Small Hive Beetles in Beehives

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For many beekeepers in the southern regions of the United States, Small Hive Beetles (Aethina tumida) can pose a significant threat to their hives. Originating from sub-Saharan Africa – these hard-shelled beetles weaken honey bee colonies and even cause hive failure. In this guide, I share with you the characteristics of hive beetles, their life cycle and ways to control infestations. Knowledge is power.

Single adult small hive beetle infesting a colony.

As a Master Beekeeper, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard about Small Hive Beetles causing the loss of a hive. In most cases, this can be avoided if you understand this honey bee pest and how to combat them.

What are Small Hive Beetles?

Let’s get to know the enemy just a bit. These small oval shaped beetles are black or dark brown in color. They measure about 5 to 7 millimeters in length (about the size of a match head).

While the scientific name for the Small Hive Beetle is Aethina tuimdda – you will often see it abbreviated as (SHB). And, Yes, before you ask – there IS a Large Hive Beetle. Let’s hope it stays in Africa.

We don’t know how Small Hive Beetles made it to the United States. Most likely they were shipped in with bees from an infested region. First noticed in the Southeast during the late 1990’s, they have spread to many states since that time. 

Life Cycle

Adult beetles do little harm in the hive, they are looking for a place to reproduce. The female lays masses of eggs in cracks and crevices of the brood combs. Beetle eggs look similar to honey bee eggs but smaller.

The worker honey bees will chase the beetles. However, the beetles tuck their legs and antenna under their body for protection.

In addition to laying eggs on and around the comb, female beetles puncture the cappings of bee brood cells and lay eggs inside to hide them from the bees.

Hive beetle with larva in hive debris image.

In 2-4 days the eggs hatch into beetle larvae. It is the small hive beetle larvae that do the damage. They feed on bee bread (stored pollen), honey and developing baby bees.

During the 7-10 days of feeding and larval growth, beetle larvae grow to about 1/2 inch in length. They have 3 pair of well-developed legs at the front and row of nubby spines on their belly. They look very similar to another pest – wax moth larvae.

When the feeding stage is ending, beetle group together near the hive entrance. After dusk they leave the hive and burrow into the soil nearby (about 4″ deep – usually within 3 feet of the hive).

But if the soil condition is not ideal, they are capable of crawling much farther – over 200 yards even.

Here pupation takes place – the larvae become pupae and pass through several stages to develop into adult beetles. Then, they emerge from the soil – mate and the cycle begins anew.

The timing of the life cycle of the Small Hive Beetle can vary greatly under good conditions. Time from egg to adult beetle can be very short. And, they can live up to 6 months. This is why with the right conditions SHB populations can explode.

Adult Small Hive Beetle on Grid Board

Over Winter in the Hive

Beetle reproduction stops in winter – but adult beetles overwinter inside the hive among the bees. This tropical bug has a rather “dastardly” way to survive. They have developed the ability to stimulate a bee’s mouth-parts and receive food.

So the honey bees, that are holding the beetles imprisoned, actually feed them. Sneaky beetles. This behavior allows them to survive confinement.

And, because beekeeper tasks in Winter don’t involve deep inspections. We often have no idea those beetles are there – ready to reproduce once Spring comes.

How Small Hive Beetles Affect Beehives

In the honey bee colony, worker bees do patrol the comb and attempt to chase beetles out of the hive. But, they are never 100% successful and when the hive beetle population grows too big, the colony is in danger.

Of course the greatest danger is to small colonies with fewer worker bees. I have seen this happen to small swarm colonies I have caught during the summer. One reason I stopped rearing queen bees was because the beetle battle was just too much trouble.

Small beehive splits, swarms, and colonies weakened for any reason is a risk for damage or collapse dur to beetle larvae.

Beetle infestation with slimed honeycomb and larva image.

Beetles Damage Hives By:

  • defecating in the honey – causing honey to ferment and spoil
  • frames of comb in the hive become slimed (due to yeasts, feces, fermented honey)
  • stressing the honey bee colony making them more susceptible to disease
  • damaging developing brood – affecting colony population
  • causing the whole bee colony to abscond to escape this mess

Methods of Detection

How do you know if you have Small Hive Beetles?

  • seeing adult beetles
  • SHB larvae on bottom board
  • larvae in the comb
  • signs of damage

Visual Inspection

The most common method of detection of Small Hive Beetles is actually seeing them. They don’t like sunlight and will run when exposed to light. Don’t confuse them with another insect you may see inside a colony – earwigs (they look nothing like beetles).

When you open a hive, be prepared to observe and take action. Remove your inner cover (an important part of your beehive) – look quickly on the bottom of it.

A colony with a significant infestation will likely have dozens scrambling to escape to the dark areas. Have a hive tool ready to squish any beetle that you see.

Small hive beetles and bees on a frame from the hive.

Bottom Board Inspection

Another place to watch for signs of hive beetle infestations is your bottom board. If you use solid bottom boards or leave in the grid for your screened bottom (which you should not do most of the time), debris collects there.

Hive Beetles are attracted to wax cappings that fall to the floor. If you find developing beetle larvae in the debris – it’s time for a closer hive inspection.

Don’t panic over a few grubs in the debris if there is no real problem inside. And seeing a few beetles (no more than 5-10), is no reason for alarm.

Beetle Larvae in the Comb

During regular beehive inspections, watch for beetle larvae in the comb. It is really easy to tell them from larger honey bee larvae.

Whitish larvae (too skinny to be honey bee larvae) and a lack of webbing in the comb that you would find with wax moth larvae – this could very possibly be a beetle issue.

Damage in the Hive

Frames of comb covered with slime, the yeasty smell of fermenting honey and brood that is discolored or dark and dying – all point to a Small Hive Beetle Infestation.

Once a major infestation is underway, it may be too late to save your colony. Adult SHB running rampant on the comb with beetle larvae in the wax cells and several frames of slimed comb is a sign of impending disaster.

Strategies for Controlling Small Hive Beetles

Due to their small size, it is difficult (almost impossible) to keep SHB out of the hive. Though some inventive beekeepers have tried with special entrances etc.

And unfortunately, some of the chemicals we could use to kill beetles will also harm honey bees (or us). Care must be taken when using methods that have not been studied and approved for use. Do not rush to use every technique you read about online.

Here are some tips you can use to get rid of Small Hive Beetles or at least help your bees keep things under control.

  • choose good hive locations
  • keep strong hive populations
  • limit hive inspections when possible during Summer
  • don’t use pollen patties in regions where beetle are during warm weather
  • use traps proactively before the beetle population grows

Sunny Hive Locations

When possible choose a location for your beehive that gets some sun. Hive beetles seem to delight in colonies that have shade all day. While this will not protect your hives completely, it is a good overall management practice.

Keep Strong Hive Populations

Does the honey bee colony have a lot of space and too few bees to patrol it? Weak hives with too many boxes is a very bad idea in areas with hive beetles.

Strong colonies are less likely to be overcome by moderate numbers of SHB and can also protect themselves against – bee robbing.

Any situation that causes a drop in bee population opens the door for problems: bees swarming, queen problems, disease, etc. Monitor the number of bees in the hive all season long.

Limit Hive Inspections

We beekeepers unwittingly help the hive beetles. During hive inspections (which we must do), beetles are able to escape the corners where bees have imprisoned them. Now, the bees have to round them up again.

Limit unnecessary inspections during hive beetle season. Inspect when you need to know what is happening-but don’t overdo it.

Pollen Patties Can Be a Disaster

Do you like to feed your bees pollen patties? In beetle areas, extreme care must be taken when using pollen patties.

The pollen patty must be small enough to be consumed within 2 or 3 days. Otherwise, your pollen patty may become a beetle hotel. They are very attracted to the odor of pollen and will lay eggs in it.

Beekeeper putting trap for beetles in a beehive.

Use Beetle Traps

They don’t all work well. But, use small hive beetle traps and techniques and get them in your hive before the problem has grown to an emergency. I place a couple of beetle traps in my beehives in late Spring each year.

Protect Your Honey Boxes

Small Hive Beetle larvae pose another problem for beekeepers. Supers of honey that have just been harvested from the hives should be extracted within a day or two.

Otherwise, any beetle eggs in the comb may hatch and destroy your entire crop. Don’t leave honey supers sitting in the honey house for a week waiting for extraction. You may lose the entire harvest.

FAQs

What does a Small Hive Beetle look like?

Small Hive Beetles are small oval shaped dark brown or black beetles. They run to hide in dark corners when exposed to light.

How big are Small Hive Beetles?

An adult SHB measures about 1/4″ long and is dark-brown to black. The size of the beetles in the hive can vary. It is not uncommon to see larger and smaller beetles on a single frame.

How do Small Hive Beetles enter the hive?

SHB are strong fliers – traveling miles at a time. They tend to travel at night and locate beehives by smell. This hard shelled hive beetle walks right in the front door. They are very mobile too. SHB often travel with bee swarms to new locations. 

Why don’t bees throw the beetles out of the hive?

Beetles are able to tuck their antenna and legs under their body, the bees find the difficult to remove. Honey bee stingers can not penetrate the hard beetle shell. Worker bees chase the beetles and corral them in corners.

How many Small Hive Beetles are too many?

There is no industry threshold for how many beetles are too many in a hive. But, find more than 10 or so is cause for action.

How to know if comb damage is from Hive Beetles or Wax Moths?

Beetle larva do not destroy the honey comb like wax moth larva. Wax moth larvae tunnel through comb leaving “frass”, droppings and webbing. Honeycomb infested with Small Hive Beetle larva takes on a slick, slimy, shiny appearance.

Why Small Hive Beetles are not a problem in Africa ?

Our European honey bees chase adult beetles but they tend to ignore beetle larva. Africanized bees are more likely to remove beetle larvae from the hive. 

Final Thoughts

The world is a big place and “pests” have been moving from one location to another since time began. In today’s fast paced world, that process is made even easier.

If you find Small Hive Beetles in your hive, and you probably will someday – don’t panic. Squish them with your hive tool if you get the chance and then create a control plan.

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