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One of the challenges that beekeepers face is protecting hives from pests. We find that in August the number of pests tends to really ramp up- probably due to the ongoing heat and humidity here in the Northeast. Here are three of the most common pests/parasites we have encountered, and how we will be dealing with them.
Small Hive Beetles
When the weather gets hot and humid, we start to see an increase in the number of small hive beetles (SHB). These small, black beetles will lay eggs in beehives that then hatch into grub-like larvae. These larvae eat pollen, comb, and even young honeybee larvae. They destroy the frames of comb, and contaminate everything with their feces.
The good news is that these beetles can usually be controlled by a strong, healthy hive, although I have heard secondhand stories of strong hives being overrun. If we see a few beetles on the inner cover, we aren’t too alarmed, and just smash them with our hive tool. However, if a hive is weak due to loss of the queen, swarming, or other factors, they can be overrun by SHB.
We deal with SHB by trying to keep our hives strong. For example, this year we had a hive that swarmed. We were leaving on vacation anyway, and decided to check them after we returned to see if they had raised a queen.
When we finally inspected them, we noticed between 10 and 20 small hive beetles above the inner cover. Looking in the hive, we saw that the number of bees had dropped significantly, no signs of a queen, and we found one SHB larvae. Realizing they had failed to raise a queen, we combined the bees left in that hive with a strong hive.
We also froze the frames left from that hive to kill any SHB eggs or larvae, as SHB can be a problem in stored equipment as well. Many bee supply companies sell SHB traps as well. We have never used them, but they might be worth a try.
Wax moths are another pest that mostly seem to be a problem in weakened hives or stored equipment. These moths lay eggs on honeycomb. When the larvae hatch, they begin feeding on bee cocoons and pollen, destroying the honeycomb as they go. They also leave behind waste and “webbing” from the cocoons.
As with the small hive beetle, strong beehives are able to protect themselves against wax moths. So, it is important to maintain strong hives. Wax moths can be a problem in stored equipment, so we are careful to freeze all equipment and seal it up tightly before storing it. We also built a storage shed for our equipment that is unheated. The freezing temperatures in winter help keep pests at bay.
Again, with both small hive beetles and wax moths, it is important to maintain strong hives with a large population of bees, and to freeze and tightly seal all used equipment.
Varroa mites are another serious pest of honeybees. The adult female mites attach to adult honeybees, feeding off of the hemolymph (blood). The female mite lays eggs in brood cells, and the developing mite larvae feed on honeybee larvae. Besides weakening the honeybees, Varroa mites spread diseases and viruses, including deformed wing virus. Varroa mites and associated diseases can be a major cause of winter losses.
The first step in dealing with Varroa mites is to monitor the mite population in a hive. We prefer using “sticky boards” to monitor our Varroa levels (see picture). It is easy, and the bees are not harmed.
You will need to have a screened bottom board on your hive for this method. The board itself is corrugated plastic, with a grid printed on one side. We coat the surface so the mites will stick to it – we use either petroleum jelly or Crisco.
We then slide the board into an opening in the back of the hive, underneath the screen in the bottom board. The mites that drop off the bees fall through the screen, and will get stuck on the sticky board. After 3 days we pull the board, count the number of mites, and divide by three for a 3-day average.
Our local bee club shared the following as a guideline for when treatment may be necessary:
SEASON MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MITES SIZE OF HIVE
Fall Less than 20 Small
Summer Less than 30 Medium
Spring Less than 40 Large
Other sampling methods include brood sampling, sugar roll samples, and ether roll samples. I have not used these methods personally, but for a good discussion of these methods you can visit the Scientific Beekeeping website here.
If you decide you do need to treat your hives, I suggest really doing some research. There are many methods – those that use no chemicals (such as freezing drone brood), those that use natural products such as essential oils, and finally, there are many stronger, synthetic chemicals that can be used.
We do not want to use harsh chemicals in our hive, so we have been using Apiguard. It is is a thymol-based product derived from thyme plants. We make sure to remove any honey supers first, and then apply the product exactly as directed.
Again, there are many methods out there — the method you choose will depend on your beekeeping philosophy, price, and ease of use. The important thing is to not let the mite population in your hives get too high, so you have a strong, healthy, population of bees going into winter.
These are a few of the more common honeybee pests that we have encountered – unfortunately, there are many more out there. A great book on the topic is A Field Guide to Honey Bees and Their Maladies from Penn State. I have frequently turned to this book to figure out what a particular pest is, and what to do about it.
Jennifer Ford is a science teacher and co-owner of Bees of the Woods Apiary outside of Altamont, New York. Over the past seven years, Jennifer and her husband have expanded the apiary from two to 18 beehives, and share what they have learned about beekeeping with others through mentoring programs and presentations. Learn more about Bees of the Woods Apiary and beekeeping in general at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com or on the Bees of the Woods Facebook page. Read all of Jennifer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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