How much do you know about hive beetles? In January, I wrote about Varroa mites who are, it bears repeating, the absolute worst, but they aren’t the only parasites that infest hives. For this post I’m going to spotlight another little grub that likes to get all up in beehives and mess around.
You’re probably familiar with beetles, at least in concept, so I’m going to give a brief intro and then dive into what makes these particular fellas so insidious. There are over 350,000 species of beetles, making up almost 25% of the entire biodiversity of lifeforms. They range from weevils to the rhinoceros beetle and everything in between. What makes a beetle a beetle is a set of hardened wings that form a case around a second set of wings used for flight. That’s a pretty broad category, but the reason for the frankly ridiculous number of beetle species may be that they have a tendency to resist extinction. Now why is this important to us as beekeepers? Because hive beetles follow that pattern by being an absolute pain to get rid of.
Like the dreaded Varroa mite (and even honey bees themselves actually) hive beetles aren’t native to North America, but at this point they are present to some degree in almost all kept honey bee populations. Their modus operandi is to lay their own eggs in the hive, where they will hatch and eat up stored food before retreating to the soil to pupate. Keep that last part in mind, it’ll come up later. They aren’t extremely dangerous to bees on their own and are normally considered a secondary or opportunistic pest. Unlike Varroa mites, hive beetles aren’t going to destroy a healthy hive by their lonesome, but there are other issues they cause that make them a real pain in the neck for bees and beekeepers.
There are two main ways that hive beetles mess with hives. The first is by sheer numbers. A weak or unhealthy hive won’t be able to fight off adult beetles if they start outnumbering the nanny bees. One big problem is those hardened beetle wings we touched on earlier. They’re called elytra, and honey bees can’t sting through hive beetles’ elytra. This makes hive beetles pretty cocky, so they’ll run all around a hive, laying eggs wherever they please and eating anything they can get their grubby little mandibles on. This includes honey and bee bread, all the way up to bee eggs. Honey bees deal with small numbers of hive beetles by chasing them around, ideally out of the hive when possible, but they often find cracks or seams in hives to hide in. Usually bees will seal them into their hidey holes with propolis.
The other problem with hive beetles is their poop. No need to beat around the bush, hive beetles poop in honey and it ruins the whole batch. Like most creatures, the more hive beetles eat, the more they poop, and if they poop in the honey, their feces infect it with yeast that makes it inedible. This is bad for the hive, because they need that honey to eat, and bad for beekeepers, because hey, we were gonna take that! Like the previous problem, this only gets worse the more hive beetles that infest a hive. More beetles = more poop = more ruined honey. Hive beetles also have a nasty trick in their hypothetical back pocket for if they get caught and walled up by workers. They are sneaky enough to replicate young bees’ request for honey and trick their bee jailers into feeding them! Devious.
The good thing about dealing with hive beetles is they’re pretty easy to spot. If they’re present in any significant numbers, you’ll probably see adult beetles scurrying around like the shameless squatters they are any time you open the hive. Even worse is the (editorializing: gross) trail they leave when they move around the hive, making comb they touch slimy (and gross). These guys also don’t like light, so they run away during inspections and you should be able to spot them. Of course, once you can spot them, you’ve already missed your shot when it comes to the best way of dealing with hive beetles: prevention.
Dealing with hive pests is annoying because most treatments that can 86 parasites also hurt the bees. We don’t want a cure that’s worse than the disease. Part of the Beepods philosophy is that the fewer treatments the better. The best way to avoid the need altogether is to keep a healthy hive. Hive beetles are less likely to infect a clean hive. A clean hive will have fewer places for beetles to hide, and is a good portent of overall hive health. Don’t leave dead comb lying around, reduce stress to your hive from other sources, and your bees should be tough enough to deal with the intruders on their own.
Reducing places for the beetles to hide is a great start. One example of why Beepods encourages top-bar hives so heavily is that their frames are a solid piece of wood without the slots other types of hive frames have sometimes. Solid wood without rot doesn’t leave a lot of places to sneak off to. A clean, healthy hive is the best defense for hive beetles. Keep up your maintenance and you shouldn’t have a problem.
Sometimes problems propagate outside of our control. If that happens there are a few ways to deal with a hive beetle infestation. Keeping your beehive in direct sunlight can chase some beetles away, and mechanical traps can thin out the number of adult beetles. Freezing frames for 24 hours will usually do the trick to chill out (by which I mean kill) any juvenile beetles. And if you want to stop the population from spreading right at the root, my recommendation is nematodes. Remember way back when I said we’d get back to why hive beetles pupating in the soil was important? Here’s why.
Nematode isn’t just a really fun word to say. It also refers to a whole bunch of different species of tiny, nearly microscopic roundworms. They hang out in the soil, and a few strains, called “beneficial nematodes,” have a very special place in the ecosystem that makes them perfect for dealing with your beetle problem. You see, nematodes are parasites’ parasite. During the juvenile beetles’ pupation period in the soil, nematodes slide on up to the bugs and make themselves at home. Inside the beetle they make bacteria that’s toxic to their hosts. If you treat your yard with nematodes, they’ll kill off the hive beetles before they can kill your hive. Still not as good as prevention, but not half bad.
Hive beetles are annoying, there’s no two ways about it. But the basic steps you use to maintain a healthy and productive hive are the same ones you can use to prevent them from becoming a serious problem. Keep your apiary clean, keep it in sunlight, and keep it all in one piece. A lot of what we do as beekeepers is recreating the successful ecosystem that wild honey bees evolved in, just a little more under our control. Sometimes that looks like bringing in nematodes to counteract hive beetles, sometimes it looks like keeping pesticides and other stressors away from the hive. Whatever it looks like, our goal is always to do the best beekeeping for the bees we can manage.