Winter studies: A chat about the small hive beetle

There are few things that could be worse than finding varroa in your hive, but the small hive beetle (SHB) may come close. This unpleasant squatter, which originated in sub-Saharan Africa spreading to Australia and US, has been sighted uncomfortably close to home in Italy. What is SHB and why don’t we want it?

“It is small, only about 5.7mm in length, black and with tiny clubbed antennae. Each female beetle can lay up to 1,000 eggs, hidden away in crevices in the hive or laid in comb containing pollen or brood. These hatch, after a few days, into tiny larvae which feed on bee eggs and larvae, pollen and honey, tunnelling through the wax in the process…Their faeces get into the honey, causing it to ferment and become frothy and unusable, even for bee feed. There is no webbing, as with the wax moth larvae…but the combs become slimy and the beetles, in addition to weakening a colony and depleting it of brood and/or stores, can become a serious threat to survival.” The Honey Bee Around and About Celia Davis

That makes the wasps bothering our bees seem positively nice! So what’s the chance of SHB causing problems in the UK?

BeeCraft, the magazine of British beekeepers, held a chat about SHB as part of their BeeCraft Live series. The BeeCraft team were joined by University of Florida researcher Jamie Ellis to chat about what impact SHB might have on British beekeepers if it does arrive in the UK.

I was hopeful from this general chit-chat that beekeepers in the US and Australia have learned to live with SHB, and that our cold damp climate might be in our favour for a nasty squatter that doesn’t like long winters. EDIT: However, in the comments below some beekeepers have found SHB may be fairly resilient to the cold, that where it has brought down colonies it can be devastating, and suggest that we do need to be vigilant in ensuring it doesn’t arrive on the UK. I wholeheartedly agree with that!

Watch more BeeCraft Live episodes here and find out when the next one is taking place at #BeeCraftLive.

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22 thoughts on “Winter studies: A chat about the small hive beetle

    • Oh no! How do you (and your bees) cope with them? I dread having them turn up here. The BeeCraft chat suggested our colder longer winters might prevent SHB getting such a strong foothold here, although not stop it altogether. Insidious 😦

      • That’s worrying – I dread it coming here and had hoped that (as Celia Davis said) our cold climate will be our saving grace. How long have you had SHB in Canada, do they know how it likely got in, and what do you do to manage it.

      • Yea, I don’t think cold has anything to do with it. We have some cold winters here. There are small hive bee traps that I use that are plastic inserts in between the frames filled with veg oil. They fall in and can’t get out. It just seems that after you think you are managing one pest, another even worse appears.

      • I’ll have to add an edit to the post later then, thanks for the insight. It’s good (and concerning) to hear from beekeepers with actual experience of SHB. I’ve heard other measures include extreme apiary hygiene and not allowing weaker colonies to contine that may harbour SHB, that doesn’t bode well for our bees who have struggled for the past five years anyway.

  1. “So what’s the chance of SHB causing problems in the UK?” … you ask. Where known, the majority of SHB introductions appear to have been via shipping of bees or beekeeping activities. This was certainly the case in Hawaii, Canada and Portugal. The UK imports thousands of queens and hundreds of packages of bees from Italy every year (data from NBU website). Whilst this continues and considering SHB is now clearly established in both Southern Italy and Eastern Sicily I think the chances it will be introduced here are significant. Malta has just banned imports of bees from Italy. The BBKA appear to suggest that it is more likely to be imported with fruit or garden produce … this contradicts the evidence accumulated in a 2009 publication from the NBU which concluded “The pathway likely to present the greatest risk of introduction was the movement and importation of honey bees”. I’ve written about this on my own website http://theapiarist.org/small-hive-beetle-uk/ which has links to the relevant documents from the NBU.

    • Ah I see you answer my question above here, thanks. I’m not keen on over-importing of bees – certainly I think it’s better to rear local queens and encourage populations of local bees, I’ve never ordered a queen in and prefer to let the bees make their own from our hives. Sources I’ve read – not just BBKA, NBU is usually my first place to go – suggest it’s likely to enter by imports of bees, hives, fruits and plants. It is really important to have much tighter import controls and less laissez faire. I enjoyed this BeeCraft chat though, I thought it was quite balanced, they had a lot of questions in, and I was particularly interested about hearing beekeepers speak who have SHB.

  2. SHB is a major problem in the southern USA but mostly just a nuisance in the cold northern part although a discouraging one when they take down a colony. A strong colony will keep any invaders corralled and away from the comb. When we had an outbreak in 2012 our girls seemed to have things under control but we used homemade traps anyway to eradicate the beetles.

  3. The last time I had problems with hive beetles was almost a decade ago; the local bees have since adapted to both them and varroa mites. (Lucky me^^) Truthfully, even when they were bad in my area they were more like wax moths than anything; a strong hive and good harvesting practices eliminated most of the problem before it began. But I live in the deep south, USA, so what works for us may potentially not work for you.

    • Hey! Sorry for the late reply – SWAMPED with work! I really appreciate hearing about your experiences, and I sometimes think bee populations are not much different to human populations – some cope to live with certain conditions and others don’t. A purely anecdotal point of view, of course! I think the BeeCraft chat and discussion around this have shown that everyone’s experience of SHB has been quite a personal one, and what is true in one area might not be true in another.

      • Truthfully I’d be surprised if SHB wasn’t already living in the UK undiscovered. I live in the northern US. I have SHB in every colony I keep. The best defense in my opinion is keep strong colonies. I have yet to employ any traps or chemicals. I haven’t yet lost a colony to them. I think it’s as much a learning curve for the bees as it is for the beekeeper.

      • Hope you’re wrong (about it being in UK), although encouraging that you’ve not yet lost a colony to SHB. Overall, from the talk and comments, it sounds like experiences of SHB can be personal and variable – if it strikes your area and most hives are OK but yours aren’t, then your view of the pest may be a greater one. I agree strong colonies are better placed to manage pests and diseases, I’m really heartened to hear how your colonies have coped.

    • Hi Roger, a happy new year to you and your bees. I’ve been taking a little break from being online to spend time with family and friends, though I’ve bookmarked your post for 2015 reading – we need to be prepared! All best wishes for plenty of sunshine and honey too 🙂

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