Honey Bee Predators: Mammals in the Bee Yard
Do Skunks Eat Bees?
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Honey bees have many threats to contend with on a nearly daily basis, just like any other creature. Some honey bee predators include varroa mites, small hive beetles, fungi, and bacteria and must be successfully dealt with by both bees and beekeepers year-round. However, there are other types of honey bee predators — mammals. And while most mammals learn to steer clear of the bee yard after a well-placed sting or two, some just keep coming back. Here’s a quick look at the most common mammalian predators lurking about the bee yard and a look at how to stop them.
While Smokey the Bear may very well be an advocate for preventing forest fires, that same bear also likes honey and bees. Protecting colonies from a ravaging bear is one of the foremost items on any beekeeper’s mind in bear country. A hungry bear with a sweet tooth is not only after the honey, but also after that yummy, protein-rich bee larvae as well. If you’ve ever had an uncontrollable sweet tooth, you know just how determined any creature, especially a bear, might be to get to the hive’s goodies.
Many beekeepers find themselves asking, “How do I keep bears away from my beehives?” Strong electric fencing, often coupled with a more solid fencing system, works well; others work to find apiary locations where bears tend not to wander. However, as sad as it is to say, not a whole lot can be done to keep a determined bear out of an apiary. Not even heavy-duty electric fencing in many cases, causing some bears to be relocated, or even shot and killed, whether legally or otherwise. So, if you keep honey bees in bear country, contact your local bee club to find out what’s working in your area, as a single bear can destroy an entire apiary in a matter of minutes in their quest for sweetness and protein.
Skunks, Opossums, and Raccoons, Oh My!
Much more common across most of the U.S. are the smaller creatures roaming around with just as intense a craving for sweetness as bears — skunks, ‘possums, raccoons, and even badgers to name a few. These creatures most often attack colonies under the cover of darkness, making identification and control a bit difficult at times. However, the damage they can do — flipped lids, ripped-out feeders, ticked-off bees, and of course, the potential for heavy bee loss — makes monitoring and control a necessity in many apiaries.
Fortunately, these creatures are easier to manage than the bears due to their smaller size. Except for the raccoon and the badger, most will not flip a lid to gain access and make their attack at the hive entrance. Some sit and wait quite patiently for the random bee to fly in and out during dusk and dawn when most bees are inside and safe. Others seem to take delight in scooping up the bearded bees hanging outside the hive on a hot, muggy night. And still, others gain enjoyment from slipping those tiny paws inside the entrance and grabbing any bees it can capture just inside the hive.
A simple way to discourage these fearless honey bee predators is with carpet tacking or small nails. Secure carpet tacking, nails up, on the landing board just in front of the beehive entrance. This allows bees to go in and out undisturbed but provides a rather intense poke to the delicate nose or paw that tries to nudge its way into the hive. Other options include lifting the hives off the ground out of the reach of these rather short mammals, which is sometimes easier said than done, depending on the location and type of hive. Still, other options include electric fencing placed around the apiary’s perimeter close to the ground, with strands placed six to eight inches apart, from six inches to two feet above the ground. While more expensive and a little more time-consuming to set up, electric fencing works really well when defending against these short little mammals.
For those creatures who like to flip lids, the solution is the same as you would do to prepare for stormy weather — a heavy weight placed on top of the lid that is not easily scooted around by something as small as (but yet powerful) a raccoon or badger. Some use concrete blocks; others use heavy rocks or firewood they have lying around. Whatever it takes to keep the lid heavy will work. Just don’t forget to secure that top against the ‘coons and badgers.
Mice, mice, mice, everywhere.
While mice don’t just eat the honey or bee larvae, they certainly do more than their fair share of damage to a colony. They urinate inside the hive, rip out/consume comb/brood to make room for their own nest, and inevitably destroy an otherwise secure beehive. The damage they can do in a single day is astounding at best and completely devastating at its worst.
Conventional wisdom tells us to utilize the short side of those wooden entrance reducers for overwintering colonies, reducing the likelihood of mice entering the hive. Now, if you’ve ever tried this approach, you may have been surprised to discover mice inside your hives the following spring. Most common entrance reducers don’t actually work against mice because of the mouse’s incredible ability to squeeze itself into the tiniest of spaces. The exception is the metal reducers with small holes that allow only a single bee to enter/leave, but are not always available or even feasible if you keep many colonies year-round.
The good news is when a mouse does manage to get inside, the bees often charge the mouse and sting it repeatedly. Or bees may induce hyperthermia by balling the mouse until it dies, much like bees will ball a foreign queen. Once deceased, the bees often propolize the mouse, and the beekeeper removes the body once it is discovered. But the damage may already be done before the bees accomplish this takedown, so don’t leave the mouse to the bees.
Overall, most mammals avoid the apiary once they’ve received a sting or two. However, a few tenacious mammals are ready for a sweet, late-night snack when the beekeeper isn’t looking. Consider these threats as you set up your apiary and monitor regularly for signs of intrusion. Your bees will thank you for it.
In what ways do you deal with honey bee predators? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!
Originally published in Backyard Beekeeping October/November 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.