Bees are Thieves: What to Know About Robbing Behaviour

Thursday 19 October 2023

Now that we are well into the fall season, there are fewer flowers for honey bees to forage on. This makes colonies a little more desperate for food and increases the likelihood of robbing behaviour. If the weather is suitable for flight, honey bees will be snooping around to see if they can find honey from other colonies and beekeeping equipment. This week’s blog will discuss robbing behaviour, how to recognize it, and how to help prevent it.

Bees are Thieves: What to Know About Robbing Behaviour

Robbing behaviour most often occurs in the early spring and fall, when there is limited nectar available for bees, but temperatures are often warm enough for flight. During this time, bees are foraging hard, and trying to find any food source possible. If a bee detects the odor of nectar or honey from another colony, or from stored beekeeping equipment, they will make every effort to enter the target and remove its stores (Sammataro and Avitabile, 2021). Stealing honey from another colony is a high risk, high reward, foraging strategy that bees usually only engage in when there is limited nectar and honey available in the hive and in nature (Napier et al. 2023).

It is easy to recognize robbing behaviour by the presence of bees flying in a zigzag pattern in front of an entrance to a hive or a storage location. This back-and-forth flying pattern is noticeably different from how returning foragers fly directing into the hive. The zigzag pattern is known as a “Robbing Flight” (Sammataro and Avitabile, 2021). Once a hive has been invaded, other robbers are recruited to this activity when robbers return to their home and perform a dance to inform the food location. If a hive is being robbed, bees may be seen fighting bees at the entrance, or an accumulation of dead bees (Sammataro and Avitabile, 2021).

Weak, small, colonies are the most susceptible to being robbed. Robbing behaviour can even result in a colony’s death if too much energy is being exerted towards fighting off bees. It is important to be aware of the weaker colonies in an apiary, and if a colony is too weak the entrance should be reduced.  This helps the colony adequately guard the entrance (Sammataro and Avitabile, 2021). Keeping strong healthy colonies is the best way to prevent robbing. Also, if possible, avoid working bees during dearth periods.

Robbing behavior can escalate quickly from just a few bees to a massive frenzy of bees (Downs and Ratnieks, 2000). Once a robbing frenzy starts in a yard it is very difficult to stop. Robbing can occur for weeks, and the weaker colonies will struggle to prevent robbers from entering the hive. To protect weak colonies during a robbing frenzy it may be needed to move them more than three miles away from the site. However, the best approach to this problem is to be proactive. If there is a dearth period, robbing screens can be placed on colonies. Robbing screens block off the normal entrance to the hive but allow bees to enter perpendicularly (Sammataro and Avitabile, 2021).

Robbing screen (Kiwimana Beekeeping Supplies©2017)

Storage of beekeeping equipment is important to think about when preventing robbing. It is good practice to store equipment cleaned, and where no bees can access it. Honey supers should be removed, cleaned, and stored. It is not recommended to leave honey supers in the open for bees to clean, as this could attract unwanted pests, and it can allow pests and disease to spread.

Biosecurity is a concern when discussing robbing behaviour. Robbing bees can spread pests and diseases between colonies, apiaries, and operations. Beekeepers have a responsibility to keep colonies strong and healthy, and keep used equipment stored properly, to help reduce robbing and the associated spread of pests and diseases.


Downs, S.G., Ratnieks, F.L.W. 2000. Adaptive shifts in honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) guarding behavior support predictions of the acceptance threshold model. Behavioral Ecology.  11(3): 326 – 333.

Napier, T.C., Westwick, R.R., Kane, C.W. et al. 2023. Evaluating the cues that coordinate a shift towards the robbing foraging tactic in the honey bee (Apis mellifera). Behav Ecol Sociobiol. 77(46).

Sammataro, D., and Avitabile, A. 2021. A beekeeper’s handbook: fifth edition. Cornell University Press.


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