Whether you want to produce buckets of fresh honey or increase pollination in the garden, beekeeping is an enduring hobby. But, keeping bees is not as simple as it may seem. There are many enemies of honey bees that threaten the health and productivity of our colonies. And beyond these beehive pests, predators and diseases take their toll as well.
Common Enemies of Honey Bee Colonies
Beekeepers are farmers-at least according to the USDA. Unlike other farmers, our livestock is not under our complete control. No matter how well you manage your beehives, you can not keep them completely safe.
Some honey bee enemies walk right in the front door or entrance of the hive. Others are unwittingly, brought back to the colony by foraging workers.
Honey bees travel long distances to gather food for the colony. Millions of blooming plants are visited to collect nectar and pollen.
As the busy bee collects necessary resources for the hive, she is at risk. Foraging is a dangerous activity with many perils.
Our hard-working ladies could be eaten by another insect. Or her travels may result in exposure to dangerous pesticides. Sadly, the worker may unknowingly bring problems back to the hive.
Honey Bee Parasites
While the foraging bee takes the greatest risk on a day by day basis, bees inside the hive are also in danger. Parasites that feed on adult bees and damage the next generation are some of the most deadly.
Varroa Mites (varroa destructor) are an external parasite of honey bees. This small reddish mite is tiny but large enough to be seen with the naked eye.
Varroa Mites are the #1 killer of bee hives world wide. They feed on adult bees and bee brood. This weakens the colony are adults do not live as long as they would normally. Varroa mite feeding on young results in deformed, disease ridden adults.
Every successful beekeeper must have a mite control plan. If you by some miracle do not have mite problems – that’s wonderful. However, you still need to know. Varroa Mite levels should be monitored throughout the year.
Mite testing is used to determine the level of infestation. You can not rely on visible inspection because most of the mites will be hidden inside the brood cells-making baby mites!
There is sometimes a tendency to wait until Fall to treat. This can be a devastating mistake for bee colonies. Do not use the calendar as a definite guide for when you should treat for varroa mites.
If the level is too high, then treatment options should be considered. There are many different treatment options for varroa control. Each beekeeper has a favorite.
In recent years, the use of oxalic acid for varroa mite control has become popular in the US. Used successfully for years in Europe, American beekeepers have added this tool to their mite control program.
Formic acid is another tool used for mite control. It is available in different formulations and can be beneficial when the manufacturer’s directions are followed.
The search continues for more natural ways to deal with varroa mite problems. Can essential oils help honey bees be healthier? Many beekeepers say yes.
Essential oil recipes for honey bee health are often used to promote healthy bees. However, any method of mite control requires constant monitoring to make sure it worked.
Other Mites in the Beehive
Varroa are not the only mites in a beehive-but they are the most deadly. In years past, Tracheal Mites (Acarapis woodi) were a major problem for beekeepers in the United States. Many hives perished but bees have rebounded with some resistance in recent years.
There is some concern in the beekeeping industry about a new potential threat. Tropilaelaps mites (Tropilaelaps clareae and T. mercedesae) are found in Southeastern Asia where they feed on the Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata).
These two mites are also capable of preying on our European Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) in the same way as Varroa mites. Let’s hope they do not relocate to the United States.
A few years ago, researchers notice some strange bee behaviors in colonies on the West coast. The problem began with a parasitic fly. After the fly lays eggs in the body of the bee, neurological damage seems to occur.
This damages causes the bees to behave erratically. This earned them the name – Zombie Bees. You may still some talk about this but it has not developed into a major problem.
Nuisance pests only become a major problem in a colony that is sick or weak for other reasons. Others however, can cause an entire colony to die or leave. Learn how to diagnose real problems and when to relax and let the bees handle things.
Small Hive Beetles
Small Hive Beetles (Aethina tumida) originated in Africa. A hard- shelled black beetle, they can fly for miles. They are a major pest for beekeepers in many parts of the United States.
The southern regions of the US are most at risk from beetle infestations. It is rare to find a hive that does not have some beetles.
A small insect, they are able to walk right in the front door of the hive. They are less of a problem in strong hives where the bees have enough of a population to control them.
In addition to keeping populous colonies, there are several different types of Small Hive Beetle Traps that may help. Trying to keep every single beetle out may be impossible but keeping the numbers under control is important.
Two species of Wax Moths are found near beehives- the greater wax moth (Galleria mellonella) and the lesser wax moth ( Achroia grisella). Both are gray moths that resemble small butterflies.
They often get a bad rap in the world of beekeeping. Blamed for the death of many colonies, they are actually nature’s scavengers. They enter abandoned nests and clean up old comb.
But, they do not only target abandoned nests. Their goal is to sneak into the hive and find a secluded place on the comb to lay eggs. The resulting moth larvae destroy valuable honeycomb, honey and other hive resources.
However, they are only a problem when the colony is weak for some other reason. Wax Moth infestations are a symptom of another problem.
Did Wax Moths kill your bees ? Probably not, moths rarely cause the death of healthy hives. The first step upon finding a problem is to ask yourself – why was that colony weak?
Minor Hive Pests that Annoy Beekeepers
As beekeepers, we often become alarmed at finding anything other than bees in the hive. A cockroach looking for a warm place to over-winter may be upsetting – but is no threat. In fact, these organisms bug us more than the bees.
These pesty little critters can cause trouble but for most beehives they are just a nuisance. In my article (Earwigs – are they a problem for bees) we discuss how big of a problem they are and what to do.
Some species of ants can certainly cause colony failure. One example is the Argentine Ant found in parts of the US. If you live in a region with especially viscous ants, extra precautions may be necessary.
However, most of the time, ants bother the beekeepers more than the bees themselves. These tiny insects seems to be able to get in the smallest cracks. Attracted to the honey and sugar water located in a hive, they can become very aggravating.
Common Bee Predators
Foraging bees are subject to attack by many different predators while out in the field. Unfortunately, we are not the only ones who know that a beehive is a food resource.
Predators can have an strong effect on your colonies by reducing vitality or population.
- small mammals
- wasps – hornets
Are Birds a Problem for Beehives?
Some types of birds are voracious consumers of honey bees. Thankfully, for most people, birds have very little effect on the bee population in your area.
Of course, I would not suggest putting up bird houses near your beehives. Even calm birds will be defensive over their territory. But, you are not likely to have a problem with bee eating birds unless you live in a tropical area.
Bears & Bees
In some regions, bears destroy beehives each season. If you live in an area with a bear population, it is best to build a electric bear fence right away.
In my region, a black bear that visits an apiary normally returns night after night until all of the hives are destroyed. It is much easier to keep a bear away than to stop him once he has a nice taste of honey and bee brood.
Raccoons, opossums and especially skunks can be a major problem for beekeepers. They go up to the hive entrance at night and eat bees.
Personally, I love skunks and possums and I have never had a problem with them in my bee yard. Why? My hives are up on hive stands that make it very difficult for skunks to reach.
Wasps & Hornets
Some honey bee predators actually fly right up to the front of the hive to attack. Wasps and hornets will capture foragers near the hive entrance. If the colony is weak, the intruder may go inside the hive.
In recent years, the Giant Asian Hornet caused a stir in the beekeeping community. However, there are many other insect predators that prey on honey bees.
These wasps are known to be a problem for small colonies in late Summer. Yellow Jacket traps may help if they are a big problem in your region. It is important to remember that these insects help control other pests too. You don’t need to destroy every one you see.
It is a good idea to learn how to identify bee nests vs wasp nests to keep them out of your bee yard.
Unfortunately, other people must be considered a predator of your beehives. Yes, people steal bee colonies every year – not all beekeepers are honest. Design your bee yard in a safe place where it can be watched by yourself or neighbors.
Beekeepers in some areas use hot brands to make various pieces of beekeeping equipment. This helps identify it in case of theft.
Honey Bee Diseases
Like most living things, honey bees fall prey to various diseases. Whether they are caused by bacteria, fungus or viruses, disease can take a toll on the productivity of a bee colony.
Unfortunately, the many viruses that can infect a hive are difficult to diagnose. It is usually necessary to send a sample into a bee research lab. Even then, there is often little you can do for viruses.
Seeing dead brood can be frightening but the disease often clears up on its own with good foraging weather.
However, one of the most feared brood diseases in beekeeping is American Foulbrood (AFB). It kills larvae and capped pupae in the hive.
Most beekeepers will never see a case of AFB. And, thank goodness for that! AFB has no reliable cure and contagious spores can be found in old used beekeeping equipment for decades.
Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of American Foulbrood in hopes you will recognize possible cases and seek help if needed. In some states, it must be reported to the state apiarist.
Another problem that can cause colonies to be unproductive is nosema disease. Both Nosema apis and Nosema cerana may be found in a colony. While nosema can destroy a hive, it is not always a death sentence. A light case often clears up on it’s own.
The only registered treatment for bees with Nosema is the antibiotic Fumgallin. This however, only controls the problem and does not eradicate it fully.
Dysentery on the front of the hive can be a symptom but bees can have dysentery for other reasons too. Beekeepers that suspect a colony has nosema disease often begin a regiment of nutritious feeding to ensure adequate nutrition.
More than 19 different viruses have been identified that can infect honey bee colonies. They differ in their severity and effect on the hive. And, viruses attack the bees at various life stages.
It is very common to have more than 1 viral infection inside the colony at one time. Often, the levels are so low that a beekeeper does not see any signs of disease.
And, there may be little you can do anyway. Often, keeping parasite levels low and ensuring good nutrition plays a role in keeping viruses at lower impact levels too.
Protecting Bees from Enemies
Every thoughtful beekeeper wants to do everything possible to help our colonies be healthy and productive. In many cases, a good colony needs little help. But, there will be times when the beekeeper must intervene to ensure survival of the hive.
Strive to understand the common enemies of bees in your region. In some of the more tropical climates, Cane Toads (Bufo marinus) is a bee predator. Northern beekeepers will have more problems with mice entering the hive during late Fall.
Watch for problems with your colonies and have a plan of who to call if you suspect a major problem. This may be friends from the local beekeeping association or a state bee inspector.