honey bee behavior robbing

Captive robber bees can change allegiance

Do you remember the Stockholm Syndrome? It’s a behavior seen in some hostages in which they develop sympathy for their captors, often to the point of defending them. The most famous case in America is Patty Hearst who, after being captured by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, eventually joined them and helped rob a bank.

What does this have to do with bees? Not much. But a recent discussion of robber bees reminded me of the syndrome. It seems that robber bees, if captured and held within the hive they were robbing, will eventually change allegiance and become part of that colony.

Opinions vary, but three days seems to be a number many beekeepers cite for the length of time the robbers must be held captive. This agrees with the 72 hours often cited for how long you must keep bees locked in a hive before they will perform a reorientation flight. (Beekeepers wanting to move a hive just a short distance can lock the bees in the hive and move it. When released after three days, most bees will reorient themselves to their new position.)

Using robbers to boost a hive’s population

Several beekeepers I know have used robbing bees to boost the population of a failing hive. Once the robbers were inside the hive, they just locked down the hive and waited for three days. By then, most of the robbing bees called the new place home and the colony population was greatly increased. One beekeeper even used a one-way bee escape over the entrance, so robbing bees that got in could not get back out.

Bees locked up like this in the heat of the summer need good ventilation and a source of water. Otherwise, there are few downside risks. Yes, there is a chance of the queen getting killed, but she may have died anyway had the robbing frenzy continued. From what I’ve heard, queens locked up with robbers usually make it. To be on the safe side, you could cage the queen while the colony is confined.

An alternative to keeping the bees locked up for three days is to screen them in just long enough to move them several miles away. Most of the robber bees will re-orient and join the hive in the new location.

Although it is far better to avoid robbing in the first place, this is a fascinating twist on using bee behavior to your best advantage.


Can these robber bees can change allegiance?

Robbing bees attacking a colony. Robbers try to enter a hive where they pick up the scent. Here the scent is coming from the space between two boxes. © Ken Rhodes.




  • Clever. Presumably the three days would also give the bees time to take on the hive odour through food sharing and grooming, so that the guard bees accept them after their next foraging trip.

    I read an autobiography by Natascha Kampusch, who was abducted aged ten and imprisoned in a tiny basement for several years. In it she expresses some limited sympathy for her kidnapper, and notes times he did her little kindnesses. But she strongly denies this being due to Stockholm Syndrome, arguing that this takes her human responses away from her.

  • I never would have thought to use robbing as an opportunity to boost a weak hive’s population. I just assumed a hive being robbed out was doomed. Clever, clever.

  • Rusty, I have four hives; two nucs and two deeps. Three of the four have been under siege for the past ten days. I have robbing screens on all and it seems that I may be winning. However, my wife has about been to drive me crazy saying I should capture the robbers and start a new hive, or two. Is it feasible to use a one way bee escape and capture the robbers in the robbed hive?

    • Skip,

      It is an interesting idea, although I would be afraid of the robbers doing a lot of damage before they are tamed. They might even kill the queen, which would set you back. It would be best if you could find a way to catch them that didn’t involve an intact colony.

  • Well, I have this doom and gloom scenario going on right now. It may be too late, but I will have to see what happens. I have no idea what is happening inside the hive. I know it was overrun and the foragers could not get back inside with their pollen. There was quite a battle and there are over 300 dead bees on the stand deck. Keeping the hive in a lockdown is the only way to keep more robbers from getting in for now. Is it too late to try and save this hive?

    • Tom,

      It depends on if the queen is okay and how many bees are left and if you can keep it from happening again. Do you have a robbing screen you can put on? I use them on all my hives.

  • I am trying a similar method in hopes to boost my colony. Only I shut down my hive in the evening, assuring that my honey bees are in the hive and non (or few) of the robbing bees are left inside. Then the next day I baited the bees with an extra honey frame. Using a vacuum and a pair of panty hose, I sucked up about 2-3 cups of robbing bees. Then I took those bees, let them ‘chill’ in the dark corner of the garage till they became a little complacent and lethargic, and put them into a paper envelope with a few holes cut into it. I opened my hive back up (once it was evening and everything was quiet again), then slid the paper envelope inside.

    I have kept my hive shut for the last three days and am about to open it up again once it gets warmer…. I am hoping that by slowly introducing the scent of the bees together (by using the paper separation it method), it will minimize the amount of fatality among the bees, will boost my hives population AND will keep the new robbing bees from ‘going back home’. Hopefully at this point they have already changed alliances. *Fingers crossed.*

  • Please excuse my newbie question. I just started beekeeping hobby this spring. How does one know there are robbers invading a hive?

  • Marissa, what a great idea .. I hope it works out for you .. please post how you made out. Thanks ! Robbing has been a problem this year with the season being so long and no nectar flow.

  • I have some robbers right now. I’ve got a door that closes on the front. I’m letting bees in, but not bees out. I’m going to leave my hives close for 3 days. This started (or at least I started to notice) right after I fed my bees sugar for winter. Let’s see how this goes.

  • Hi, love your site. We’re in the UK and have had bees for a year and a half. The first hive we purchased was a flow which we love. In May the bees swarmed and we were able to capture them, bought another hive, and successfully located that hive in another area of the garden.

    We couldn’t see the queen but decided to leave it and see if it flourishes, which it has. Sadly, it seems our old Flow hive has been suffering and it’s possible it doesn’t have a queen. We are such novices and have been researching and doing what we can but you can’t help get worried. For a while, there was a lot of buzzing coming from the hive but later, the bees were lethargic seeming to have no direction.

    We felt the numbers had dwindled a lot. With the Flow hive, you have windows to look into the super and we could see no activity at all whereas normally it’s buzzing. Today we opened it up to see whether we could locate the queen and find out what is going on. To add to the issues, it’s now being robbed by other honey bees. It’s a battlefield. We put wet towels over and reduced the very large entrance. We’ve filled in other spaces with grass.

    It looks like there is no queen and no queen cells but there are some polished cells, which may mean there is a queen but we didn’t see her. We’ve read you can turn the robbers into resident bees by closing up the hive for 72 hours and thought this may be a plan to increase the numbers. We had planned to take a brood frame from our other hive and put it into the Flow. So my question….should we combine both strategies? Put a brood frame into the Flow and block it up with the robbers and resident bees inside for 72 hours? Or just one of those ideas to start with? So confused about what to do…I’m sure you will be able to help with your expertise. Thank you 😉

    • Karen,

      It sounds like your Flow hive colony swarmed with the old queen. You used her to establish your second colony, but the first one never managed to replace the queen. The loud, prolonged buzzing you heard was the sound of a queenless colony in distress. Then, as the workers began to die off, the colony became too weak to defend itself against robbers.

      Trying to convert the robbers into resident bees is more of an advanced skill. It may be worth trying, although I’m not too sure you can make it work, especially without an established queen. I’m also concerned that you may weaken your strong colony if you take away too much brood. I think it would be important to figure out how many bees are left, and whether you have laying workers, before you decide what to do. This is a tough situation for a beginner.

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