Protect Beehives from Natural Predators

Use these strategies to protect your hives from common pests.

Skunk spikes

Stake down your skunk boards, or the crafty critters are likely to move them out of their way.

Photo by Ross Conrad

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Today's beekeepers face unprecedented challenges, a fact that is now front-page news with the spread of "colony collapse disorder." Natural Beekeeping (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) by Ross Conrad offers all the latest information about beekeeping in a book that has already proven invaluable for organic beekeepers. The new edition offers the same holistic, sensible alternative to conventional chemical practices with a program of natural hive management, but offers new sections on a wide range of subjects. The following excerpt is from Chapter 7, "Four-Legged and Feathered Pests."

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Natural Beekeeping.

Many of the creatures in the animal world that wield offensive weapons—poison glands or powerful claws and teeth—are colored conspicuously to warn potential adversaries to leave them alone. The bee’s striped colors are effective in advertising such a message, so much so that other insects such as the drone fly and bumblebee moth, both stingless creatures, manage to evade the attention of many predators because they possess coloration similar to that of bees. When looks are not enough to deter a would-be predator, the honey bee has the capacity to resort to a cooperative team effort in an attempt to discourage a marauder. Despite the intimidating defense a beehive can muster, however, a number of animals have developed defenses and strategies that allow them to feast on a hive’s contents.

Skunks and Raccoons and Bears, Oh My!

Although not normally considered a major threat to the honey bee, skunks (Mephitis mephitis) can weaken strong hives and cause lethal damage to already weakened colonies. The skunk is renowned for scratching around the hive entrance, swatting the bees that come out to see what all the fuss is about, and then contentedly munching on them in their dazed and injured state. Skunks are active primarily at dusk and dawn from late autumn through early spring. Signs that skunks have been dining on your tab include scratch marks around hive entrances, matted grass and scratched-up earth in front of hives, skunk tracks, and small piles of feces in and around the bee yard that resemble cat droppings, but contain bee parts. However, the very first signal that skunks have made your bee yard a regular stop on their rounds is often the dozen or so bees that start buzzing around your head with a tone of angered annoyance as soon as you show up. Colonies that are molested by skunks, or anything else, on a regular basis will tend to be very jumpy and behave in a highly irritable manner.

Although much less prevalent, raccoons (Procyon lotor) have been known to cause damage in the apiary. Though known to feed on insects, the raccoon is more likely to reach up under stacks of empty supers stored in an apiary and rip apart the frames of comb for a sweet snack. The raccoon closely resembles the bear but is not large enough to knock over hives and rip apart supers filled with bees and honey. Damaged frames of drawn comb removed from stacks of empty equipment and scattered around the bee yard, with occupied hives left untouched, is a potential sign that raccoons have been at work.

One very effective way to discourage skunks and raccoons is to take some pieces of plywood and fill one side with nails or screws that stick out 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 inch on the opposite side and are spaced about 1⁄2 inch apart. The plywood should be at least 18 inches by 12 inches in size. These boards can be placed in front of each hive to make it uncomfortable for any critter that wants to pull up a seat and snack on your bees or equipment. There have been instances where such boards have been pushed aside by a determined animal. To prevent this, it’s a good idea to embed a few sticks or tent stakes in the ground on either side of the boards to help anchor them and to prevent their easy removal. Just remember to remove the boards or turn them over when working around the hives, or you run the risk of nails penetrating your shoes.

A similar approach that removes the inconvenience of having to move the skunk boards when working with the bees is the use of carpet grippers or tack strips, which are available at your local carpet store. These thin wooden strips have tacks sticking out of one side so that, when they are nailed to the floor along the walls of a room, wall-to-wall carpeting can be stretched over the tack strips and tucked into the edge between the strip and the wall to hold the edge of the carpeting in place. When cut to the width of a bottom board opening and nailed in place on the area of the bottom board that extends out in front of the hive, the carpet gripper becomes an effective skunk deterrent. When the carpet tack strip is nailed to the alighting area with the beveled edge facing away from the hive, the angle of the tacks will point outward and will be most effective in discouraging skunk feeding activities. In areas prone to frequent skunk activity, making these strips a standard part of your bottom board construction will go a long way toward easing your mind of concerns about skunks. However, if you plan on screening in the bottom board entrance in order to keep the bees inside while moving the hive, or expect to install a mouse guard in autumn, it is important to position the tack strip forward, away from the entrance, so there will be room for installation.

Another method that works well is to place some metal fencing material in front of the hive entrance. Sheep fencing rolled into cages for tomatoes works great when performing double-duty for this purpose. A loose coil of fencing creates enough of a barrier that critters can’t easily forage at the hive entrance.

Some folks place their hives up on stands that raise the colony about 3 feet off the ground to prevent access to the hives by skunks. A hungry skunk that must stand on its hind legs and expose its vulnerable underbelly to feed on a raised hive can quickly become discouraged. Keeping your hives on a stand is also likely to reduce the amount of bending that is necessary to work the hives, though a small ladder or step stool may be required during a good honey year.

No wild animal causes more fear and trepidation among beekeepers than the bear. Even the smallest of these in the United States, the black bear (Ursus americanus), can wreak havoc and major destruction within an apiary. Due to its size and strength, the bear is capable of the greatest destruction and economic damage because it not only destroys bees and combs, but can easily crush and tear apart frames, hive bodies, and supers.

As with other threats to the honey bee, prevention is the preferred method of controlling a marauding bear. Once a bear has gotten a taste of the gourmet delicacies packaged inside those cute little wooden boxes sitting within easy reach, about the only ways to stop it from coming back again and again until the whole bee yard is devastated are to shoot the bear, capture and remove it to another location far away, or move the bees. Clearly the latter two options represent the more humane and sustainable approach. However, the substantial amount of time and resources involved with such endeavors can make the inconvenience of erecting some type of bear deterrent around the bee yard seem well worth the effort. If bears have been sighted around your area, or you observe tracks, feces, or scarred trees that have been used as scratching posts, do not delay in providing some bear-proofing to your apiary. Otherwise the next signs of bear activity you are likely to come across are flattened beehives that have been torn apart and eaten.

The value of simple preventive measures cannot be overstated. First and foremost, as when dealing with skunks and raccoons, a clean bee yard will be less inviting to a curious bear. Leaving old supers or frames lying about the area will make your bees more noticeable and therefore a more likely target. Bears typically prefer wooded areas and are often found in mountainous regions; by simply locating bees away from prime bear habitat whenever possible, much damage can be avoided. If you must place bees in bear territory, bear-proofing measures are a must. One of the first things that should be done is to register the bee yard with your state bee inspector. Many states and Canadian provinces will provide some compensation to beekeepers who lose their bees to bears, as long as the bees have been properly registered.

I am fortunate to have had only a few experiences with bears foraging in my bee yards, all in recent years, but I have heard enough horror stories to know that it is unlikely that there is any such thing as a 100 percent bear-proof fence once a bear has gotten a taste of the contents of a bee yard. Reports claim that a determined bear will tear down, walk through, climb over, or burrow under anything that stands between it and the golden ambrosia contained within the lemon-yellow wax combs of the hive. And an apiary does not have to be located in an isolated wooded area in order to become a target. Instances abound where bears have sacked hives kept in populated areas close to homes, even where dogs are in residence. Hence, the first order of defense requires that the bear be strongly discouraged from getting that first fateful taste of honey. In fact, it is best to put up a fence or take other measures the day your bees arrive. This is one time when it is best to not delay.

There are a number of options available for protecting one’s bees from bears. A common choice is the electric fence. This is primarily because a portable electric fence is easier to install than a permanent fence, and it is easier to move in the event that the bees must be transported to another location. If the bees are expected to permanently reside in a single location, then a permanent fence can be used. When installing a permanent electric fence, rugged construction is essential due to the bear’s powerful nature. Wooden or steel posts should be buried deep in the ground. It is also advisable to use extra-thick fencing wire and ceramic, rather than plastic, insulators. Place the insulators on the inside corners of the posts so they will be less likely to break or be pulled out of the posts should an angry bear swat its paw at the wiring. Four or more strands spaced at approximately 1-foot intervals and a fully charged battery round out your bear protection. To help ensure adequate grounding, some folks recommend that every other wire be grounded.

If the bee yard is close enough to a power supply, the fence can be plugged in directly to an outlet. In isolated locations, solar panels are a great way to help ensure that the battery stays fully charged. Be sure to keep the grass and weeds well trimmed under the wires, or a short circuit may develop that will compromise the effectiveness of the fence. Some folks find that a strip of landscape fabric or carpeting about a foot wide works well to keep down the growth of vegetation under the fence. Place the strip down first and then pound the posts into the ground through the cloth or carpeting to hold it in place.

A side benefit of an electric fence is that, if the lower strand of wire is placed close enough to the ground, it may also be effective in deterring skunks and other critters. Another idea that Bill Mraz suggests is to use strands of barbed wire in place of the standard electric fence wire, so as to further deter an animal from pushing through the fence. 

I have heard folks recommend hanging a strip of bacon, aluminum foil coated with peanut butter, or some other bait from a hot wire so that a bear approaching the fence will touch the tempting morsel with its nose or tongue (both wet and sensitive organs) and get a good zap that should discourage further investigation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that hanging bait on the fence is likely to make the bee yard much more attractive to a curious bear than when no bait is used at all.

For additional security, it is a good idea to always have a backup system in place. Electric fences are not perfect—batteries can go dead, fences can get short-circuited, electronics can fail—so I like to ensure that every hive is securely strapped together as a backup. This way, should a bear knock over a hive, the hive will not easily break open. By making the hive more difficult for a bear to break into, there is a chance that the animal will become discouraged and give up, leaving the hive alone and sparing you and your bees a tragedy.

Standard nylon straps will serve for strapping a hive, but they will weather and deteriorate over time, and there is the possibility that a bear’s sharp claws will cut through a nylon strap. When attending Apimondia (the international beekeeping congress) in Australia in 2007, I was impressed with the single-piece metal straps that held together every hive I saw there.  Beekeeping in Australia is very migratory and apparently the majority of beekeepers there use the straps to keep their hives together as they move them from one location to another. I was thrilled when Mann Lake Ltd. in Minnesota began to sell these galvanized steel straps that will hold up to the weather and a bear’s claws. While I admit it takes additional time to constantly unstrap and then restrap each hive during inspections and hive manipulations throughout the season, the straps make up for the inconvenience by not only providing backup protection against bears, but by eliminating the need to tie or weigh down covers to keep them from blowing off while overwintering hives.

Another low-tech approach involves creating a bed of sharp thorns that will deter a hungry bear in much the same way as recommended for skunks and raccoons. Pieces of plywood containing nails or screws long enough to protrude between 1⁄2 and 1 inch and embedded on one side of the board at 2- to 3-inch intervals create a powerful, low-cost, low-maintenance deterrent when compared to a fence. The boards should be at least 4 feet square or larger and placed all around the hive so that a curious bear will not miss them when approaching from any direction. Care should also be taken to prevent the crafty bear from catching the edge of a board with its paw and turning it over or shoving it out of the way. Pushing the bear boards up flush against the hive or adjacent boards and staking them with wooden sticks or tent stakes around the edges can accomplish this. I have also heard that some beekeepers use carpet remnants in place of plywood. Although carpeting has the advantage of not warping like wood does, care must be taken to use carpeting thick enough to hold the nails or screws rigidly enough that they will not be easily pushed over.

As with skunk boards, bear boards or carpeting will need to be moved or turned over when you are working around the hives. Thus, using large sheets of plywood that are not easily shoved out of the way or flipped over (by a bear) works well as long as they are not too difficult for you to move when entering the bee yard.

Other techniques that have been used successfully to deter bear damage include placing hives on a platform high above a bear’s reach, enclosing an apiary with chain-link fencing, and placing hives inside buildings, such as on the second floor by an open window in an old barn that can be locked up. One must remember, however, that there is no such thing as 100 percent bear-proofing. Bears have been known to break into cabins, take down fences, flip over bear boards, and rip hive bodies apart with their bare claws. The way I see it, if you have taken care to set up numerous systems that back each other up and a bear still manages to break through your electric fence, get past your bear boards, and overcome the strapping on your hive, that bear deserves all the honey, pollen, and brood it can get!

Mice

Mice may not be quite as much of a problem down South, where winters are not so long and cold, but in the northern reaches of the United States, a nice, relatively warm and dry beehive filled with wonderful things to eat proves a strong temptation for mice. If given the chance, mice will move into the bottom super or the hive body of a colony after temperatures are consistently below 50°F (10°C) and the bees have formed their winter cluster, leaving the majority of the hive’s interior uninhabited and unprotected. The mouse can build its nest on the cluster’s periphery with little chance of being molested until the temperature increases up above the 45° to 50°F (7° to 10°C) range.

Reducing the width of all hive entrances that are large enough to admit a mouse, so that bees can still pass but mice are excluded, will prevent such disappointing springtime discoveries. A piece of 1⁄2-inch hardware cloth that is 3 inches wide and cut to the width of the bottom entrance provides excellent mouse protection when bent at a 45-degree angle lengthwise and wedged into the space between the bottom board and the first bee box (see figure 7-2). Mouse excluders manufactured from pieces of wood with holes through which the bees can come and go are also available from bee supply companies. Unfortunately, they will also reduce airflow, negatively affecting ventilation within the hive during the crucial winter months.

The key to the efficacy of any mouse guard, however, is positioning the device in the entrance prior to the onset of cold weather. The tardy beekeeper who installs mouse guards late in the season after the first cold weather has arrived may find that, instead of keeping the mice out, the mouse guard has served to lock the mice inside, guaranteeing that the damage to the hive will be worse than it would have been without a guard in place at all. As a result, it is best to install mouse guards on warm, sunny days when the bees are flying strongly. This way any mouse that may have moved in during a recent cold snap will have deserted its nest due to the increased bee activity and will be waiting for the bees to reform the cluster in the cool of the evening before returning to its anticipated winter abode.

You may benefit if there are rock walls, wooded areas, and other places that make good habitat for snakes near your apiaries, as many snakes will happily make a meal out of any mouse they come across that they can fit in their mouth. Nevertheless, in places like Florida, extra care must be taken because many of the snakes that live in the area are venomous and like to hide underneath the beehives. They can provide quite a surprise to anyone who happens to be moving hives around and carelessly reaches underneath a hive without first making sure the area is unoccupied.

If you are employing the service of snakes to help keep the mouse population in check around your bee yards, keep a sharp eye out when mowing the grass within the apiary. One day while mowing a bee yard, I spooked a garter snake that had been hiding amongst the hives. I watched as it ducked into the bottom entrance of a nearby beehive, only to exit less than a minute later looking like a porcupine, bristling with freshly laid stingers throbbing and pulsing all along the length of its back. The poor snake was not moving anywhere near as fast upon exiting as it had when it entered the hive, and it became more and more sluggish, dying a short time later.

Don’t let all the action at the hive entrance distract you from what may be happening behind the front lines in this battle against the mice, either. Those empty honey supers, full of frames that the bees worked into drawn comb and that you have extracted, can be very attractive accommodations for a mouse. After all, there are no bees in these empty stored supers to worry about. Organic honey standards require a pest-free honey house and extracting area. Since prevention is the first line of defense, utilize barriers and good housekeeping and turn to controls if preventive measures are unsuccessful.

Prevention starts with a solid building. Inside, consider stacking supers kept in storage on top of one another, with the bottom super sitting on a flat surface, and use something mouse-proof like an outer cover to seal up the top of the pile. Be sure to keep the stack straight, with each super lined up directly on top of the one below. It takes only one skewed box in the pile to create an opening large enough for a mouse to squeeze through. If preventive measures fail or additional peace of mind is required, the assistance of some traps or the employment of a cat or two can be useful, though both these approaches tend to work slowly and may allow for some damage to occur before all the mice have been removed from the area. Although it may not seem to be in keeping with organic philosophy, the use of poison is often permissible in organic production as long as it can be demonstrated that the rodenticide will not affect the integrity of the final product in any way.

The Birds and the Bees

For the most part, birds are a minor difficulty for beekeepers outside of Africa and Asia, which are home to avian species such as bee-eaters, the beeswax-eating birds called honeyguides, and at least two species of bird that will lead honey bee predators such as honey badgers or baboons to a hive and then dine on the spoils left behind after the larger mammal has exposed the nest and eaten its fill. In North America, heavy local predation of honey bees may occur by species of birds such as titmice, swifts, flycatchers, and some shrikes, which may present a problem for queen breeders and others working to rear their own mother bees.1

I have also observed on several occasions, while working in one particular bee yard located just a couple miles from the Canadian border, a flock of seagulls circling high above the apiary for long periods, and I have wondered whether they were dining on some high-flying bees. Other than the possibility of seagull slaughter or the capture of a queen in flight, the bird that catches the occasional bee on the wing in North America does not present any serious threat to beehives, with one notable exception: the woodpecker.

Although not a common occurrence, a woodpecker will occasionally peck holes in a hive to gain access to the tasty honey bees within. A woodpecker can seriously harm a weak hive, though the primary damage these birds cause is to the hive equipment itself. The one instance of this that I observed was damage that occurred after the fact when a woodpecker had opened up a large hole in and around the thin layer of wood located by the handhold on a hive body. The size of the hole was fairly large, which seems to indicate that the woodpecker spent a considerable amount of time feeding at the hive, either in one sitting or during repeated visits. The damage was discovered early in the spring and no further woodpecker activity was observed during the course of the season, which suggests that perhaps the woodpecker attacked the hive during the cold weather, when other insects were scarce and the number of honey bees that would emerge from the hive to investigate such a disturbance were few and slow-moving. Presumably, once the weather warmed up and the number of bees venturing forth increased to the point where the bees were able to land a number of stings, the woodpecker lost interest and moved on to easier pickings.

Controlling damage in such an instance is difficult at best, and although I know of nobody who has experience dealing with an active woodpecker attack, it is possible that introducing a barrier, such as a cardboard box slipped over the hive, may create enough of an inconvenience to deter such activity once a woodpecker is actively engaged in feeding on a hive. Alternatively, if a power source is available nearby, a motion detector connected to a floodlight or a radio may provide enough deterrence to discourage all but the most persistent bird. When necessary, woodpecker holes can be patched up by nailing or screwing a piece of sheet metal over the inside of the opening.


Reprinted with permission from Natural Beekeeping by Ross Conrad and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Natural Beekeeping.