In August a beekeeping word that comes to mind is robbing. If not already done, we might rob our bees in August, when we harvest surplus honey. If we take too much, colonies might not survive winter. Other robbers are out there too – bees from other colonies might rob a colony. Skunks and/or yellow jackets might rob our bees and weaken colonies not allowing for overwintering. Perhaps a male bear, seeking to fatten up for hibernation, might destroy our colony to fest on brood. But most serious of all are the varroa mites – unless we intervene in August. This might be necessary if the bees can’t keep them in check. Mites will rob us of adult bees then promote a viral epidemic and rob our bees of the chance of successfully overwintering.
Robbing (i.e harvesting) Honey
There are a number of good ways to remove (rob) colonies of honey without harming bees. Backyard beekeepers commonly bounce/shake the bees back into the super (or in front of the colony) and then brush bees from individual frames. Bouncing the top bar on the ground in front of the hive or giving the frame a sharp snap or shake will dislodge the majority of the bees. Bees still clinging to the frame are removed with a flick of a soft bristle brush or a stiff feather following the shaking/bouncing. It is not advisable to bounce frames on the hive itself or on the landing board.
Bee escapes are another highly effective, low-technology, inexpensive method to remove bees useful when removing entire supers at harvest. There is a plastic/metal Porter-style bee escape that fits in the oval hole of standard inner covers through which bees pass one-way, from super to brood chamber below. There are several modified versions of single or multiple cone-type passage devices, the popular triangle escape board, or plastic multiple-passage devices that work efficiently to clear bees for super harvesting.
Use of bee escapes requires lifting supers off, putting the escape device beneath the supers to be removed and then returning a day or two days at most later to harvest the vacated supers. Cool nights, prompting bees above to seek the warmth of brood chambers below, are the best conditions when using a bee escape. When lifting supers try not to break open cells of honey as bees will be prompted to clean up the mess and delay leaving the super. Judicious use of smoke is also advised. You must be sure there is no entrance to supers above when a bee escape is used, or robbers (see below) might get your intended harvest first. Brood in supers keeps bees from exiting.
Larger scale beekeepers often utilize a fume board to quickly vacate bees from supers. The fume board is essentially a modified cover with an absorbent cloth on one side and a shiny cover on the side that faces the sun. To activate, a small amount of repellent chemical is sprinkled on the cloth and the board placed directly over the super to be removed. The sun’s heat volatilizes the chemical and the odor forces the bees to quickly move downward.. Approved repellent chemicals are Bee-Go® (butyric anhydride) and Benzaldehyde (Fischer’s Bee-Quick®). These chemicals work well under the proper conditions. Use great care not to spill these chemicals in transport vehicles or on clothing; residues could be an odor contamination issue.
Forced air is a modern version of brushing bees off frames. Bee blowers blow the bees out from between frames. Blowers may be electric or gasoline-powered; inventive beekeepers modify lawn leaf blowers. The forced air throws the bees into the air directed from the bottom of the box, ideally directed back toward hive entrances. This disorients them so there is little organized hive defense. The beekeeper must take care not to walk on the ground where the bees are blown.
Knowing how much honey to remove takes experience. If in doubt be conservative. You can remove and store fully capped honey frames in a freezer (if you have sufficient super space) and harvest later when you are sure the bees have enough honey to get through or have survived the winter. Only fully capped honey should be harvested to avoid having the honey ferment.
Robbing bees can be a serious problem in August. When colonies are exposed or too weak to defend their honey stores, bees from neighboring colonies might seek to enter and steal the honey. Beekeepers are often the reason for starting a robbing event. Hive inspections leave colonies disoriented and merely opening colonies or harvesting honey can start a robbing event. It is the odor of honey that is the attraction. Since there is little control, once an attack gets started, the best defense is to avoid robbing getting started.
Robbing bees seek to gain entry to the colony. Their flight is a zig-zag, bouncing type pattern. They land at or close to likely openings. We see bees at the hive covers, at the corners, at the lines between the boxes and of course at hive entry/exit openings. Robbing can be confused for heavy forager flight, orientation flights of new foragers or drones exiting and entering; these flight behaviors too may feature many bees in the air in front of a colony entrance. These normal flight behaviors will lack the bees congregating at the entrance or landing at or around other parts of the hive.
It is important to try to recognize robbing behavior from these other normal flight activities and to halt it as soon as possible. Closing entrances to openings as small as individual bees (but not shutting bees inside) is a good first move. There are several designs of robbing screens to place before the entrance that outgoing bees can adopt their flight pattern to but robbers do not. Several smaller entrances versus the wide open bottom entrance is another method of allowing the bees to combat potential robbers.
If robbing seems to be escalating, putting a sprinkler, simulating rain, at the entrance, or loosely covering the colony with a wetted sheet might halt an attack in process. We want to allow bees inside to organize and repel the attackers; such measures need be continued until dark. Confinement may create a melt-down of the colony itself so be sure coverings are kept wet. It is usually not necessary to continue such mediations a second day but the condition needs to be monitored so it doesn’t resume.
Yellow jackets and skunks, even black bears, also might become robbers of August colonies. They too can be drawn to colony odors of honey but their main interest is robbing the bees. Skunks visit at night and bears scatter the hive parts about. Yellow jackets (and flies sometimes) are relentless in scavenging the dead bodies. Weaker colonies might be entered and live adults taken as food. Elevation of hives, trapping yellow jacket adults and reducing colony entrances helps reduce their scavenging. Bears are only deterred by electric fencing around the apiary.
Robbing by varroa mites
Human harvest and animal pests and scavengers in August may put colonies at risk but the varroa mite remains the most serious issue in successful colony overwintering. Varroa mites rob individual bees of their fat body reserves as they prepare to winter. They rob colonies of their adult population and cause death or weakening of the developing pupae. Don’t be fooled and miss the forest for the trees! We can harvest too much from bees or, in harvesting, cause robbing to get started and pests and scavengers are of concern but it is the mites, specifically varroa mites that is enemy number one that robs our colonies.
In August we need to step up our mite population sampling efforts to be sure the bees, have mites under control, or if not, be prepared to step in and help them out. We want mites numbers lower than 3% (3 or less per 1100 adult bees washed of mites via alcohol or dishwashing soap (preferred) or from a powdered sugar sampling. Consult the Honey Bee Health Coalition Tools for Varroa Management for mite control options if numbers of mites are higher. Options include Apivar (amitraz), formic acid pads (Formic Pro or Mite Away Quick strips (MAGS) or Apiguard gel. Each have their advantages and downsides.