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Keys to Controlling Small Hive Beetles

Small Hive Beetles are a major problem for beekeepers in the southern regions of the United States. A few are annoying, a large infestation can spell disaster. Some beekeepers are surprised to find these little black beetles running around inside the hive. Why would this bug want to live in a box with thousands of stinging bees? We must strive to understand and control Small Hive Beetles in our hives.

Single adult small hive beetle infesting a colony image.

Why Small Hive Beetles are Bad for Honey Bees

While not as big a problem as Varroa Mites, Small Hive Beetles do cause many hive deaths each year. They foul the inside of the hive and destroy comb. The situation can be so bad that the bees leave.  

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But, don’t panic if you notice only a few in the hive.  You can help protect your colonies by learning more about this pest of honey bees.

What is a Small Hive Beetle?

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

Small Hive Beetles infect most of the honey bee colonies found in their native area. But unlike here in the US, they are not a major pest in Africa.

We don’t know how Small Hive Beetles made it to the United States.  Most likely they came in with bees bought and shipped from an infested region or on a cargo ship.

Hive Beetles First Arrive in the US

First noticed in the Southeast during the late 1990’s, hive beetles have spread to many states since that time. 

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Though more numerous in the warm states, cold weather does not seem to completely eliminate them.

The type of soil found in any given area plays a bigger role than the average temperatures.  Clay soils are less inviting to beetle reproduction.  Beekeepers living in a region with sandy soil can expect more problems with beetles.

Yet, my soil is rock hard red clay and I still have some beetle issues. I can only imagine what the fight would be like in softer soil.

Many of the things we could do to kill beetles will also harm honey bees. Care must be taken when using methods that have not been studied and approved for use.

How Do I Know If I Have Small Hive Beetles?

The most common method of detecting Small Hive Beetles in your hive is actually seeing them. Hive beetles don’t like sunlight and will run when exposed to light.

When you remove your inner cover, look quickly on the bottom of it. Have a hive tool ready to squish any beetle that you see.

Seeing a couple is no reason for panic. However, more than a few beetles (5-10) in the beehive are a good reason to develop a beetle battle plan.

Small Hive Beetle Life Cycle

While adult beetles do little harm inside the hive, they are looking for a place to reproduce. The bees will chase them but if colony population is weak, the beetles may be successful.

Laying masses of eggs in cracks and crevices, female beetles can produce over 1000-2000 eggs. Beetle eggs look similar to honey bee eggs but smaller.

In addition to laying eggs in cracks and crevices, beetles often puncture the cappings of brood cells and lay eggs inside to hide them from the bees.

Eggs hatch in 2-4 days and the beetle larvae feed on bee pollen, honey and bee brood (developing baby bees).

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, beetles can live up to 6 months.

Small Hive 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.

After 7-10 days of feeding, larval development is finished. The beetle larvae will crawl out of the front of the hive at night.

Hive beetle with larva in hive debris image.

Most larva stay within 6 ft of the hive but they can go much farther if necessary. (Beetle larva has been known to crawl 30-40 feet across a concrete floor.) Burrowing about 4″ deep in the soil, larvae develop into adults in 3-6 weeks.

Beetles Over-Winter in the Bee Cluster

Reproduction stops in winter – but adult beetles overwinter in the bee cluster. Being a tropical bug, they must have a way to avoid cold winter temperatures.

Small Hive Beetles have another “dastardly” trait. 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.

Large Beetle Infestations Kill Beehives

When the hive beetle population grows too big, the colony is in danger.  Does the honey bee colony have a lot of space and too few bees to patrol it?  This is a very bad situation for the bees.

When the situation gets really bad, a large number of adult beetles & larva defecating in the honey can ruin a whole hive.

Beetle droppings contain yeasts that cause honey to ferment. You may even have fermenting honey running out of the hive entrance.  The whole bee colony may abscond to escape this mess.

Beetle infestation with slimed honeycomb and larva image.

First Steps To Control Small Hive Beetles

Combined with varroa mites, nutrition problems and other stresses, beetles can be the last straw.

If the colony drops in population due to failure to control swarming, queen issues or disease, beetles can quickly become a problem.

My basic rule : If I see more than 5 beetles, it is time to put all Small Hive Beetle traps and treatment options into place. Using traps with other management practices is the best thing we have right now.

  • use beetle traps before things get out of hand
  • keep the area around the hive base clean and dry
  • keep hive populations strong – avoid weak hives
  • minimize inspections during beetle season
  • use pollen patties with care

Clean Area Around Beehive Bases

Beetle larvae pupate more easily in moist soil. Most beekeepers in “beetle country” try to place beehives in full sun.

Avoid tall grasses or thick layers of moisture protecting mulch around your hive bases. Find something more suitable to put under your hives.

My bee yard will not win any awards for it’s beauty but beetle larva will only find hard, red clay upon leaving the hive.

Keep your colonies on hive stands raised up off the ground. This can help keep the area underneath drier.

Keep Strong Hive Populations

The standard recommendation to fight hive beetle problems is keeping strong hives. Strong hives can be overcome by beetles but small hives are at the greatest risk.

Limit Hive Inspections During Beetle Season

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

Limit unnecessary inspections. Beekeepers sometimes make things worse by opening hives too often. Inspect when you need to know what is happening but don’t overdo it if beetles are a problem.

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 hive beetle hotel. They are very attracted to the odor of pollen.

Common Questions About Small Hive Beetles

What does a Small Hive Beetle look like?

These pests are easy to identify. They are small black beetles running around on the frames or under the inner cover. Larger numbers can be found on the comb.

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. (Who can blame them – a beehive producing honey smells great!) 

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. 

You can also get them inside a hive when you buy full-sized hives or nucs.  This is why is it so important to only buy hives or frames of comb from beekeepers you trust.

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

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 hive beetles difficult to remove. 

Honey bee stingers can not penetrate the hard beetle shell. Worker bees chase the beetles and corral them in corners. But eventually, many of the beetles escape their prison!

How many Small Hive Beetles are too many?

A healthy strong colony can deal with a some beetles. There is no industry threshold for how many beetles are too many.

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. Moth larva tunnel through comb leaving“frass”,droppings and webbing.

Honeycomb infested with Small Hive Beetle larva takes on a slick, slimy, shiny appearance. Unless the beetle larva are in the brood nest where less honey is stored.

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. 

Upon finding beetles in your hive, and you probably will, don’t panic.  Squish them if possible.  You do have some options for controlling the number of Small Hive Beetles in your hives. Help the bees – help themselves.

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