No Cheery Welcome for the Beetles

“It’s the Beetles!”

“Ladies and gentlemen, The Beetles!” **  That’s how Ed Sullivan introduced John, Paul, George and Ringo to the American public. The introduction was followed by a lot of screaming, some disruptive noise on Ed’s stage, and general hair-pulling by the audience. Not so different when The Hive Beetles entered the world stage. The latest stop on their uncelebrated global tour is southern Europe.

A friend in Europe wrote to me, wanted to know my thoughts about these new beetles. They were found this year in southern Italy. According to the Invasive Species Compendium, hive beetles (Aethina tumida) “are considered to be a minor pest in [South] Africa, but a major problem in areas where they have been introduced.” So far, the beetles have been introduced to the USA, Canada, Jamaica, Australia, Italy, and possibly Egypt. Indeed, they are on a world tour. They are not very active here in Canada – I think it is too cold, at least out on the prairies. The hive beetles either flew across the border from the states (They can fly a few kilometres at a time.); or, more likely, they arrived on imported equipment a few times, but never gained permanent residency status. I have only seen hive beetles once, on a trip to Florida. So, I am not an expert. However, I told my correspondent what I know from my perspective, but it is not from first-hand experience. (Lack of experience has never stopped me before.)

The hive beetle is certainly an ugly and nasty insect – most of the damage is done during its larvae stage – creepy, densely populated worms that cause a lot of trouble. No one wants the pest in their hives. They destroy comb equipment and make a big mess. When they were first found in the USA, beekeepers and researchers were frightened. Bee equipment was quarantined and it was difficult to get approvals to move between states. Equipment was sometimes burned by government inspectors. Scary movies were shown at beekeepers’ meetings. (I know – I sat through one such thriller here in Alberta.) Then people settled down and the hive beetle is now considered a minor (albeit grotesque) pest. But the initial infestations were an opportunity for excitement. I think it will follow a similar trajectory in Europe: initial fear and panic, oppressive regulations, then finally acceptance and control. This was precisely the story of the honeybee tracheal mite – HTM caused the initial Canadian-American border closure while some petty bureaucrats did their best to cow the beekeepers. Today no one seems to even look for HTM.

Beekeepers will learn a few tricks that will reduce the problem. Most beekeepers will be annoyed by hive beetles, but few (if any) will be put out of business. Some of my friends and family have commercial bee businesses in central Florida which has had substantial populations of the beetles for a few years. Hive beetles are not their biggest headache. Here are some of the tips they have found to keep things that way:

Keep things clean. The beetles can infest stacks of old combs – devouring pollen, tunneling, burrowing, defecating, and making a really fine mess of things. Stacks of equipment should be covered. Floors should be clean – a lot of beekeepers are sloppy, allowing wax and pollen debris to build up in the workshops – these harbour and feed the hive beetles. If you are a messy beekeeper, your days may be numbered.

Handle honey promptly. If honey is taken from the bees and the boxes and combs are allowed to sit inside a shed for a few days, hive beetles may move in. The result is a slimy mess that ruins the honey and the equipment. The beekeeper should process honey right away and not wait – that’s always good practice anyway. If you are a procrastinator, your days as a beekeeper may be numbered.

 Keep bee colonies strong. The small hive beetle does not kill bees or eat brood, but can wreck a weak colony that does not defend itself. The bees may be so distraught that they abscond (abandon) their nest. Good healthy colonies don’t have serious problems, but a few beetles may hide in hive crevices and if the colony becomes weak, queenless, or neglected by the beekeeper, the population of hive beetles swells. The best defence against hive beetles is a strong colony of bees. If you are a negligent beekeeper, your days are certainly numbered.

There are a few other tricks – beekeepers in susceptible areas may set traps, use chemicals (see the links below), or assist specific nematodes (tiny worms) in the soil in the apiary to act as guards against infiltration. For more ideas, here are a few links to follow:

  1. Wikipedia (this is actually a good reliable article):
  2. Hive Beetle in Europe (detailed PDF information sheet)
  3. Managing Small Hive Beetles (this page was written in November 2014, so it is very up to date):

** Yes, I know. The English Beatles misspelled their name, but indulge me, OK?

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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