Monday, July 8, 2019

How to Make an Emergency Robbing Screen for Your Bees

Supplies: staple gun and 1/8" hardware cloth, or window screen if you can't
get the hardware cloth in time.  1/8" is the largest size that bees can't get
through, so max air flow while still keeping robber bees out. I put more
suggestions for things that would work near the end of the article. Cut pieces
as shown (one longer piece can be used instead of the two long ones.)
It's almost robbing season here in Spicewood (Central Texas, just northwest of Austin), and I don't just mean me robbing the bees.  I mean bees robbing bees.  Yes, bees robbing bees.  They really do that, the little assholes.  When the rain quits and the flowers die off, nectar is hard to come by.  In the beekeeping world that's called a dearth, and that's a depressing and dangerous time to be a bee.

As I'm writing this, it's raining.
So hopefully that will keep things flowering for a while yet.  The mesquites are still blooming, have been for a while now, and this bit of manna from heaven might kick start the gallardias again.  With forty acres of each here, the bees are plenty busy putting all that up.  But if we don't get more rain, and it's not likely that we will since this one was quite the pleasant surprise, it won't be long before all those wither and die with nothing to replace them.  That's the summer dearth, and that can spell real trouble if you're not ready.

Wintertime is a dearth as well, but that's a different sort of dearth than the summer one.  It's less dangerous because in winter there may be just a few thousand bees in each hive and they're busy keeping the queen warm enough to survive through the cold.  They huddle up inside, clustering together to produce warmth, using the stores of honey gathered last year for food.  The only time they come out is on a warm day, above fifty degrees or so, and that's only to take cleansing flights (that's a nicely delicate way of saying "take a shit". *giggle*).

Staple the small pieces to the sides of the hive, one on each side.
If you look inside the hive during this time, it's a scary sight.  At the winter solstice there is no brood and it looks all the world like your hive is dying out.  If you've ever lost a hive so have seen this before, it'll strike terror in you for sure.  But if you just grit your teeth and wait it out (bourbon helps), it won't be long before the queen begins laying again.  It's just a small patch at first, small enough that the few bees in the hive can care for it, feeding the larvae once the eggs hatch, capping them once they begin to pupate.  After those few hatch, the queen can lay more because now there are more bees to care for more eggs and brood.  When those hatch, she can lay more still.  And those hatch, and she lays more.  And on and on, exponentially making more and more bees as spring approaches, and then summer. This is called the "spring build up" and it's timed so the colony has a large enough population to do all the work of collecting all that nectar and pollen once warm weather arrives.

By now, just past the summer solstice, they are at their peak population.  There are literally tens of thousands of bees out there in my bee yard.  Come to think of it, with six colonies at the moment, there are probably over a hundred thousand.  And there are likely tens of thousands more in the wild.  At the moment they're all busy collecting nectar and pollen, but imagine what's about to happen when all that dries up and ALL THOSE BEES are now out of a job.  They're going to get cranky and desperate, looking everywhere for anything to bring back home.

Bend them back to make room for the front screen pieces.
It's a biological imperative for a worker bee to fly out of the house and collect something.  It's their very reason for being.  They CAN'T NOT do it since they know their colony's survival depends on gathering as much food as possible in the warm weather to withoutadoubt have enough to make it through winter and build up a healthy population again next year.  So now you have a hundred-thousand-plus bees roaming around feeling desperate, but nothing for them to collect since there are painfully few flowers.

It's only a matter of time before they find other colonies in the area.  They can smell those colonies' stores, and with nothing flowering, that's just flat irresistible, so they'll attempt to get inside that hive and take it for themselves.  If your colony is strong, they will likely be able to put up enough of a fight that the robbers will go elsewhere for easier pickings.  But if there are enough robbers to overwhelm the guards, if an extra strong colony is in the neighborhood or even in your own beeyard, the smaller colony is doomed.  The robbers will make their way inside through brute force, fighting and killing as they go, their prize being the stores they know are there.  Once they find them, they rip open the wax cappings and grab all they can, then head back to their own hive, offloading and returning for another round.

Robbing screens stop that.  They are screens attached to the front entrance of the hive, rerouting the actual entrance to another spot higher or to the side of the real hive opening.  They work because the robbers will try to get in where the scent is coming from, so will keep trying to get straight in, but find the way blocked and give up.  Your bees, the ones who live there, will know the secret key.  It'll take them a bit to figure it out when you first put them on, but they will eventually.  They don't give up because that is home, so they'll keep trying to figure out how to get in much longer than robbers will.

Staple the long pieces across the front, bending them as needed to make a
"runway" for the bees. This is shown better in the next photo.  If you have to
use two pieces of screen, like I did, be sure to overlap them well so
that there are no holes robbers can get through.
If you notice a lot of activity at your hive's entrance, especially during a dearth, stop and watch for a while.  Don't be alarmed initially though.  Orientation flights look a lot like robbing at first glance, but if you watch closely and see bees flying in figure eight patterns just a little ways out from the hive and doubling back to it, coming and going relatively peacefully, that's orientation - new foragers flying out just a bit to find landmarks, learning where home is so they can find their way back.  If you listen, you can hear a peaceful hum that just sounds busy, not bad.

But if you see a frenzy, fighting at the entrance, bees walking back and forth along the cracks between your boxes looking for a hole, bees dipping a bit immediately after takeoff (because they are heavy from being so full of honey), and hear an angry roar like you heard when you dropped that brood box that time, you better do something FAST.  It can take just a few short hours for robbers to completely decimate a hive, leaving nothing but a bunch of wax dust from ripping open the cells, a few dejected live bees, and lots of dead ones.  It's really sad.

If you ever see this going on and panic because you still aren't ready even after reading this post, just remember this: grab a sheet off the bed and a sprinkler, throw the sheet over the hive being robbed, and turn that sprinkler on so it hits the sheet and the hive.  That will buy you some time to calm down enough to think and round up your shit to make that screen.  As soon as you uncover that hive though, the robbers will be back, so use that time wisely.  And don't dilly dally - leaving them too long like this can make them overheat this time of year from all their ventilation being blocked.  The longest I've ever left them like this was a little more than half a day (mad dash to the hardware store takes a while when you live in BFE), and I left the sprinkler on to help keep them cool, so do that.  But hurry every chance you get.

Bend the small piece you put on first so that
it forms a tunnel for the bees to go through.
Robbers will try to come straight in the front,
but your bees will know the secret key
to get in.
Last year I learned the hard way you've got to get those robbing screens on before the dearth starts.  Watch what's blooming carefully, noting when the flowers start to fade, and remember how long it's been since a good rain.  At the first instant your gut says it's drying up, get those screens on.  Don't wait, or forget to pay attention like I did last year.  I lost seven little colonies I had made from splits earlier that spring.  They were building up nicely, then WHAM, the dearth hit extra early and dumbass me didn't pay attention.

This year I swore I'd be ready!  Last year, my bee buddy Karina and I made a bunch of robbing screens, and I had them staged out there right next to the bee bench so I wouldn't even have to go get them from the bee house when I needed them.  Today was the day.  I was going to install those screens so I didn't have a repeat of last year.  BUT!  But of course there's a but!  As I was trying to put them on all the hives, I realized that the new bottom boards I got from a beekeeping friend aren't standard, so the screens don't fit on a couple of them.  Yeah.

Shit.  Gotta' get creative then.  At least I found out about this now, instead of later as I stand in the midst of a robbing frenzy in the beeyard.  Another round of that and I might just be so disheartened I give up beekeeping.  (Yeah, it's that bad when you experience it.)

If you find yourself in the same boat as me and can't wait for your Mann Lake order to come in, or just can't afford enough screens for all your hives, read through the photos on this page to learn how to make one quickly and easily on the cheap, no saws needed.

Buy 1/8" hardware cloth now because it's usually a special order thing, and most times that Mann Lake order will beat it to the post office.  If you just can't afford that either, then use some window screen - cut one off your house if you have to.  New window screens are about twenty bucks, and you know how much a colony of bees is$$$$$$.  Or are you a crafter?  I've used plastic canvas as a robbing screen before.  Looked funny. Worked great.

About that staple gun - if you have one, look it up and make sure it works now.  If not, get another one.  And make sure it's loaded and you have plenty more staples in reserve.  In an emergency, trim nails, duct tape, or even thumb tacks driven in WELL with a rock would work, but I'd secure it better later, as soon as you can.

Go ahead and cut pieces of whatever you're using so it'll be a cinch to put them on when you need them.  Most window screens can be cut with regular scissors, though they won't be good for cutting anything else after that.  Hardware cloth is a bit tougher, so takes wire cutters plus a lot of time, or sheet metal snips.  Keep those pieces along with a staple gun and staples in a box near the bee yard, threatening anyone else with "NO HONEY FOR YOU!" if they use it and don't put it back.  That's why I have a nuc box on my bee bench right next to The Asshole Hive just for storing things like this - even though I live alone, I have people over occasionally who help me do projects, but my tools will always be right where I left them, in that box, because no one's going near that.  (Speaking of that, you know inside beehive tops is a great place to store important things you don't want stolen, or don't want prying eyes to see, right?  Works great.  Just ask Sherlock.)

Better yet, just go ahead and put those screens on your hives now.  You won't regret it.  But The Voice Of Experience here says you just might regret it, OH how you'll regret it, if you don't.

One of my sweet Italian colonies, all zipped up tight!  No chance of them being robbed out, heart wrenching crisis averted, no extra bourbon needed.  



  1. Where do you set up the back door on your hives?

  2. Ah, I just checked all the photos. Great post!

  3. Thanks for this. Getting my first packages soon, and I'm in frantic "cover all the bases" mode.


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