What Bugs Your Bees in Winter? Know the Lineup of Beekeeping Pests.
Earwigs, Stink Bugs, and Mice in Hives: Should You Be Worried?
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Even before we open our first beehive, we are warned about pests that may live within. Small hive beetles, wax moths, and varroa mites are things we dread, so early in our training we learn how to deal with them. But beekeepers are often dismayed to find an array of other critters living inside a hive, organisms no one mentioned in bee school. What should you do about them?
Remember that a bee hive is a haven in the unforgiving outdoors. It is warm, dry, protective, and comes with a fully-stocked pantry! No wonder so many animals find them irresistible. Each beekeeper will have her own set of challenges because the roster of squatters will vary with the local environment.
Most of the creatures you find in a hive are minor inconveniences and pose no long-term threat to your colony. Some, like mice and shrews, you definitely need to get rid of. Others, like most invertebrates, appear when the colony is clustered in winter and disappear when the colony becomes active in the spring. Although they are harmless, no one wants to see things like earwigs in a bee hive!
For me, the biggest problem in winter is spiders. I have Langstroth hives with telescoping covers, the kind that usually come as standard equipment. Between the cover and the side is a space about 3/8-inch wide. Where I live, that space is coveted by western black widows. Ugh.
Black widows pose no harm to your bees and, in any case, they are not actually inside the hive. Nevertheless, I always wear gloves when pulling off the outer cover, and then I clear the spiders away with my hive tool. No doubt, other kinds of spiders will find this cozy space attractive, so remember to check before you grab one unaware.
Before you toss the cover on the ground, remember to look inside. Depending on the season, the cover may contain spiders, ants, earwigs, small slugs, or mysterious larvae. Take a quick mental inventory of this hive-top zoo before you scrape it into the grass, always checking for your queen before you dump. Why queens like to hang out there, I have no idea, but I’ve seen them many times.
Whether or not ants are a problem depends on the species. Most ants are just opportunists looking for an easy meal, although some ants, like the Argentine variety, can run a colony out of the hive. Ant problems are usually worse in southern areas, and the type of ant varies with locale. Whether ants are a problem in your area is a good question for your local beekeepers’ club or your mentor. But stay calm: North America is home to about 1000 species of ants, but very few are a problem for beekeepers.
I get more mail about beetles than any other insect. It seems that when a beekeeper sees a beetle in the hive, she automatically assumes it’s a hive beetle. But as with ants, there is no reason to panic. According to recent estimates, North America boasts upward of 30,000 species of beetles, but only one of those is a problem in bee hives. Once you learn to recognize a small hive beetle, you can dismiss the rest.
Earwigs also come in many varieties, but beekeepers are most likely to see the common earwig, Forficula auricularia, introduced from Europe in 1907. These insects are nocturnal, hiding in small cracks and crevices during the day and feeding at night. They are considered scavengers, and will eat live plants, dead and decaying plant material, and small insects such as aphids. They use tight spaces in the hive for protection, but are not considered a threat to honey bees.
Recently, beekeepers have reported seeing brown marmorated stink bugs in the hive. This crop pest (Halyomorpha halys) was accidently introduced to the US in 1998, but it has already spread across the continent. It is a sucking insect that can do extensive damage to plants and, like the earwig, it uses the hive as a convenient hiding place.
These insects survive the cold months by finding shelter in homes, door frames, beneath siding, and in barns and garages. Once they find a suitable hiding place, they normally go into hibernation for the winter. But if they get too warm, they may awaken and begin walking or flying around. Apparently, the warmth of a bee hive is enough to rouse them because beekeepers see them strolling across the top bars while the colony clusters below.
Most creatures in a bee hive try to hide from their hosts, and springtails are no exception. Because springtails prefer moist environments and love to eat pollen, they are often found on a bottom board or varroa tray. Springtails are scavengers that eat spores, fungus, animal remains, live plants, bacteria, and pollen. A damp, detritus-covered bottom board is perfect for a springtail, and you can sometimes see them leap and frolic in the decaying matter.
Apparently, springtails bring out the child in otherwise staid adult human beings. If you nudge one of these tiny creatures with your hive tool, it will jump 4 to 8 inches high, exploding like a kernel of popcorn or a spring-loaded seedpod. Their energy and speed is startling, so don’t miss an opportunity to play in the detritus yourself.
Mice and Shrews
If you happen to find either mice or shrews, they should be cleared out of your hive as soon as possible. Mice will build nests between the frames or on top of the frames and then take advantage of the honey supply. The colony can easily die of starvation if the mice are allowed to stay. Often, the first hint of mice is bits of moss on the bottom board which the mice bring in for nest building. Pools of honey can also be a clue to mouse damage. The best mouse detection tool is an infrared camera because it shows you exactly where the nest is.
Shrews are very small mammals that can go through a normal mouse guard. They live primarily in northern areas and invade bee hives in the winter. A shrew grabs a cold, sluggish bee from the outside of the cluster, removes its head, and eats the contents of the thorax. Shrews leave lots of parts behind, including the abdomen, wings, and empty thorax. A quarter-inch mesh across the hive entrance is small enough to keep them out.
So many animals in so little space! What other visitors have you seen in your bee hives?