Peak beekeeping season is something we look forward to all year. The buzzing of the bees. The bars of comb, filled with honey. Hours spent outside, elbows deep in your hive, taking in the scent of nearby wildflowers. Ants marching into your hive in droves.
Wait. Ants are not part of the peaceful moments of beekeeping you look forward to returning to all winter. You’re right, they are not, but pest management is just as much a part of beekeeping as the sweet taste of honey. But, they don’t need to be a major pain point or take away from your overall enjoyment of this craft.
To deal with ants, keep in mind these important techniques: Prevention is key, minimize ant temptations, and treat naturally. Let’s talk first about why ants are a big deal in beekeeping.
Ants are not inherently terrible for a beehive. Interestingly enough, ants come from the same family of insects as bees. They are quite similar. This is why chemical treatments are not only ill-advised but also ineffective; these creatures are too similar for the poison to not impact them both.
Ants are also a symptom of dysfunction in a hive. Strong, healthy, well-organized hives will rarely be significantly impacted by some ants here and there. However, a hive that is otherwise struggling will succumb to ant infestations.
If you’re already in too deep with an ant infestation, take some time to inspect your hive. Are your bees sick from Varroa mites? Are they starving? Has reproduction stalled? Are there insufficient sources of forage nearby? Were pesticides used in your bees range of flight? Assess what might be making your bees vulnerable to ants.
If ants have yet to come, you’re in a good position because prevention is your best method for handling ants.
One of the best actions you can take to stave off the hordes of ants is to practice prevention. Yes, take steps ahead of your beekeeping season to be sure you don’t encourage the ants to come to town.
When you set up your hive(s), make sure they are not flush to the ground. When hives sit right on the ground with little space below them, ants can build their hills underneath your hive, creating a large supply of small critters and quick access to the inside of your hive.
Why does that matter? Well, my fellow bee lovers, when ants decide they want to come inside your beehives, they will capitalize on all that delicious honey, which doesn’t make for happy bees. Some varieties of ants will even eat brood.
So, what’s a beekeeper to do? Elevate your hive. You can build a simple platform underneath a traditional hive, or, you can check out our Beepod, which is built raised off of the ground for many reasons but it in part helps keep your hive safer from ants. You can also search the great, wide internet for plans to build your own top-bar hive; many can be built in a raised fashion, which is an asset to your beekeeping, indeed.
If you notice ants or ant eggs along the edges of your hive, you can spot check by using a hive tool to scrape them out of the way.
You can also make your hive and the surrounding area less desirable to ants.
It’s easy to toss burr comb on the ground when doing hive maintenance, but we advise you to put it in a bucket and dispose of it elsewhere. When you provide a temptation for the ants near your hive, you make it easier for them to be tempted by the hive itself.
Ants love to use their environment to their advantage so if you have tall grasses or branches leaning up against your hive, it’s time to reevaluate and commit to some yard maintenance.
If you can remove access points and the temptation of honey from the equation, ants will be less likely to visit your hive.
You can take it a step further and do what some beekeepers do: Apply petroleum jelly to the legs of the base of your hive to make its structure unappealing for ants to crawl on. If you do need to treat for ants, treat naturally.
If you exhaust all preventive measures and find yourself in a six-legged bind, consider treating naturally. In all honesty, a lot of these measures could be considered prevention in and of themselves, but they can also be considered treatment if you have an awareness of ants prior to implementing them.
You can use petroleum jelly, as mentioned in the previous section, to lubricate the legs or base of your hive to make them a less-than-ant-friendly slip n’ slide. Similarly, you can use Tanglefoot to stop the ants from marching. It’s a sticky paste made from natural resin, wax, and vegetable oils and it is considered non-toxic, however if you abide by treatment-free beekeeping principles, you will want to carefully consider what its use means for your values.
Additionally, some people report using wood ash to help kill ants and their hills. Especially for those struggling with more virulent varieties of ants – fire, Argentinian – this may be a nice option.
Another option is to put the legs of your hive stand in buckets of oil forming an oil moat. This is another physical barrier to the ants and one you can consider using. We’d recommend that you use food-grade oils that carry less risk for the bees, such as vegetable oils.
Another anecdotal option is to sprinkle cinnamon around your hive. Apparently ants hate it. They also hate some of the plants bees love.
One easy solution to ant problems is to surround your beehive with mint. Ants do not like it, but bees do, so you will be providing forage while managing pests.
Make sure you allow the mint to flower because the flowers are where the good stuff is for your honey-loving insects.
Here’s the deal: Ants are not a big deal when it comes to beekeeping. They are much more manageable than, say, the Varroa mite. However, we want to remind you to pay attention to your hive. Your powers of observation are crucial and if you look to ants as a symptom of a larger issue, you may be saving your hive.