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1. Preface | 2. Advertisement | 3. Introduction | 4. Tamed or Domesticated | 5. Queen Drones Workers | 6. Comb | 7. Propolis | 8. Pollen | 9. Advantages improved hive | 10. Protection Temperature | 11. Ventilation | 12. Swarming Natural | 13. Swarming Artificial | 14. Enemies and Diseases | 15. Loss of the Queen | 16. Union Transferring Starting up | 17. Robbing | 18. Feeding | 19. Pasturage | 20. Anger Sting Dress Instincts | 21. Pictures | Online Books Home | Admin

17. Robbing



Bees are exceedingly prone to rob each other, and unless suitable
precautions are used to prevent it, the Apiarian will often have cause
to mourn over the ruin of some of his most promising stocks. The moment
a departure is made from the old-fashioned mode of managing bees, the
liability to such misfortunes is increased, unless all operations are
performed by careful and well informed persons.

Before describing the precautions which I successfully employ, to guard
my colonies from robbing each other, or from being robbed by bees from a
strange Apiary, I shall first explain under what circumstances they are
ordinarily disposed to plunder each other. Idleness is with bees, as
well as with men, a most fruitful mother of mischief. Hence, it is
almost always when they are doing nothing in the fields, that they are
tempted to increase their stores by dishonest courses. Bees are,
however, much more excusable than the lazy rogues of the human family;
for the _bees_ are idle, not because they are indisposed to work, but
because they can find nothing to do. Unless there is some gross
mismanagement, on the part of their owner, they seldom attempt to live
upon stolen sweets, when they have ample opportunity to reap the
abundant harvests of honest industry. In this chapter, I shall be
obliged, however much against my will, to acknowledge that some
branches of morals in my little friends, need very close watching, and
that they too often make the lowest sort of distinction, between "mine
and thine." Still I feel bound to show that when thus overcome by
temptation, it is almost always, under circumstances in which their
careless owner is by far the most to blame.

In the Spring, as soon as the bees are able to fly abroad, "innatus
urget amor habendi," as Virgil has expressed it; that is, they begin to
feel the force of an innate love of honey-getting. They can find nothing
in the fields, and they begin at once, to see if they cannot appropriate
the spoils of some weaker hive. They are often impelled to this, by the
pressure of immediate want, or the salutary dread of approaching famine:
but truth obliges me to confess that not unfrequently some of the
strongest stocks, which have more than they would be able to consume,
even if they gathered nothing more for a whole year, are the most
anxious to prey upon the meager possessions of some feeble colony. Just
like some rich men who have more money than they can ever use, urged on
by the insatiable love of gain, "oppress the hireling in his wages, the
widow and the fatherless," and spin on all sides, their crafty webs to
entrap their poorer neighbors, who seldom escape from their toils, until
every dollar has been extracted from them, and as far as their worldly
goods are concerned, they resemble the skins and skeletons which line
the nest of some voracious old spider.

When I have seen some powerful hive of the kind just described,
condemned by its owner, in the Fall, to the sulphur pit, or deprived
unexpectedly of its queen, its stores plundered, and its combs eaten up
by the worms, I have often thought of the threatenings which God has
denounced against those who make dishonest gains "their hope, and say
unto the fine gold, Thou art my confidence."

In order to prevent colonies from attempting to rob, I always examine
them in the Spring, to ascertain that they have honey and are in
possession of a fertile queen. If they need food they are supplied with
it, (see Chapter on Feeding,) and if they are feeble or queenless, they
are managed according to the directions previously given. Bees seem to
have an instinctive perception of the weakness of a colony, and like the
bee-moth, they are almost certain to attack such stocks, especially when
they have no queen. Hence I can almost always tell that a colony is
queenless, by seeing robbers constantly attempting to force an entrance
into it.

It requires some knowledge of the habits of bees, to tell from their
motions, whether they are flying about a strange hive with some evil
intent, or whether they belong to the hive before which they are
hovering. A little experience however, will soon enable us to
discriminate between the honest inhabitants of a hive, and the robbers
which so often mingle themselves among the crowd. There is an
unmistakable air of roguery about a thieving bee, which to the observing
Apiarian, proclaims the nature of his calling, just as truly as the
appearance of a pickpocket in a crowd, enables the experienced police
officer to distinguish him from the honest folks, on whom he intends to
exercise his skill.

There is a certain sneaking look about a rogue of a bee, almost
indescribable, and yet perfectly obvious. It does not alight on the
hive, and boldly enter at once like an honest bee which is carrying home
its load. If they could only assume such an appearance of transparent
honesty, they would often be allowed by the unsuspecting door-keepers to
enter unquestioned, to see all the sights within, and to help themselves
to the very fat of the land. But there is a sort of nervous haste, and
guilty agitation in all their movements: they never alight boldly upon
the entrance board, or face the guards which watch the passage to the
hive; they know too well that if caught and overhauled by these trusty
guardians of the hive, their lives would hardly be worth insuring; hence
their anxiety to glide in, without touching one of the sentinels. If
detected, as they have no password to give, (having a strange smell,)
they are very speedily dealt with, according to their just deserts. If
they can only effect a secret entrance, those within take it for granted
that all is right, and seldom subject them to a close examination.

Sometimes bees which have lost their way, are mistaken by the
inexperienced, for robbers; there is however, a most marked distinction
between the conduct of the two. The arrant rogue when caught, attempts
with might and main, to pull away from his executioners, while the poor
bewildered unfortunate shrinks into the smallest compass, like a cowed
dog, and submits to whatever fate his captors may see fit to award him.

The class of dishonest bees which I have been describing, may be termed
the "Jerry Sneaks" of their profession, and after they have followed it
for some time, they lose all disposition for honest pursuits, and assume
a hang-dog sort of look, which is very peculiar. Constantly employed in
creeping into small holes, and daubing themselves with honey, they often
lose all the bright feathers and silky plumes which once so beautifully
adorned their bodies, and assume a smooth and almost black appearance;
just as the hat of the thievish loafer, acquires a "seedy" aspect, and
his garments, a shining and threadbare look. Dzierzon is of opinion that
the black bees which Huber describes, as being so bitterly persecuted by
the rest, are nothing more than these thieving bees. I call them old
convicts, dressed in prison garments, and incurably given up to
dishonest pursuits.

Bees sometimes act the part of highway robbers; some half dozen or more
of them, will waylay and attack a poor humble-bee which is returning
with a sack full of honey to his nest, like an honest trader, jogging
home with a well filled purse. They seize the poor bee, and give him at
once to understand that they must have the earnings of his industry.
They do not slay him. Oh no! they are much too selfish to endanger their
own precious persons; and even if they could kill him, without losing
their weapons, they would still be unable to extract his sweets from the
deep recesses of his honey bag: they therefore begin to bite and teaze
him, after the most approved fashion, all the time singing in his ears,
"not your money," but, "your honey or your life;" until utterly
discouraged, he delivers up his purse, by disgorging his honey from its
capacious receptacle. The graceless creatures cry "hands off," and
release him at once, while they lick up his spoils and carry it off to
their home.

The remark is frequently made that were rogues to spend half as much
time and ingenuity in gaining an honest living, as they do, in seeking
to impose upon their fellow-men, their efforts would often be crowned
with abundant success. Just so of many a dishonest bee. If it only knew
its true interests, it would be safely roving the smiling fields, in
search of honey, instead of longing for a tempting and yet dangerous
taste of forbidden sweets.

Bees sometimes carry on their depredations on a more magnificent scale.
Having ascertained the weakness of some neighboring colony, through the
sly intrusions of those who have entered the hive to spy out all "the
nakedness of the land," they prepare themselves for war, in the shape
of a pitched battle. The well-armed warriors sally out by thousands, to
attack the feeble hive against which they have so unjustly declared a
remorseless warfare. A furious onset is at once made, and the ground in
front of the assaulted hive is soon covered with the dead and dying
bodies of innumerable victims. Sometimes the baffled invaders are
compelled to sound a retreat; too often however, as in human contests,
right proves but a feeble barrier against superior might; the citadel is
stormed, and the work of rapine and pillage forthwith begins. And yet
after all, matters are not nearly so bad, as at first they seem to be.
The conquered bees, perceiving that there is no hope for them in
maintaining the unequal struggle, submit themselves to the pleasure of
the victors; nay more, they aid them in carrying off their own stores,
and are immediately incorporated into the triumphant nation! The poor
mother however, is left behind in her deserted home, some few of her
children which are faithful to the last, remaining with her, to perish
by her side, amid the sad ruins of their once happy home!

If the bee-keeper is unwilling to have his bees so demoralized, that
their value will be seriously diminished, he will be exceedingly careful
to do all that he possibly can to prevent them from robbing each other.
He will see that all queenless colonies are seasonably broken up in the
Spring, and all weak ones strengthened, and confined to a space which
they can warm and defend. If once his bees get a taste of forbidden
sweets, they will seldom stop until they have tested the strength of
every stock, and destroyed all that they possibly can. Even if the
colonies are able to defend themselves, many bees will be lost in these
encounters, and a large waste of time will invariably follow; for bees
whether engaged in attempting to rob, or in battling against the robbery
of others, are, to a very great extent, cut off both from the
disposition and the ability to engage in useful labors. They are like
nations that are impoverished by mutual assaults on each other: or in
which the apprehension of war, exerts a most blighting influence upon
every branch of peaceful industry.

I place very great reliance on the movable blocks which guard the
entrance to my hive, to assist colonies in defending themselves against
robbing bees, as well as the prowling bee-moth. These blocks are
triangular in shape, and enable the Apiarian to enlarge or contract the
entrance to the hive, at pleasure. In the Spring, the entrance is kept
open only about two inches, and if the colony is feeble, not more than
half an inch. If there is any sign of robbers being about, the small
colonies have their entrances closed, so that only a single bee can go
in and out at once. As the bottom-board slants forwards, the entrance is
on an inclined plane, and the bees which defend it, have a very great
advantage over those which attack them; the same in short, that the
inhabitants of a besieged fortress would have in defending a pass-way
similarly constructed. As only one bee can enter at a time, he is sure
to be overhauled, if he attempts ever so slyly to slip in: his
credentials are roughly demanded, and as he can produce none, he is at
once delivered over to the executioners. If an attempt is made to gain
admission by force, then as soon as a bee gets in, he finds hundreds, if
not thousands, standing in battle array, and he meets with a reception
altogether too warm for his comfort. I have sometimes stopped robbing,
even after it had proceeded so far that the assaulted bees had ceased to
offer any successful resistance, by putting my blocks before the
entrance, and permitting only a single bee to enter at once: the
dispirited colony have at once recovered heart, and have battled so
stoutly and successfully, as to beat off their assailants.

When bees are engaged in robbing a hive, they will often continue their
depredations to as late an hour as possible, and not unfrequently some
of them return home so late with their ill-gotten spoils, that they
cannot find the entrance to their own hive. Like the wicked man who
"deviseth mischief on his bed, and setteth himself in a way that is not
good," they are all night long, meditating new violence, and with the
very first peep of light, they sally out to complete their unlawful

Sometimes the Apiarian may be in doubt whether a colony is being robbed
or not, and may mistake the busy numbers that arrive and depart, for the
honest laborers of the hive; but let him look into the matter a little
more closely, and he will soon ascertain the true state of the case: the
bees that enter, instead of being heavily laden, with bodies hanging
down, unwieldy in their flight, and slow in all their movements, are
almost as hungry looking as Pharaoh's lean kine, while those that come
out, show by their burly looks, that like aldermen who have dined at the
expense of the City, they are filled to their utmost capacity.

If the Apiarian wishes to guard his bees against the fatal propensity to
plunder each other, he must be exceedingly careful not to have any combs
filled with honey unnecessarily exposed. An ignorant or careless person
attempting to multiply colonies on my plan, will be almost sure to tempt
his bees to rob each other. If he leaves any of the combs which he
removes, so that strange bees find them, they will, after once getting a
taste of the honey, fly to any hive upon which he begins to operate, and
attempt to appropriate a part of its contents. (See p. 304.) I have
already stated that when they can find an abundance of food in the
fields, bees are seldom inclined to rob; for this reason, with proper
precautions, it is not difficult to perform all the operations which are
necessary on my plan of management, at the proper season, without any
danger of demoralizing the bees. If however, they are attempted when
honey cannot be obtained, they should be performed with extreme caution,
and early in the morning, or late in the evening; or if possible, on a
day when the bees are not flying out from their hives. I have sometimes
seen the most powerful colonies in an Apiary, either robbed and
destroyed, or very greatly reduced in numbers, by the gross carelessness
or ignorance of their owner. He neglects to examine his hives at the
proper season, and the bees begin to rob a weak or queenless stock: as
soon as they are at the very height of their nefarious operations, he
attempts to interfere with their proceedings, either by shutting up the
hive, or by moving it to a new place. The air is now filled with greedy
and disappointed bees, and rather than fail in obtaining the expected
treasures, they assail with almost frantic desperation, some of the
neighboring stocks: in this way, the most powerful colonies are
sometimes utterly ruined, or if they escape, thousands of bees are slain
in defending their treasures, and thousands more of the assailants meet
with the same untimely end.

If the Apiarian perceives that one of his colonies is being robbed, he
should at once contract the entrance, so that only a single bee can get
in at a time; and if the robbers still persist in entering, he must
close it entirely. In a few minutes the outside of the hive will be
black with the greedy cormorants, and they will not abandon it, until
they have explored every crevice, and attempted to force themselves
through even the smallest openings. Before they assail a neighboring
colony, they should be sprinkled with cold water, and then instead of
feeling courage for new crimes, they will be glad to escape, thoroughly
drenched, to their proper homes. Unless the bees that are shut up can,
as in my hives, have an abundance of air, it will be necessary to carry
them at once into a dark and cool place. Early next morning the
condition of the hive should be examined, and the proper remedies if it
is weak or queenless should be applied; or if its condition is past
remedy, it should at once be broken up, and the bees united to another

I have been credibly informed of an exceedingly curious kind of robbing
among bees. Two colonies, both in good condition, seemed determined to
appropriate each other's labors: neither made any resistance to the
entrance of the plundering bees; but each seemed too busily intent upon
its own dishonest gains, to notice[26] that the work of subtraction kept
pace with that of addition. An intelligent Apiarian stated to me this
singular fact as occurring in his own Apiary. This is a very near
approximation to the story of the Kilkenny cats. Alas! that there should
be so much of equally short-sighted policy among human beings;
individuals, communities and nations seeking often to thrive by
attempting to prey upon the labors of others, instead of doing all that
they can, by industry and enterprise, to add to the common stock. I have
never, in my own experience, met with an instance of such silly
pilfering as the one described; but I have occasionally known bees to be
carrying on their labors, while others were stealing more than the
occupants of the hive were gathering, without their being aware of it.


[26] The bees in each colony had probably contracted the same smell, and
could not distinguish friends from foes.

Does the flower make the honeybee or the honeybee the flower?