What Bugs Your Bees in Summer? Know the Lineup of Beekeeping Pests.
Which Critters Eat Bees?
While many creatures may choose a honey bee hive for its warmth and protection in winter, other animals are attracted to bee hives in summer. Most of these animals do not attempt to enter the hive — after all, that’s an intimidating proposition. But many hang around the outside, hoping to catch a bite of bee or a taste of honey.
Besides wasps, your hives may lure in slugs, lizards, birds, frogs, skunks, raccoons, possums, and bears. Depending on the visitor, the threat to your hive can range from none to enormous. Let’s take a look at some of these pests from smallest to largest.
Ants and wasps are the most troublesome summertime insects. Ants are generally attracted by the idea of a free meal of luscious, high-energy honey. On the other hand, wasps — most frequently in the form of yellowjackets or hornets — are hunting for insect prey to feed their young. The less aggressive wasps will simply collect dead bees from the ground around the hive. Oftentimes you will see them dart under the landing board and snatch whatever bodies were dropped there.
More aggressive wasp species may attack live bees as they go in and out of the hive entrance. Some will pounce on bees on the landing board, while other species will snatch bees in flight. On occasion, hornets will knock a bee out of the air, follow it to the ground, and battle with it, rolling and buzzing until the bee gets free or dies.
Because ants, bees, and wasps are so closely related, it is hard to kill one species without harming the other. Ants can sometimes be deterred by physical barriers such as oil traps, sticky substances, or repellants such as cinnamon. Some wasps can be lured into pheromone traps or containers baited with meat. Many beekeepers use robbing screens to prevent wasps from entering the hive.
Slugs and Snails
Depending on where you live, slugs and snails can leave an unsightly mess on hives. They may deposit slime trails and feces on the sides of a hive or on the outside covers. But unpleasant as they are, slugs and snails will not hurt your bees. They tend to eat decaying organic matter — both plant and animal—as well as live plants, mushrooms, and lichens. Around bee hives they can find dead bees, bee feces, and pollen pellets to munch on. You can flick them away with your hive tool or let them stay — no harm done.
Reptiles and Amphibians
Small lizards, frogs, toads, and salamanders are often found around bee hives. In the south, beekeepers may find six or seven lizards crawling up the side of a hive. Frogs are frequently found on or under a hive, and I’ve even found small snakes slithering across the bottom board. Tree frogs are commonly seen around pollinator housing, but many are too small to eat bees — or at least not a lot of bees.
All of these animals are insect eaters, and are probably attracted to bee hives because of the diversity of bugs on the menu. Bees and wasps are eaten by some species, but wax moths, beetles, earwigs, and ants also make a nice snack. Usually, these animals don’t hang around for long. I view them as part of the ecosystem and only incidental pests to bees. If you feel your hives are being threatened, try moving them to a different location.
Although most birds don’t bother bee hives, there are a few that do. Woodpeckers, kingbirds, shrikes, titmice, mockingbirds, swifts, and martins will all eat bees, but they don’t single them out. They tend to eat many types of insects, and so the number of bees consumed per bird is small. You can screen your hives with poultry netting to keep birds away if they become a real problem, but generally they are not worth the worry.
On the other hand, woodpeckers can be quite damaging to tube-nesting bees such as masons and leafcutters. They can systematically peck at the mud plugs, then reach in to eat the first larvae or two. If woodpeckers are pestering your tubes you can cover the nests with poultry wire. Once the tubes are filled, you can store them in a cool cellar or garage, which will also protect them from predatory wasps.
A number of different mammals can bother your bees without actually entering the hive the way mice and shrews do. One of the worst is skunks. Skunks particularly like hives that sit close to the ground. They approach the hive at night and scratch at the opening, which causes the guards to come out and investigate. As soon as they exit, the skunk swallows them down like peanuts. Yum. A skunk can continue this behavior for long periods, severely damaging the population. Other animals, such as raccoons and opossums can exhibit similar behaviors.
Elevating your hives on hive stands offers good control, because the animals cannot crouch in front of the opening. If that is not possible, surrounding the hives with wire mesh also works well.
The biggest threat to beehives comes from the biggest predators. Contrary to all the cartoons, bears come not so much for honey as for the brood. Brood is a high-protein energy food that can help bears fatten up for the winter. Of course, they will eat the honey too. But a hive without honey is still attractive to bears, as long as there is plenty of brood.
Bears simply smash the hive to bits to get at the combs of brood. Most of the common bear deterrents, such as electric fencing, work until a bear actually finds the hive. From then on, they may provide little protection. Once a hive has been breached by a bear, it’s best to move the hives to another location because the bears will come back again and again, waiting for their lucky day.
I’m sure there are other pests that you may encounter based on your location. Even farm animals, such as cows, can easily tip over a hive, if only by accident. How about you? Have you dealt with any unusual pests either in or around your summer bee hives?