honey bee behavior predators robbing

How I threw a banquet for yellowjackets

Up until this week I hadn’t seen many yellowjackets. Since 2009 seemed to be “the year of the yellowjacket,” I was expecting to see fewer this year. Nevertheless I had yellowjacket pheromone lures hanging nearby and my hive entrances had been reduced for a month. Everything seemed fine.

But late last week I decided to stack my two smallest colonies for the winter. They both were started from nucs during the summer, and they both covered somewhat less than ten frames. I decided to stack them, separated by a double-screen board, with one entrance in back and one in front—the same orientation they had all summer. In a few weeks I would stack both on top of a strong colony with another double-screen board. If all went well, the large colony would help keep the two smaller ones warm.

Somehow, though, everything went wrong. When I moved the two colonies, I must have broken some honeycomb. A small amount of honey started dripping through the varroa screen. The hive stand is about two feet high, so this honey fell from the screen and oozed into the ground in the empty space under the hive. Of course I didn’t notice it at the time. I stacked the hives, opened the proper entrances and walked away.

About three hours later I noticed a cloud engulfing the stacked colonies. Bees were everywhere. They were zipping through the trees, careening past the kitchen window, and milling above the driveway. There were more bees than could possibly come from those two colonies.

On inspection, I realized what had happened. The drips of honey had created a robbing frenzy. Since we are in a nectar dearth, bees from everywhere descended on these two small colonies. Fighting was rampant. Bees on the lid, on the landing boards, and on the ground were engaged in mortal combat. Pairs of bees spun like tops from the combined action of their wings. Dead bees were everywhere. I immediately shut down the entrances to almost nothing.

The real winners in this mess were the yellowjackets. Smelling death, these wasps—or “meat bees” as they are sometimes called—arrived in waves. They feasted on dead honey bees, drips of honey, and lost pollen loads while the honey bees continued to kill each other. Also collecting the spoils of war were bald-faced hornets and a legion of ants. The wasps made repeated attempts to enter the hives while the honey bees were busy fighting each other. I watched nervously, but the reduced entrances were being defended and I didn’t see any wasps make it inside.

The frenzy lasted for two days. The fighting finally stopped. The yellowjackets are still scavenging, but there are fewer. The dead bodies have been carted off by one creature or another. I have no idea how bad the losses to the two young colonies were, but I’m certainly not going to open them now to find out.

The real lesson here is to be careful during a nectar dearth. I should have stacked those colonies earlier—before the dearth—or later, when it’s too cold to fly. Also, I should not have assumed there were no wasps just because I hadn’t seen any. They were just lurking in the shadows, waiting for someone like me to provide them a feast.


Yellowjackets snack on dead honey bees. ©Rusty Burlew

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  • Wow, I’m actually really glad to read your article. I did something similar this week, and have been researching to see if what I was observing was really what I thought I was observing. I’ve never seen bees fight before, but apparently it’s a real phenomenon. I feel less insane now.

    I didn’t stack hives, I merely pulled a super off one of my Warre hives. Because of the way the hive is arranged, harvesting the honey means cutting all the comb out of the box, which creates a huge drippy mess. I was, however, smart enough to just pull the box, move it 30 or 40 feet away, then put the hive back together before I got honey anywhere. That meant the fighting and the giant swarms were 30 feet away from three of my hives and probably 100 feet away from the fourth hive.

    No robbing activity at the hives themselves at all that I notice, but I did see the HUGE cloud of interested bees and witness the bees fighting frequently, and today we had several dozen dead bees on the site as a result. And the yellow jackets were coming in and cleaning up the dead bees by chopping them up into bits and carrying them away.

    Not sure I’d change much except to harvest that box earlier in the season, and maybe move it even further from the actual hives before cutting into the honey, just to be sure. But wow, it really pointed out to me just how much of a dearth of nectar we’re in right now.

  • Lisa,

    Interesting! When I first started beekeeping I was taught to look for fighting as a sign of nectar dearth. It seems they won’t fight as long as there is plenty of food, but will fight to the death during a shortage.

    Three years ago I cleaned some frames outside near my garden shed during a nectar dearth. It was at least 300 feet from my nearest hive, but I still got the huge cloud of fighting bees. It lasted for days and I was afraid to open the door to the shed because every time I did, several hundred bees got trapped inside. What a mess! Weeks later I was still finding dead bees in there.

    I try to harvest early now, but things still happen. It seems that no matter how much I learn about bees I’m still just scratching the surface.

    Thank you for writing. You are not insane, you are very observant!

  • I have yellow jacket problem trying to rob honey. There are two kinds of yellow jackets, the large ones and a small kind that attack my hive. Are yellow jacket traps effective and where can you buy them?

    • Yes, yellowjacket traps are effective. I like the kind that use pheromones. These attract yellowjackets without attracting other insects and they do not use poison–a plus for the environment.

      Yellowjacket traps can be purchased at most garden stores, hardware stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s, and even many grocery stores. Some types are meant to be thrown away when they become full, others can be cleaned and re-loaded with pheromone. The pheromone replacement cartridges are sold in the same place as the traps.

      If robbing is a problem be sure to reduce your entrances so the honey bees have less of a problem defending the hive. By the way, your yellowjacket problem for this year will end after the first freeze.