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Small Hive Beetles-A Pest of Honey Bees

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Small Hive Beetles-A Pest of Honey Bees

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A big part of successful beekeeping is to know the enemy. For many beekeepers in the southern regions of the United States, Small Hive Beetles can be a major problem. These small black beetles are an annoyance when only a few are in the colony. But, a large infestation can spell disaster for your beehives. Understanding this pest of honey bee colonies is the first step to protecting our bees.

What is a Small Hive Beetle?

Single adult small hive beetle infesting a colony image.

The scientific name for the Small Hive Beetle is Aethina tuimdda – you will often see this 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, they are not a major pest in Africa. The honey bees in those regions have evolved to handle this pest.

While not as big a problem as Varroa Mites, Small Hive Beetles do cause many colony deaths each year in the United States.

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Arriving in the U.S.

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.

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

Though a bigger problem in the warm states, cold weather does not seem to completely eliminate them.

Once they arrive, the type of soil found in any given area plays a bigger role in their success 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.

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Signs of Hive Beetle Infestations

How do you know if you have Small Hive Beetles?

  • seeing adult beetles
  • SHB larvae on bottom board
  • adults running on comb

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. Hive beetles have an oval shape and are brown to shiny black.

When you open a hive, be prepared to observe and take action. Remove your inner cover, 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.

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, 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 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.

However, once a major infestation is underway, it may be too late to save your colony. Adult SHB running rampant on the comb with beetle larva in the wax cells is a sign of impending disaster.

Small Hive Beetle Life Cycle

While adult beetles do little harm, they are looking for a place to reproduce. The worker bees will chase them. However, the beetles tuck their legs and antenna under the body for protection.

The adult female lays masses of eggs in cracks and crevices of the brood combs. Beetle eggs look similar to honey bee eggs but smaller.

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

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

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.

Larvae group together near the entrance and after dusk leave the hive. Their goal is to burrow into the soil ( about 4″ deep) nearby (usually within 3 feet).

But if the soil condition is not ideal, they are capable of crawling much farther – over 200 yards even. Here pupation takes place – the pupa goes through several stages to develop into an adult beetle. 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, beetles can live up to 6 months. This is why with the right conditions SHB populations can explode.

Hive beetle with larva in hive debris image.

Over Winter in the Bee Cluster

Beetle 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.

They 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. 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 Beetle Infestations Kill Colonies

When the hive beetle population grows too big, the colony is in danger. It is the larval stage of beetle development that causes damage.

A large number of adult beetles & larva defecating in the honey can ruin a whole colony.

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

Beetle infestation with slimed honeycomb and larva image.

Helping Your Bees Control Beetles

Combined with varroa mites, nutrition problems, disease and other stresses, a beetle problem can be the last straw for a colony.

Unfortunately, some of the chemicals we could use to kill beetles will also harm honey bees. 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 good management techniques you can use:

  • 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 colonies
  • minimize inspections during beetle season
  • use pollen patties with care

Early Trap Placement

Most beekeepers experience beetle problems from Early Summer into Late Fall. Do not delay installing traps.

There are several types of hive beetle traps and many are inexpensive. If one type does not work for you – try another. No trap will solve the problem if you wait too long.

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

Clean Area Around Hive Base

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 outside.

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

Avoid throwing pieces of burr comb and other hive debris on the ground near your hives. It is attractive to beetles, ants and other pests.

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: 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.

Infographic chart of beehive management tips for controlling hive beetles.

Protecting Your Honey Harvest

Besides finding them in the hive, 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 weeks waiting for extraction.

Final Thoughts on the Small Hive Beetle

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 beetles in your hive, and you probably will someday – don’t panic. Squish them with your hive tool if you get the chance.

Put some traps in place and use good beekeeping management techniques. Help your bees – help themselves.

FAQs

What does a Small Hive Beetle look like?

They are small black beetles that enter the hive and run around on the comb. They hide in dark corners and run 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. 

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?

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 larva 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. 

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