My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part VI

The wet towel treatment.

My anno horribilis apis had one more final insult to bestow upon my ever-shrinking self-esteem. Our little hive was attacked by robber bees. Once again, it was a scene entirely reminiscent of Tolstoy’s dying Moscow:

There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder. In and out of the hive long black robber bees smeared with honey fly timidly and shiftily… Formerly only bees laden with honey flew into the hive, and they flew out empty; now they fly out laden. – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Chapter 20.

Alas, one morning about a week ago, we were greeted by hundreds of bees surrounding our defeated little hive, the colony that had failed to raise a queen. I had been planning a trip to my daughter’s farm to return the miscreant hive. Now the demise and return of equipment were urgent. I was compelled to conclude the sad business of the hive that had failed.

If you’ve never experienced robbing – at your shop, from the back of a truck, in an apiary –  you have been very, very lucky. Or you simply never noticed that robbing was going on. If the latter is the case, please consider a different hobby – if you are oblivious to the stinging rage of robber bees, then you should put away your hive tool.

An inexperienced beekeeper may think something wonderful is happening at the hive when he/she approaches and hundreds of bees are encircling it. The scene can be quite exhilarating, at first. Like showing up at your house late one evening and seeing dozens of people racing in and out. You might think they are there to decorate your home for a surprise party for you. Then you notice, as Tolstoy did in the little excerpt above, that those unexpected guests are arriving empty-handed but leaving with your stuff.  So it is with the robbing bees. They are having a party and you are paying for it.

It was just nine in the morning. My daughter came into my office, “Dad something is going on at the hive. There are too many bees flying around it.” Since this had been an odd colony all year, I didn’t know what to expect. Were they absconding, leaving their home for some better beekeeper’s apiary? But soon I saw the excited bees and I could hear the unusual high-pitched buzzing. As I neared the nuc, I could see greasy black bees fighting the hive’s guards at the small entrance. Other than the auger hole partially obscured by a wire-mesh screen, the box was sealed and impenetrable. But the robber bees were attracted by the smell of honey and were trying to get in. It was obvious that a few had slipped past the guards and were looting the goods, carrying honey to some distant hive, and returning each time with more bees to help with the theft. At 9 am on a mild morning, a full scale attack was already underway.

To enter, bees slip around the edge of the screen. Wasps tend not to learn that trick but robbers usually figure out the route. Most of the bees in this picture have just arrived to steal from the nuc, only a few actually live here. The nuc’s own bees (there are just a couple thousand still alive) are doing their best to keep the thieves out. Notice that these robbers are not black and sticky the way Tolstoy described. That’s because the robbing has just started. After a few hours, the robbers will begin to look rougher, loosing their fuzzy hairs along with their dignity as the melee progresses.

What would you do in this situation? Would you accept that the small hive was good as dead and you might as well let the robbers clean out the equipment for you?  I hope not. First, your hive may harbour bee diseases or mites which the invaders will collect and haul back to their own homes. Never let bees rob! I cringe when I hear a new beekeeper report leaving their extractor and equipment outside for a few days so robbers can ‘clean it up’. In most parts of the world, that’s illegal because it’s an easy way to spread disease. In a big city like ours, there is a second reason to avoid allowing bees to rob.

Robbers come in marauding hordes that would impress Atilla. Two bees become twenty in fifteen minutes. Those twenty invite two hundred. Within an hour or two, you may have thousands of robbers. Robbers, when they leave their own home, only get a partial set of directions – so they wreak havoc in a wide area while looking for the site of the looting. That wide area can include neighbours, kids, and pets. That’s the second big and very important reason not to allow robbing – you might hurt the folks next door.

To me, seeing robbing in action gives rush as if I were seeing the start of a fire. There’s not a second to waste – it has to be stopped or it will grow until the entire world is consumed and your neighbours will tar and feather you. As they should.

There are tricks that might stop the robbing. An effective one is to turn on a sprinkler. My 15-year-old ran over with the garden house and we put it atop the nuc. First, though, I covered the hive with a large towel. When the water started, the robbers scattered and the towel became wet, sticking to the nuc’s lid and sealing the little auger hole.

Bees kept coming for a half hour because they were still being instructed by scouts back at the hive. It took time before everyone got the message that “It’s raining over at the Miksha’s.”

Thus ended my year of failed beekeeping. There were certainly years when, as a commercial beekeeper with a thousand hives, I lost more money. But this was pretty crushing. Among my lessons:  Don’t keep a weak hive. Don’t go to Europe mid-summer. You can’t control everything. You never can tell with bees. And, most significantly, let everything be a lesson.

As we assessed the damage, my son asked what’s next. I told him that we could shut the water off in another hour or two and leave the wet towel in place until evening. We did. Then, as it got dark, he helped me slip the hive back into the same big black plastic bags that held the nuc when I brought it from my daughter’s farm.  My 15-year-old wants to try again next year. But as he lifted the plastic-clad hive, he said, “Dust to dust. Plastic bag to plastic bag.” The colony had run its course.

Even after fifty years around the bees, things sometimes go wrong.  If you think you know everything about bees, you don’t know anything. I have sometimes heard new beekeepers, puffed up with self-importance, brag about their skills. If those folks beekeep for a few years, they usually develop a very different attitude. Eventually, they come to agree with the old adage that “Beekeeping is one of those things where you start out knowing everything but as the years go by, you realize you know less and less… If you keep bees long enough, you figure out that you really don’t know anything at all.”

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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7 Responses to My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part VI

  1. I think you mean “don’t go to Europe mid-summer, just after establishing this small experiment”!! I recently acquired a new student who had bought 2 nucs from a local conventional beek, (at great expense) and then he went on a month long trip. He found me by networking after he returned and found both hives queenless and in different states of decline. Hard to guess the trajectory of the failing, so he signed up for a feral tree hive cutout with me and got new bees in fine condition. But, I want him to check them weekly for comb repair and egg laying.
    About the set-up to robbing—this summer I have had to carefully watch for arriving swarms at my main apiary when taking honey or having hives open for inspection. These are strong hives of 3-4 or more deeps each, but we have had SO many swarms this year (fine rains in the past winter) that a hive open to the sky is a powerful attractant for passing swarms. (I have hived over 60 since February)
    SO TRUE about ” you can never tell with bees” Pooh I was in a strong colony a few months ago and appalled to see the bees balling their queen that I assessed as doing a magnificent job! What do I know?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part VI | Raising Honey Bees

  3. gregmbutler says:

    Thanks for the story and the useful lessons. “Dust to dust, plastic bag to plastic bag”…very good.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Alan Jones says:

    Thats bad luck Ron, but it’s big of you to share it. Best to put it behind you and try again next year. What can possibly go wrong?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: My Failure as a Beekeeper: Part VI | Beginner Beekeeper

  6. Exceptionally good story. You saved the best for last. Nicely done. We gain humility and wisdom from these little creatures if we let them teach us.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Erik says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Ron. Sorry it didn’t work out, and look forward to your hive in the spring.

    Liked by 1 person

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