I carefully installed the new queen (All hail the White Queen!) Tuesday night by nestling her cage between two of the three frames of brood we had just taken from one of Andrea’s colonies. I went to sleep content in knowing the bees would be back on the road to self-sufficiency soon. I peeked out at them after walking Jonah, sometime around 7 in the morning. What I saw had me thoroughly distraught.

I thought, at the time, it was a good sign that these bees were walking calmly over the cage containing the new queen. She’s not pictured here, but she has a white dot on her back marking her as a queen hatched in 2021.

Surrounding the hive were what seemed to be hundreds of bees at the entrance, at the back, up and down the sides of the hive, all trying to get in via any small crack they found. I thought for certain they were being robbed. I had never seen the behavior before but knew it was something that tended to happen when resources were scarce once the nectar flow dried up (called a dearth), which is what we’re experiencing in parts of San Diego county. Upon closer inspection, I could see bees being dragged from the entrance, and others tussling on the sides or in the mulch below.

I realized that the hive entrance was wide open. When a colony is strong and the weather is hot, the entrance can be open to better ventilate the hive, but for my weak queenless colony, that left them vulnerable. Maintaining a smaller entrance gives the bees a narrower area for the bees to defend from any intruders. I immediately grabbed the reducer and squeezed it into place, but it would do little to help them at that point.

The robbers’ strategy is to attack the entrance to overwhelm the weaker residents and raid the delicious, nutritious contents. There are multiple techniques to minimize the damage from robbing; the one that came to mind was the use of wet towels, blankets, or sheets to completely envelope the hive. The robbing bees can’t find the way in but the residents can because they know their home. They can also just stay home for the day and use the existing resources in the hive. I pulled the bottom board out to ventilate the hive so they wouldn’t cook inside from the heat. Marc was working from home and agreed to keep the sheets wet if needed. There was little else I knew to do.

Of course I called Andrea to give her the blow-by-blow and she was intrigued because a couple things did not seem to square with robbing: robbing tends to happen later in the day and the robbers overwhelm the entrance but not other parts of the hive. This seemed to look more like they couldn’t find an entrance they thought should be there. Hmmmm. Was this actually robbing? Or was something else happening? Could there be too many conflicting pheromone smells emanating from the hive? I had added both brood from another colony as well as a queen with a distinct scent from another colony. Perhaps they were simply confused. Could one of the hatched queens have finally returned? I didn’t know and there seemed little I could do at this point; they would have to sort themselves out.

I attempted to lock them in the following night using a plug of grass, which they promptly pushed out of the way. This seemed to indicate to me that the problem was coming from within and not robbers from without. Following another day of mayhem, I locked them in late last night with a properly sized piece of wood fully placed across the entrance and some Gorilla tape to hold it in place. There are still bees buzzing about the hive, but they are far fewer. The casualties seem extreme; at least the birds and ants are enjoying the spoils. I hope when I check back in a few days that they have released the White Queen and the survivors can go back to a harmonious existence. We’ll see!

Mayhem Day 2. I was fairly certain this was not robbing, so I removed the sheet and let them duke it out not knowing what else I could do for them.