I am frustrated. The robbing has compromised my hives and my ability to inspect them, and it continues despite all my efforts to shut it down. It has been significantly reduced, but I fear that the robbing will continue until cold weather makes the bees stay home.
For a while I thought it was my own bees attacking each other in a frenzy that I had inadvertently begun by sloppy inspection practices, but that’s not the whole picture. I may have contributed to it, but I have not read about bees robbing while their own hives are being robbed, and all 4 of the hives have definitely been under attack. I tossed some flour on a bunch of bees after I installed a robbing screen and watched some of them fly off over our pear trees and towards the woods. Since I know that my hives cast at least two swarms this summer (and probably more), I think there’s a good chance that the robbers are from one of my swarms. I have neighbors with bees close enough that it could be theirs, but they don’t live in the direction where the robbers went, so it doesn’t seem likely. In a strange sort of way, I am mildly mollified to think that a strong hive living down in the woods is one of my swarms; at least it means that I have helped the overall honeybee population by bringing them here and taking good enough care of them that they could reproduce. I don’t need to think about the fact that the nucs I bought were so strong that they swarmed without any help from me, or that if I had been a more experienced beekeeper, I’d have been able to split my colony rather than let them swarm. It’s probably better that some bees are managed by humans while others are in the wild; it increases their chances of survival by offering a variety of living conditions.
The thing about the robbing is it caught me unprepared. I did not have the equipment I needed to stop it and I unwittingly did things that may have exacerbated it. First, I didn’t own robbing screens and I didn’t have access to the parts to make them as soon as I needed them. I didn’t rush to solve that problem; I kept thinking my other strategies would work. Second, I may have actually encouraged the robbers at the same time as I worked to stop them.
I was working on the unconscious assumption that if robbing screens were that essential, they would be part of how people are taught to set up hives in the first place, or they would be part of the sets you buy to start beekeeping. Dumb. My next mistake was that I didn’t go right out and find supplies to build them. Then, once I started to look, I discovered that it isn’t easy to find the right hardware cloth. Hardware cloth is wire screen. It’s generally sold in sizes where the spaces between the wires are so big that a honeybee can pass through the screen, which is exactly what you don’t want. Hardware stores only stock what they can sell quickly these days – they are no longer those great old dusty places where you dig around on shelves to find unusual items that they don’t often sell – so I couldn’t find it. I didn’t try to overcome that problem until I went to The Honey Exchange to buy an IPM bottom board for Apt E, a month after the robbing began. I got talking to Phil about my robbing, and he recommended robbing screens. He described a simple design to me, and said I’d be able to find the hardware cloth at a particular store in Portland. By then I had found out that my local hardware and feed stores don’t stock the small gauge hardware cloth, and I was still dawdling.
I still didn’t make time to shop for the hardware cloth; I kept telling myself it was going to stop. Geoff would look at the hives while I was at work and tell me they looked busy but not crazed. I was only home after dark and I had to be away from home for two weekends running. During one weekend, I was able to find some good wood, but not the hardware cloth. So I continued to postpone acting until my club meeting, when I found out that a member had asked our local hardware store to order hardware cloth in a small enough gauge, because she, too, needed to build robbing screens. I had no more reason not to build the screens, so I went to the store and they had the stuff.
In the meantime, I had closed up all my hives twice, in an effort to keep out new robbers and get the robbers in the hive to become defenders. I read that if you lock them in for 72 hours, whoever is in the hive will become members of the colony. So I tried that, and timed it so that when I opened the hives again there would be a robbing screen on Apartment E, which seemed to be the weakest and most under attack. I hadn’t made the other screens yet, but hoped that under the circumstances, it would be alright.
I was wrong. It might have worked, had I not also chosen that time to introduce yummy-smelling food. At the Common Ground Fair in mid-September, I had heard a speaker talking about a recipe he uses for his bees. His theory is that you shouldn’t feed bees syrup unless they’re in danger of starving to death, because sugar syrup is not as good for them as real nectar or their own honey. He makes what he calls bee tea, a syrup made with camomile tea, some natural oils, and sea salt – a brew that he feels provides more nutrition. I made up a huge batch of the stuff and put it in all my hives before I locked everyone in, so they’d have food. What the lovely smell did, I think, was keep the robbers interested in my apiary as a food source. It defeated the purpose of my closing off the honey supply to diminish their interest. Three days later, I took off the screens and opened the hives back up for the waiting robbers.
At this point, I’ve got my home-made robbing screens on all 4 hives, I’m not feeding any more syrup, but I can still see the occasional little bee pairs rolling around in one-on-one struggles. It’s not the roiling clouds of bees that I saw last month, and I don’t see the dead bodies on the ground that I saw when Apt E first got attacked. I know my bees have a much better defense because I’ve closed off all the entrances except those protected by screens. Yet they still need to fend off robbers, which is stressful.
The next step I’m planning is to combine the two weakest hives to make them stronger together. I know that Apt E is the most weak, but I don’t know yet which of the others is weakest. I’m guessing it will be Apt C because it had as bad a mite load as Apt E before the mite treatment. The Api Life Var treatment was technically done yesterday, and I installed IPM boards under them on Sunday. In a couple of days, I’ll remove the IPM boards and count the mites again, to see how well the treatment worked. I can do that in any weather because it’s just pulling boards out from below the hives, but I can’t open the hives to inspect them until I have an unseasonably warm day. And I’m afraid to do that because opening the hives up will subject them to more robbing. I’ve been told to cover the hive with a cloth and take out one frame at a time, which I could try. But I think that if I open the boxes and see enough bees crawling around on top, I’ll call it good. I’m most concerned about sheer volume of bees; they need to make a big enough cluster to surround the queen when it gets cold. I’ll combine the one that has the fewest bees with Apt E – which also, by the way, has a painfully heavy honey super – and I’ll wrap everyone up for winter.
And I’m going to think about how, next season, I’m going to manage my beehives and a full-time job an hour away from home. You can’t manage bees if you can’t observe them regularly, and weekends aren’t good enough because you can’t count on the weather.
I need to incorporate more natural rhythm in my life. It shouldn’t be this hard to do.