Everything I Never Wanted to Know
Everything I Never Wanted to Know
About the Small Hive Beetle
(and was definitely afraid to ask!)
By Grant F.C. Gillard
I confess, that when the reports of an additional threat to the honeybees first became public, namely the Small Hive Beetle (SHB), I was like an ostrich with my head buried in the sand. I didn’t have to worry as I didn’t have this new-found problem in my hives. I generally ignored the growing reports. I kept bees a long way from where the beetles were a problem. Besides, I was busy raising queens and catching swarms and the press was only calling this new threat an “exotic pest.”
A pest can’t be too bad, can it?
Then, as most of the experts feared, the beetles started spreading to other locations. I kept hearing rumors the beetles were devastating those far-off regions of the South and Southeast. I heard innuendos that the larvae preferred to pupate in sandy soil. Migratory operations were called into question as a cause in the spread of the SHB (Teal, 2006) and package suppliers found themselves under greater scrutiny for passing along unwanted SHB hitch-hikers.
Living in the Heartland of Southeast Missouri with its heavy clay soils, I lazily flouted my invulnerability. I didn’t buy packages. I wasn’t migratory. I concluded I was impervious to the SHB. And ignorance is definitely bliss. Even as the published articles in the leading journals began warning of the SHB’s impact, I chose to read the more pleasant articles on setting up an attractive display at the farmer’s markets and making summer splits.
My Introduction to the Small Hive Beetle:
It happened in the summer of 2004 when I first discovered a few adult beetles in a couple of my hives. These hives were located in the most southern site of all my bee yards, about 20 miles from my home, and yes, the soil in that region was sandy. I chose alternative methods of Integrated Pest Management so it was not my preference to use CheckMite+™ strips (coumaphos). I also blanched at the precautions necessary to protect human health with these strips, but already there were reports of resistance building in the SHBs to coumaphos.
Several suppliers offer a liquid concentrate to kill fire ants, called Gard Star® (a pyrethroid), that when poured on the ground as a “drench,” kills the pupating SHB larvae. The drench, however, would be affected by soil type, soil moisture, temperature and a host of other factors, and would need to be reapplied. Further, larvae have been known to migrate beyond the treated area, even traveling over 200 yards over concrete to find suitable soil to pupate (Somerville, 2003).
It was, again, not my preference to utilize the “hard” chemicals but rather find softer methods compatible with my philosophy of natural and organic methods of pest control.
I decided to purchase several of the Hood Small Beetle Traps, devised by Dr. Mike Hood of Clemson University (Hood, 2006). These traps, available from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm (Moravian Falls, NC), are plastic boxes with three compartments affixed to the bottom bar of a medium frame. In the middle of the three compartments, I placed apple cider vinegar and red wine vinegar as an attractant. The outer chambers were filled with canola oil which traps and drowns the beetles. The plastic lid has a slot too small for honeybees, and the slot is slanted inwardly to prevent SHB escape. The beetles crawl in, drown and die. The trap is ingeniously simple and can be placed in a honey super without fear of tainting the honey.
I placed the Hood traps in the top super and caught what I thought was a lot of SHBs. The adult beetle counts, as I emptied the traps and replaced the attractant every three weeks, ran from zero beetles to thirty beetles. I had yet to see any of the dreaded larvae burrowing through my combs leaving fermenting honey in their wake. I felt like I was in control. The situation was under control. Everything was right in my world. I wondered what all the fuss was about with the SHB.
In the late summer of 2004 I made up some six-frame nucs to overwinter. These were splits from regular hives and my own home-grown queens. Because these nucs needed feeding and more TLC than my regular hives, I bunched them all up into one bee yard not far from my home. In the spring of 2005, as these nucs began to expand and grow, I transferred them into ten-frame singles, still in this same yard.
When I began placing supers on them, I noticed the presence of a few adult beetles. I also began noticing in the stories and articles (which I previously ignored), that SHB prefer smaller cavities like nucs (Sanford, 1999). Again, my response was to place Hood traps in these hives, and despite a wide variance of the number of beetles caught, I had yet to see any real damage inside the hive. And ironically, though my southern-most yard was still experiencing adult beetle populations, I only had this one yard in the northern regions to show any presence of SHBs in my hives. Now I was beginning to get nervous.
Through 2006 more of my yards began showing the presence of SHBs. I would find the adult beetles clustered in the dark, narrow space between the outer and inner covers. I began taking note that SHB prefer dark places in the hive, as confirmed in some of the articles (of which I was now intently reading). Another favorite hiding spot was along the outer edge of the outside frame, between the frame and wall of the hive body. The beetles either congregated in these secluded areas or were driven to this neglected area that the bees normally tended to ignore. I continued to use Hood traps with varying success, but the beetles were never consistent in their distribution, even within the same bee yard. One hive was populated with beetles and the next one to it had nothing. Still, no damage was apparent. I was grateful.
I also trap feral colonies of honeybees with pheromone-baited nuc boxes hung in trees. The swarms I caught in those traps, late in the summer of 2006, were loaded with adult beetles. As I transferred the frames from the swarm traps to conventional Langstroth hives, installing Hood traps seemed to be the answer though my beetle counts would, again, vary widely and wildly. Thankfully, I had yet to see any real damage by the presence of burrowing larvae. But my sense of control was giving way to a brooding and broadening anxiety tempered by a hopeful denial. I read reports where beetles would, and could, travel with a swarm of honeybees.
An Incident Too Close to Home
One of my beekeeping buddies, Greg Hengst, noted that some of his hives succumbed to the beetles and the devastating larvae. A tree fell on three of his hives. He found the hives and set them up. Everything looked fine, but the beetles soon took it over. Another set of his hives had the upper boxes accidentally knocked off by a spray boom. Again, the hive bodies and supers were restacked, and though things looked fine at that point, the beetles soon moved in, took over and the larvae borrowed through the comb making an unholy mess. Or were the beetles present and something jump-started the egg laying process? Greg wasn’t sure.
Apparently the stress provided the opportunity for the beetles to move in, or perhaps there is something that happens in the hive which unleashes the adult beetles to rather suddenly lay eggs (Flottum, 2007). Or there is something that happens which allows the larvae to develop, even, perhaps, normal manipulations of hive inspections (Sanford 1999)?
Beetles are attracted to the bees’ alarm pheromone, a compound called iso-pentyl acetate (IPA). Further complicating matters, IPA is produced by a naturally occurring yeast when it ferments in the presence of pollen and honey (Messer, 2007). Using a queen excluder would restrict pollen stores from the honey supers, and perhaps contain the presence of the hive beetles to the lower boxes.
Greg’s hives were also further south where the soil was sandier, and again, I felt as if I was still protected from the destructiveness of this new pest. However, I continued to feel small beads of sweat, perhaps from the great work of my laborious denial, hoping and praying the beetles would not move this far North, or perhaps my heavy, clay soil would be my salvation.
I did have one thing in my favor, according to David Westervelt. I was not using “grease patties” (Crisco® and sugar) which are found to be very attractive to the hive beetle and increases their presence in those hives with the patties (Harmon, 2005).
My Rude Awakening:
Then it happened in June of 2007. About three weeks earlier, in the middle of May, I procured some stressed hives that had fallen off a truck of a migratory beekeeper. Some of the hives were reassembled and transported to one of my bee yards close to home, but not the bee yard previously infected with SHBs. For a few weeks, I allowed these colonies to settle down and recuperate. I had intended to move them to various locations after consolidating damaged hive bodies, giving them some new frames, and assessing the queens. Since we were in the middle of a nice nectar flow, I didn’t feed them. They seemed fine.
In mid-June, I began noticing the bees in some of these hives were all clustered around the entrance and up on the front of the hive. I thought they were overheating, but since the bee yard was set in a densely shaded woods, something else was amiss. Was it possible the queens were so productive the hive was overly crowded? At first I feared I’d find swarm cells, but nothing would prepare me for what I found in these hives.
I opened one of the hives, intending to give them another super as I was still thinking the situation was one of overcrowding. What I found was almost enough to make me wretch. The inside of this colony was wet, slick and slimy, as if the whole inside of the colony was sweating. The top bars were crawling with small larvae and hundreds of adult beetles scurried about. As I lifted the frames, the honey stores, now a foamy syrup, was streaked brown with running pollen. The comb looked like it was covered with a fine brown dust. The frames felt both greasy and sticky at the same time. The bees, not yet willing to give up their home, were pushed to the front entrance in a last ditch effort to retain their ownership of the hive.
Upon inspection, over half of the hives I brought into this yard were in the same condition. The solid bottom boards were oozing with larvae and the bees had decided it was better to hang on the outside rather than stay inside. Some hives had the bees squished over to the outermost frames along one of the sides of the brood box, the rest of the brood chamber overtaken with SHB larvae.
From my best guess. the stressed hives had the beetles present when they arrived, but at the point of their acquisition, the hives looked pretty good. But something triggered the beetles to lay eggs. The adult female SHB lays irregular masses of eggs in protective cracks and crevices, hatching in a few days producing the larvae. She can lay 200 eggs in one day. Plastic frames, particularly the “all-in-one” style of plastic frame/foundation has been criticized for providing ample cracks and crevices for small hive beetles to hide. Most of the frames in these stressed hives were wood, but my existing hives in this yard utilized lots of plastic frames.
After a few days of being laid, the eggs hatch. The larvae then borrow through comb eating honey, pollen wax, eggs and bee larvae. The honey will begin to ferment from the larval waste. Once the larvae are fully present, the adult beetles will begin to move on to other opportunities in the bee yard (Somerville, 2003).
After ten to sixteen days, the larvae move out of the hive and borrow in the soil to pupate, a process that takes three to four weeks depending on soil moisture and temperature. One week after emerging as an adult SHB, the female is capable of laying a fresh batch of eggs, thus completing a complete generation of SHBs in seven to eight weeks. The adults can live up to six months and will overwinter in the warmth of the cluster in the hive.
As the adults are highly mobile and capable flyers, they spread to other colonies to mate and reproduce. They have also been spread through migratory operations and package bee distribution. The adult SHBs eat and defecate in the honey, and if the population of SHBs is heavy enough, the queen bee will stop laying eggs and colony will either dwindle and collapse or abscond.
Bees are reluctant to return to the infected comb. However, when the dirty combs are dunked and “washed” in warm soapy water, the bees will accept the comb when returned to a healthy hive. Bleach and vinegar solutions have the same affect (Park, et. al., 2002). Large tubs or “totes” from any discount store works quite well for a wash tub. Some beekeepers have used high-pressure power washers on plastic foundation. PDB (paradichlorobenzene), sometimes sold as Para-Moth®, has been used to protect stored combs. I’ve used Hood traps in my stacks of supers with limited results, in part, because the cooler weather reduces SHB activity in the storage shed and old, empty combs are not necessarily attractive to the SHB.
The Weak Hives are Targeted
My established hives in this yard seemed to be fine, at least at this point in the season. They were also quite strong and healthy. But these newly imported hives, stressed from the wreck, were now loaded with beetles, burrowing larvae and fermenting honey. As I removed the outer covers on these stressed hives, the inner covers would be covered with beetles milling around. When I removed the inner cover, exposed to the fresh sunlight, clouds of adult beetles would take flight. Now I started to fear for my own hives. But would their strength be enough to hold off the adult beetles?
This yard was also home to some recently caught swarms and my mating nucs for my home-grown queens that I just raised. The beetles quickly moved to take over these smaller, weaker hives. Their selection of attack was swift and merciless. The nucs became slimy and devoid of any bees. Doing some quick reading on how to combat the SHBs, I began to consolidate the mid-sized colonies into single brood boxes adding fresh frames to replace the dirty frames. It was thought that strong hives could defend themselves from the SHBs, and a beekeeper could strengthen his hives by consolidating the boxes. I also read how shade assisted the increase of the beetle populations because of the higher humidity within the hive. I began to make plans to move the hives to sunnier locations, but I also feared inoculating my other yards with a breeder colony of SHBs.
Then one day in mid-July, I happened to be standing in the bee yard when that familiar droning buzz of an issuing swarm filled the air. One of the swarms I hived about three weeks earlier, began to swarm. I watched as the bees noisily vacated the hive and settled on a low bush about twenty yards away. I immediately set a nuc box under the swarm cluster to capture it, and thinking I had a conventional swarming situation, I went back to the original hive to count how many other queen cells were present.
To my amazement, there were no queen cells. There were no bees. There were probably two-hundred adult beetles that took flight when I opened the lid. I witnessed not a swarm but a total absconding due to the SHB. And most interesting, the hive was populated only by adult beetles, not SHB larvae. The frames of drawn comb were mostly empty, not oozing with fermented honey because there was no honey or nectar to speak of. Upon further inspection, there was a noticeable absence of bee larvae.
As I continued to read, it came to my attention that adult beetles will feed on pollen, honey, eggs and bee larvae. The hive will appear to be queenless. As the beetles feast, they also defecate on the combs driving the bees away. And yet there are also situations where adult SHB are present and the hive fails to show any detrimental effects. There is something other than the simple presence of adult SHB that cause a hive to abscond.
My Hope In My Strong Hives
As this summer went along, to my further amazement, I entered the bee yard one day to find two of my strongest hives absolutely devoid of any bees. All the outside cracks and joints and openings between hive bodies were glistening, looking sweaty with the slime of the SHB larvae. The scene reminded me of houses suffering from intense smoke damage from fires. The exterior walls surrounding the doorways and windows become streaked with the wafting trails of escaping smoke from the fire than ravaged the interior of the house. And so these hives were streaked on the outside, apparently from the escape of a thousand larvae trailing and tracking their waste behind them.
These hives were strong and robust, each with two hive bodies and four supers of honey ready to be harvested. I lifted the covers and removed the top super, still heavy with honey. The whole hive was taken over by wriggling beetle larvae. I couldn’t smell any odors, but the frames were glistening and sweaty, detestable and disdained by the bees.
There are two factors at play in the collapse of these strong colonies. First, the beetles took advantage of combs of honey that the bees could not defend. Given an influx of beetles, masses of eggs laid and only three days required to hatch, these strong hives were soon overrun with larvae. Second, if the bees lack strong hygienic behaviors, the bees are lax in their ability and desire to carry out larvae and eggs. The result was disastrous.
Teal (2006) reports how SHB utilizes a “mass attack strategy” and confirms that beetles are drawn in from miles around. If SHB were compared to football, this would be the equivalent of “piling on,” “late hits,” “unnecessarily roughness,” and “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Where’s the referee when you need them? It is not clear what olfactory cues are released signaling an open invitation for all the local SHB to join in, but it is evident that something draws them.
With each trip to the yard, I began to notice that some hives had a good number of common house flies flitting around the front of the hive. I didn’t think anything of this, until three or four days later, these hives had crashed and the frames were oozing with SHB larvae. I began to take notice of flies as a precursor to what was rapidly becoming the inevitable. Apparently the flies smell the fecal waste of the SHB and they come to do what’s natural for themselves. Obviously you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, but the fecal waste the adult SHB really brings them in!
I didn’t even want to begin to count the cost in terms of crashed hives and polluted supers of honey. In what seemed like a few weeks, this particular bee yard was inundated with an explosive population of SHBs. I felt defeated. There is an old railroad expression about being “asleep at the switch” (back in the days when switching tracks was a manual operation). I was in full-REM sleep mode and my hives, like wayward locomotives, were crashing and derailing.
As I continued my personal “crash course” in SHB education, I read where beetles reside in the woods, and when they find a suitable home to breed and raise a family of their own, they emit pheromones that attract and draw other SHBs to the hive. Even as other beekeepers have tried to monitor beetle populations, they have noticed how beetles are highly mobile and will move from one hive to another, and this was what I think I was experiencing.
My Crash-Course in SHB Education:
My immediate response was to repent of my ignorance, my foolish denial and my obstinate stubbornness to think I was immune from the SHB attack. Knowledge is power, and I felt totally and ignorantly powerless.
But I wasn’t helpless. It was time to pull my ostrich head out of the sand and face the enemy. I began to immerse myself in any and every note and article about this insidious creature. I even read articles about topics I didn’t want to know about and felt like I wouldn’t need to know. Some of my early readings confirmed my mistakes, namely beetles are opportunistic and will invade stressed hives. They seem to flourish in shaded apiaries in times of high humidity. They prefer the smaller cavities like nuc boxes. Earlier advice seemed to indicate strong hives could defend themselves, but now I know better. So what did I find out?
One thing I learned is that once the larvae start burrowing through the comb, the colony is just as good as defeated. But I felt like I had to do something before I surrendered the entire yard to the SHB.
I read about a new trap design using sandwich containers and set about trapping adult beetles (Chidister and McConnell, 2007). At least, as was my hope, I could possibly stem the tide and reduce the number of eggs laid, and these traps fit my soft chemical protocols. I still had Hood traps in the top hive body, but these sandwich containers worked fantastic, and much more effective than the Hood traps. But this may also be partly credited to where the traps were located, above the inner cover sheltered by an empty super. Counting populations of 400 adult beetles in a trap was not uncommon. But I had to wonder where all these beetles were all coming from.
I considered Gard Star® but it seemed to me to be too little, too late. Drenching the soil would certainly limit future generations of beetles, but the more immediate problems with adult beetles presently in the hives was a greater, more pressing concern. I also read that the drench is temporary and would have to be reapplied. I was also given the advice that I would have to drench the entire yard (hardly affordable). Later, I would read that SHB larvae normally burrow in the top 4” of soil, and most likely within 12” of the hive opening, if the soil was suitable for pupation. It was also thought that the odors wafting from the sickened hives were attracting additional beetles from the surrounding area, and Gard Star® couldn’t correct that problem.
While the drench would prevent future generations of SHB and break their reproductive cycle, the current problem was presently within the hive. Further, Gard Star® is a higher risk to human health, including irreversible eye damage, than coumaphos and is highly toxic to honeybees (Tew, 2001). Care must be taken to prevent any spill or spray into the hive.
Also of a concern, though more of a curiosity, was why this one yard was absolutely inundated, and yet all my other yards (some within three miles) were stable and safe. Just to be sure, I took sandwich container traps to those hives in my other yards, but seldom did I trap but four or five beetles per trap. Against my better judgment, I moved some of the surviving hives to other yards where they could receive full sunlight. They began to show signs of improvement as the relocation disrupted the reproductive cycle and caused some of the beetles to leave the hive (Sanford, 2005).
Trapping beetles and moving hives, I began my educational lessons to try and figure out where I went wrong. Why was this one yard so horribly victimized by the SHB? In retrospect, my initial mistake was bringing stressed hives with the beetles present in the hives. My second mistake was not taking the presence of those beetles seriously. I had not had a problem with beetles before, therefore, I presumed and assumed they would not be a problem now.
What attracts them to honeybee hives?:
The SHB is basically an opportunist and a scavenger. Strong hives will keep the adult beetles corralled into the lower corners of the bottom board on the back side of the hive or, if using a screen bottom board (SBB) the beetles will be driven up and out through the opening of the inner cover. There they will find refuge between the inner cover and the outer cover as their preference is for dark places.
Strong hives with hygienic behavior will also carry out eggs and larvae and dump them in the grass. Russian bees are more resilient than Italians (De Guzman, et. al., 2006). But apparently, as in my case, the bees can only defend the hive for so long or until the beetles overcome the bees’ defenses. Or if a disruption in the hive’s economy provides the opportunity, the beetles are ready to pounce. Stressed hives seem to be easy targets and extremely vulnerable to adult beetles laying eggs, and it also seems that any disruption in the colony, whether by stress, removal of honey supers or your normal hive inspection, stimulates the beetles to lay eggs all at once (Somerville, 2003).
The beetles are attracted to the fermenting aroma derived from the natural presence of the Kodamaea ohmeri yeast in fresh pollen. After extracting my supers, I found beetle larvae in the trays of drained cappings I left outside for the bees to rob of the last of the residual honey. After I allowed the bees to clean up my wet supers (a practice not necessarily recommended by all beekeepers), I found stray beetle larvae in the open cells eating the left over pollen.
Whether these larvae resulted from eggs that came with the super from the infected hive, or whether beetles laid eggs in the fresh extracted super remains to be seen. For this reason, it is not wise to stack wet supers on healthy hives to be cleaned as one may be inoculating a strong hive with a fresh batch of eggs. Likewise it is questionable to combine infected colonies with strong colonies for the same reason (Delaplane, 1999).
I read that beekeepers must be diligent about extracting their supers as soon as possible, that SHB are attracted to stored supers awaiting extraction stored in a honey house. I was also encouraged to extract supers as soon as possible (preferably the same day) as unattended frames will allow eggs to hatch, and disturbing the hive by removing the supers triggered adult SHBs to lay eggs. Even as the supers are carried away, the tiny, almost undetectable eggs may be present. Supers with honey, and not pollen stores, are less likely to be attacked, and for that reason, a queen excluder may keep pollen stores in the lower, more populated brood boxes.
Honey house hygiene is another hot topic of preventative measures. Westervelt (2000) reports wax debris (buckets of draining cappings) is more attractive to SHB than plain honey. Settling tanks, where scraps of wax and debris float to the surface, must not be left unattended for very long. It is possible to end up with a container of “wormy” honey in a few days.
Perhaps there is a way to leave a bucket of cappings in the open, allow the SHBs to lay eggs and hatch, then roast the little devils in a solar wax melter. At least, as the beetles are present to lay eggs, they choose the bucket of cappings over unprotected comb.
The good news, however, is that larvae are attracted to fluorescent light sources in honey houses, where they can easily be swept up and put in buckets of water to drown. One method of reducing larvae in a honey house is to hang a bright light bulb a few inches from the floor. The light attracts the crawling larvae and the heat from the light will fry them before they realize it’s too hot. Additionally, chlorine bleach water can be sprinkled on the floor to kill crawling larvae.
Progressive beekeepers use a “hot room” to reduce the moisture content of the unextracted honey and to make the frames easier to extract. Unfortunately, these conditions accelerate the hatching of SHB eggs and increase larval activity unless the supers are extracted within three to five days. And for those who have the luxury of air-conditioned honey houses, reducing the temperature below 65 degrees and the humidity below 50% had a profound impact on reducing SHB activity. However, 65-degree honey is difficult to spin out of the cells.
Light at the end of the tunnel:
By Labor Day of 2007 I began to see some progress. The demise of my colonies seemed to slow. In this respite, I counted the casualties. The weak hives, my mating nucs, my splits, and my recently caught swarms were all history, totally wiped out by the SHB. I remember my grandfather’s advice to grieve what’s lost and give thanks for what’s left. This yard of thirty-five existing hives was reduced now to seven. Of the twenty-nine stressed hives I transferred to this yard, five remained. It appeared that they were going to survive, though several adult beetles could be found along the darkened corners.
So what made the difference that some hives outlasted the onslaught? The surviving hives all had at least a half-day of sun. Could this have made the difference? Or was it possible the beetles all moved to some other location with a more attractive situation? Having taken advantage of the stressed colonies in my yard and killing off the susceptible colonies, did they now have somewhere else to go? Or did some of my hives, mostly those in the half-day of sun, possess some hygienic qualities unknown to me?
I had moved fifteen hives, mostly the smaller singles to a new yard of full sun. Again, I was tentative about inoculating my other yards with a few infected hives, so the hives I relocated were move to only one other yard. In full sun, the beetle population was remarkably diminished. After two weeks, my inspections found a few remaining adult beetles and small pockets of larvae bunched up in the corners. Thankfully, they did not run amok in the combs. As well as moving these hives to a sunnier location, I also provided multiple frames of clean comb.
I also began feeding these hives 2:1 sugar syrup with the addition of Honey-B-Healthy. I also installed, in some of these hives, newly purchased “West” traps (available from Dadant, Hamilton, IL). These traps require a shim over the bottom board to increase the height of the entrance to allow for the height of the trap. The trap entails a pool of oil under a screen. The screen keeps the bees out of the oil, the beetles and the larvae fall through the screen and drown.
Most recently, some beekeepers were installing a slim “jewel” case and I found those also work with satisfactory results, though like the Hood traps, their numbers were inconsistent. The bait of choice for these traps is the peanut butter-like substance from commercial roach traps. (Looks like peanut butter but don’t put it on your bagel.)
Over the course of the late summer and fall, one-third of these relocated hives would perish. Actually, it looked like the weakened hive absconded, drifting to the nearest colony based on my casual observation. Somehow, the bees seemed to know there is strength in numbers, or perhaps the absconding bees had no where else to go and drifted to healthier hives.
One of the key indicators common to absconded hives was the glaring absence of sealed brood. In late summer, it is normal for the queen to reduce her egg laying production anyway, but it would appear these colonies either went queenless (for any number of reasons) or the adult beetles feasted on eggs and young brood (Elzen, 1999). Create a hostile environment and the bees are going to leave for better accommodations.
But most importantly, I observed that even moving an infected hive was not enough to reverse the damage. Prevention, even an ounce, continued to demonstrate its value over a ton of cure. I came to the conclusion that the best attempt to redeem a hive taken over by larvae is to move it to a 1) sunny location, 2) install West traps on the bottom and sandwich containers on the top, 3) replace the dirty comb with fresh, clean comb, and 4) feed. Hopefully, the queen will resume her egg laying as the move disrupts the beetles.
Where I Go From Here
Like any beleaguered sports fan of a flagging franchise who laments, “There’s always next year,” I, too, hope to get through this year to a brighter, better, more informed response to the SHB next year. The cool weather of fall has reduced the egg laying and larvae populations. The adult beetles have the potential to overwinter in the cluster of bees. I moved some infected and infested comb to the freezer to note that freezing will kill larvae, but I’m still curious if they will survive in the soil during the winter months. Hopefully, the winter will give me a nice respite and I can get ahead, and stay ahead, of the potential damage of the SHB next year. The key to hive survivability appears in keeping hives healthy and strong, with adult beetle populations restrained at their minimum through preventative trapping.
I think my greatest lesson learned this year is that ignorance is a poor excuse and prevention is, by far, more highly recommended that any kind of treatment, with the only in-hive approved treatment being coumaphos. At the present time, you must wait 14 days before placing honey supers on a hive after removing the coumaphos treatments. Popular options appear to be a sheet of corrugated plastic with a strip of coumaphos stapled to the under side, with this sheet set on the bottom board. The beetles seek refuge under the plastic sheet and die from being exposed to the coumaphos. Unfortunately, this kind of trap does not contact the larvae on the comb.
From my experience, it appears that once a hive is overcome with adult beetles and overrun with larvae, any attempts to raise the hive above the damaging infestation may be an exercise in futility. I was painfully aware of my countless time and energy squandered on attempts to pull the hives out of the downward spiral once the larvae became present, and the commitment expended on these infested hives did nothing to prevent the beetles spreading to the apparently healthy hives in the yard. I was consistently a day late and a dollar short, but this is the result of wanton ignorance.
There really are no treatments once honey supers are on the hive, and it would also appear as if the hive is the most vulnerable in the middle of the heat and humidity of summer when the hive is peaking with brood and the supers are likely being filled with fresh nectar. It seems the best remedy is prevention and a proactive anticipation of trouble. I spent way too much time in an ignorant reactive mode trying to bail the water out of a sinking boat rather than plugging the leak. I felt like the lumberjack with a dull ax and no time to sharpen it.
Teal (2006) offers plans for a new-style trap that appears to have promising potential. I anticipate spending a great deal of time in my winter woodshop making these traps for next year. I’m convinced SHBs are here to stay and greater proactive measures are definitely needed on the part of all beekeepers. But you say you don’t have these “pests” and feel like you have no reason to worry? That’s where I was a year ago.
My plan for next year is to 1) move all hives into full sun, 2) to install a variety of traps and lures to reduce the population of adult beetles, 3) keep stresses and changes to the hive at a minimum, including a tight control on varroa mites, 4) to continue to increase the hygienic qualities and behaviors of my bees, requeening if necessary, and 5) to maintain my hygienic conditions of my honey house.
Someone once said, “If you think the expense of an education is high, find out what ignorance costs.” I can only hope that this past summer was a once in a lifetime experience. Those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.
Selected References and Literature Cited
Chidister, Sonny and Mel McConnell, 2007. A Practical, Functional, Successful Homemade Small Hive Beetle Trap. Bee Culture. June 2007. Page 39.
De Guzman, et. al., 2006. Some Observations on the Small Hive Beetle…in Russian Honey Bee Colonies. American Bee Journal. Pages 618-620. July, 2006.
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