Robber Barons

“What the hell?”

We’ve had bees for a summer now, so I’m used to seeing them in the yard. Even a lot of them in the yard. End of the night when they’re all coming home. After their hives were toppled by a branch during the derecho. This was different. The sun was setting, right at a perfect angle to illuminate the entire yard with nearly sideways beams of light, catching each bee and turning them into golden streaks. So many golden streaks. They filled the back like a galaxy.

Something was very wrong.

The right hive, the domain of Queen Victoria, had two full bee beards, one around the entrance, and one clinging to the out cover. Bees would occasionally drop off, straight to the ground. We thought at first they may be swarming, dissatisfied with the hive, the amount of space they had, the queen herself, there’s any number of reasons why a hive of bees will split and become two, an odd reproduction. Mitosis on a massive scale. Suited up, we examined a few clumps of bees, carefully looking for the old queen ready to take her faithful retinue off to form a new colony, leaving her successor behind.

The bees weren’t swarming. They were fighting. Each little battle was one-on-one combat as bee grappled with bee. The whole of the hive was at war, and there was only one reason for that sort of whole scale combat. The hive was under attack.

Bees will rob bees. If one hive comes across another and perceives weakness, decides that it’s easier to fight off other bees than to collect their own pollen and nectar, then the process will begin. We’d taken every listed precaution against the possibility. Wire screens across entrances which made it harder to fly in and right back out with honey. Keeping the bees fed so they’ll be healthy. Sometimes it still happens. We opened up the hive, and it was heartbreaking. Frame after frame of drawn out comb, all completely empty. By the time the robbing started, by the time we saw bees flying everywhere and fighting it out, it was already too late for anyone to do anything. Us, the hive, it was all over.

Soon we’ll have one hive. The robbed hive won’t make it through the winter, there’s no way it can store enough honey and pollen between now and then. The process is easy enough. Lay down a sheet of newspaper across the top of the healthy hive, cut a tiny slit so pheromones can pass back and forth, then stack on the supers of the robbed hive. Give it a week, and the bees will acclimate to each other, chew through the paper, and two hives will be one.

The only problem is Queen Victoria. A hive can only have one queen. She either has to be segregated with a few workers, or disposed of. I was glib about regicide while learning about beekeeping, but we’ve hit the first time where that’s an option. It feels silly actually giving a damn about an insect. Not bees in general, not our hives, but one specific bee who we’ve seen perhaps three times total.

So who robbed the hive? It’s impossible to know. I actually hope it was our other hive. First because it means they now have all the resources of both hives, and that’s not lost honey and pollen. Second because the alternative is an aggressor robbing hive somewhere in a three-mile radius of our house that could come back for our other hive. It’ll be bad enough losing one, losing both would be a real blow to our beekeeping spirits.

We always prepared ourselves to lose a hive, perhaps even both. Beekeeping isn’t easy, and even our mentors who have been in the hobby for years don’t have a 100% success rate on their hives. But it was a little brutal to actually witness, if not the actual death of the hive, at least the fatal blow being struck. Hopefully the combined hive will be healthy enough to overwinter, and come spring we’ll have all the wood ware to start a second hive, whether swarmed off the surviving hive or a newly created package or nuc.

This may put a serious delay in my dreams of fully homemade mead, however.

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  1. avatar

    #1 by Melissa on August 31, 2012 - 2:47 pm

    Oh, man, that stinks! It’s one thing to understand how nature works with respect to living creatures (competition, war, theft, death) and another to watch it play out among creatures you’re emotionally attached to. I will be thinking Happy Hive Thoughts for Hive 2 and the survivors of Hive 1.

  2. avatar

    #2 by Blythe on August 31, 2012 - 2:59 pm

    It was really hard to watch; on the other hand, that hive was never doing particularly well and would have had a hard time making it through the winter. The other one is much stronger, and adding the surviving, healthy workers and baby bees to it will only make it more so, improving its chances overall of producing honey and thriving come next summer. So even this horrific little episode can be a learning/growing experience for us as beekeepers–unpleasant as it was.

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