Honey bees evolved as consumers of food from flowers. Honey bees forage nectar from flowers to produce honey, the high-energy food they store to eat during the dearth of winter. Actually, they will forage from any available source of carbohydrate. The source may be flowers in bloom, or unprotected honey in another bee hive. Foraging worker bees learn to rob other bee hives, especially during times of dearth when little nectar is available from blooming flowers. Each honey bee colony protects its honey stores by stationing guard bees at the hive entrance to detect and turn away bees from other colonies. Robber honey bees attempt to fight their way past guard bees to get to stores of honey to carry back to their own hives. As the robber bees tangle with guard bees, they lose some of their body hair; thus robbers appear black and shiny.
Robbing often occurs in late summer and early fall; it can be especially troublesome to beekeepers during the honey harvest. If the beekeeper leaves hives open for too long or leaves honey supers exposed, robbing can start suddenly. When this happens, the air becomes filled with bees. Open hives or exposed honey supers become covered with bees. When robbing occurs during beekeeping operations, action should be taken to quell the frenzied bee activity. Reducing the hive entrances gives the guard bees an advantage over robber bees attempting to enter the hive, because the defenders have less area to guard. Today’s photo shows a bee hive under attack by robber bees. I helped this colony’s guards regain control by placing a brick on the landing board to reduce the hive entrance. Following the robbing incident, dead bees littered the ground. Robbing probably occurs more frequently in managed bee yards than in nature. Honey bees do not tend to nest in great numbers of colonies in close proximity. Beekeepers use the bees’ robbing behavior to clean the honey residue from extracted frames after the harvest.