis, away from the feeders and that had helped prevent robbing so far, but I really had to get that feeder out and close it up tighter.   

I had to reduce further so  I took the feeder out, closed out the right side completely.  and on the left side, I put a reducer in with a small entrance toward the center [pic].

The problem was the top.    Since this is a horizontal hive body, two deeps wide, we didn't have inner covers on it. We did have a telescoping top cover on it, but there was plenty of open space around the edge for ventilation and for robber bees to get in.     And they were getting in.    I had to figure out a way to close it up until we could get the inner covers made and on the hives.

So I picked large handfuls of grass and stuffed them in the openings all around the top of the hive.  [This is why you suit up and wear gloves!]  Handful after handful until it was clear that new bees were confused and couldn't get it in.  

When Eric got home, he cut a piece of plywood to put on the top of the hive under the telescoping cover to seal it up temporarily until he had a chance to finish the new inner covers.  While he was standing there, he got pinged on the back of the head.  

The next day, I went back to check on them.   There was still a lot of action, but it loooked like the hives were defending well.   I was just standing there watching, not even too close and got pinged on the cheekbone by an overzealous defender.    These guys were really testy!

The next morning, Eric finished the inner covers and we went up to take the supers off and batten down the hatches.  [More on the honey harvest later.]

Of course, as soon as we opened the hives, the frenzy started again, so we smoked well and fairly constantly.   We worked as quickly as we could and then closed things back up, with the new inner covers and smallest entrances.     

It rained for the next couple of days and when I went up there again, the hives were very busy, but orderly.    Plenty of pollen going in and no combat on the bottom boards [front porches], or in the back window of the Tardis.    


Next year, we won't have to feed through the summer so we won't need to use the boardman feeders.   If we do need to feed before winter, we can harvest the supers, then put the boardman feeder inside an empty super on top, with the inner cover on top of that and that should prevent robbing.   


  1. I love your priate description of the events!

    I have felt the same way with some of my hives lately, in fact, I've skipped a weekly inspection or two until the rain came and made things a little easier.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Of course, you spelled "pirate" correctly, and I didn't. :)

  2. That was like reading a short novel!!!! I'm glad the good guys won!!!! Loved it!

  3. That must have been stressful! Sorry if I missed this in an earlier post, but why are you feeding? Did you say you took honey from this hive? Or are you just trying to bump up their winter stores. I know this time of year is certainly a dearth of nectar and with the hummingbird open feeder + the boardman style I'm sure that is what set off the robbing. Arrrr, ye best be battin' down the hatches me harty! =)

    1. Hi Mark! Good question about the feeding. The truth is, I don't have a good reason other than every time someone found out we were newbees they said, You gotta feed those bees all season the first year! Sooo, being as we didn't know what we were doing much, we fed. Now we have hives full for the season, the hatches are battened down and we wait out the winter and see what these queens are made of. Fingers crossed.


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