Protect Beehives from Natural Predators

Use these strategies to protect your hives from common pests.

| January 2016

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.

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