Avoiding Robbing – perhaps the most challenging aspect of Fall colony management?
In some parts of the country it is already too cold to think about working bees except on those exceptional sunny, warm weather days, while in other places where it has remained unseasonably warm and it seems perfect weather for bee work. However, beekeeper beware, because the conditions in Central and South Texas right now are conducive to robbing, one of the more problematic aspects of beekeeping, especially in the fall.
Regardless of where you keep bees there will be a time in the late summer or fall when it is warm enough to feel like it perfect weather for beekeeping and the urge to get into colonies just too much to resist. The complication that many beekeepers fail to realize until it is too late is robbing. The usual triggers for robbing in the fall are much the same as any other time of year: opening multiple colonies in the same apiary and leaving one or more with a large surface are of comb exposed to access by bees from other hives. This is especially so when opening several colonies spaced close together in an apiary in quick succession, or remaining in a colony with combs exposed for an extended period of time, or feeding colonies and leaving syrup accessible to foraging bees from multiple hives for any appreciable length of time. The problem with robbing in the fall is that these robbing triggers provoke robbing activity much more quickly than other times of the year, and do so in a very short period of time of leaving a colony exposed to robber bees from other colonies. Over and above robbing activity developing more quickly, robbing behavior exhibited particularly by bees in the fall is also more intense and persistent than robbing during other times of the year. In fact, even for experienced beekeepers it is easy to miss the first signs of robbing, and the entire apiary can go from calm and tranquil to complete chaos in a matter of minutes.
If you have the luxury of being able to postpone your bee work until temperatures are below 70, and the mid 50’s will work too, then do so. But don’t postpone too long because the principal motivator of robbing is ultimately that hoarding honey, including honey from other hives in the apiary, will yield survival advantages and early spring expansion opportunities for colonies that steal and store the resources of others. Also, the warmer it is and the closer to winter you are, the more avid the robbing response will become, other factors being equivalent.
So what to do to avoid robbing? Here are some tips that will slow it down, but none of them are a guarantee. First, get in and out of colonies as quickly as possible. I still recommend going down to inspect the brood nest, especially of course if your aim is to replace a failing queen or assess the quantity of brood, or Varroa infestation levels, or virus infection indicators, or even the amount of honey and pollen stored in and around the brood nest, all of which are good to know. But your inspection needs to accellerated to avoid prolonged exposure of combs and honey to robbers. Avoid standing supers up on end, and instead place them flat on an extra lid or piece of plywood with the bottom of the super down. If the super(s) has burr comb with honey on the top of the frames, then also cover the top of the super(s) with an extra lid. Avoid dragging supers of hive bodies across the top or edge of the hive, as that can often result in honey dripping down the side of the colony (always a good idea to avoid this because queens can be easily crushed by dragging supers or hive bodies across one another). Another incident to minimize is spilling or dripping of syrup, or feeding communally where the syrup is outside the hive(s) and can attract bees from multiple colonies.
This all sounds simple enough, but even for an expert beekeeper trouble can develop quickly. For instance, if one encounters a queenless colony or a colony with a queen that is just starting to lay, and you want to add a comb or two or brood from another colony (assuming brood is available) then waste no time in moving to a queenright colony and pulling and swapping combs so that both hives can be reassembled in the shortest time possible. In addition, robbing can go from zero to 60 so rapidly that even expert beekeepers can miss the first signs, and failing to recognize the early signs of robbing can lead to a complete storm of robbing activity that ultimately results in the destruction of colonies and/or significant reduction of bee populations in colonies both being robbed and doing the robbing.
There are measures that one can take to suppress swarming, but another feature of fall robbing that makes it so much worse is that none of them work as well in the fall. One can reduce the entrance, either with an entrance reducer or newspaper stuffed in the entrance. One can spray the entire apiary with water if there is access to a hose bib or other means of doing so. One can shovel sand or dirt on top of spilled syrup or honey. Once can also employ a trick I learned from my Dad, but this technique requires quick action early in the process. Counter-intuitively, if one removes the covers or lids from ALL the colonies in the apiary (with the possible exception of extremely weak hives, or newly established colonies or splits or nucs), the usual result is that robber bees stop robbing and start defending the colony instead.
Hopefully this information proves helpful to you, both in avoiding robbing in the first place, and suppressing robbing if it gets started. Good luck!