December 11, 2018
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In the honey world, it’s robbing season for bees

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Thousands of bees buzz their wings and vibrate to keep warm in a demonstration hive at The Honey Exchange in Portland in this January 2014 file photo. In Peter Cowin's latest article, he talks about bees robbing from other bees.

It’s interesting just how much the fall honey flow has varied between the locations in which I keep my bees. In Carmel, the bees hardly put an ounce of honey in the hives in September, whereas here in Hampden, some of my hives filled two supers (about 70 pounds) in less than three weeks. That means that between all of my honey production hives, I have about 900 pounds of honey. All of the honey supers have been removed from the hive and are stacked up in the garage awaiting extraction.

At this time, the goldenrod honey flow has come to an end, and there is just a bit of nectar coming in from asters and other late flowering plants. Instinctively, the bees know they need to store as much food as possible for the winter. With so little forage available, the bees will turn to robbing from each other. Weak hives with low bee populations are at the greatest risk of robbing. Initially, some bees will look to slip past the bees guarding the entrance to the hive.

They also may seek alternative routes into the hive, say between the hive top and the supers or through cracks in the wood. Once in, they will fill up with honey and rush back to their own hive.

News of the new found source of food quickly spreads and soon hundreds, even thousands of bees start raiding the weak hive. The guards of the weak hive will defend it to the death and hundreds, even thousands can die for the cause; but sheer numbers of raiding bees can simply overwhelm them. In a few days, the weak hive can be robbed out so badly that they will not even survive to the end of fall, never mind winter.

To prevent this warfare, I have reduced the sizes of the entrances to my hives. Smaller entrances are easier to defend. Those hives that still need food are being fed with concentrated sugar solution; two parts granulated sugar dissolved in one part hot water.

The bees are now very tuned into any potential source of food, and any drops of honey spilled outside are quickly found and taken back to the hive.

I recall one day some years ago, while I was away on a business trip, my wife, Anne, had noticed that my bees were very busy flying to and from the hives.

“That’s nice,” she thought, ”Peter will be pleased”.

As hours passed, the bees seemed busier and busier. Then, at about 5 p.m., Anne happened to pass the door leading from the house to the garage and heard what she took to be some machine left switched on in the garage. Assuming my son Christopher had left something on in there, she instructed him to go turn off whatever it was he left running in the garage and come set the table for dinner.

Confused, Chris dutifully went to the garage. What he saw would have given Stephen King great material for a book!

“OK Mum,” Chris said’ “Don’t freak out.”

“Why?” asked Anne ominously.

Chris replied, “That noise is bees!”

Now, dear reader, let me explain. The day before I left on the business trip, I had removed two full supers of honey (about 80 pounds) and these were “safely” stored in the garage. The rule of the house is ALWAYS close the garage doors, as there is often honey in the garage. Now, being the first week of October and the bees were searching for food anywhere, this was a very bad day for the kids to leave the back pedestrian door to the garage open. The bees found the honey and soon returned with reinforcements. Some tried to return to their hive via the windows where they encountered the glass and buzzed and bumped and soon were joined by more confused bees, then more, then more. You get the picture. By the time hours had passed, well over a hundred thousand bees from my six hives virtually covered all six windows.

With hindsight, it was probably good that I was overseas for the rest of the week! Fortunately, Harold Swan, my beekeeping friend, mentor and business partner was able to advise Anne to open the garage doors till the evening. While this may sound counterintuitive, it allowed for most of the bees to find their way out of the garage before nightfall when the doors could be closed. When I returned at the end of the week, I had the job of assisting the stragglers (about 20,000 of them) out of the garage.

Still time to book a spot in one of my beekeeping classes this fall (to avoid all my mistakes!)

Beginners classes at Newport (368-3290) and Ellsworth (664-7110) and Bucksport (469-2129). Intermediate classes in Hampden (862-6422) Bucksport (469-2129) Newport (368-3290) and Ellsworth (664-7110).

Peter Cowin, aka The Bee Whisperer, is president of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. His activities include honey production, pollination services, beekeeping lessons, sales of bees and bee equipment and the removal of feral bee hives from homes and other structures. Check out “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook, email or call 299-6948.


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