How to Protect Honey Bees from Ants

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It is important for beekeepers to protect honey bees from ant invasions. There are a variety of methods to keep the problem in check. Beehive management incorporates these methods to keep ants from entering beehives. In this article we’ll discuss how to protect honey bees from ants in your beekeeping operation.

What’s the Deal with Ants?

Honey bees have many pests, parasites and predators that can attack them in a beehive. Ants invade and damage beehives, weakening the honey bee colony. They steal resources from the beehive and can even get into fights with bees. Large scale invasions by ants often lead to the honey bee colony absconding from the beehive.

Invasions by ants in a beehive are a sign that the colony is weak. It can also point to other underlying problems in the beehive and honey bee colony. Some ant species even attempt to raise their young in various spaces in a beehive. They are annoyances to the bees and are often kept at bay.

When using the spaces at the top of the beehive away from the honey bee colony, ants are a moderate threat to the bees and can be dealt with using simple methods. However, it is when they go into the body of the beehive among honey bees that their threat level increases. Invading ants in a beehive are opportunists; they scavenge and take what they can.

Do Ants Harm Beehives?

Ants can be an invasive species. One species in particular from Argentina, the Iridomyrmex humilis, has spread in the world and is causing many problems to beekeepers. Ants from different colonies often fight each other. Deaths from such fights keep ant populations down. The invasive Argentinean species has little genetic diversity that the ants recognize each other as belonging to the same colony. This prevents the ants from fighting which keeps their numbers down naturally. As a result, the Argentinean ant has formed mega colonies in regions that it has reached. The mega colonies easily out-compete other species in ecologies. Honey bees in some parts of the USA have been very much affected by the pressure brought on by these ant mega colonies.

Argentinean Ants

How to Protect Honey Bees from Ants

The invasive Argentine Ant species colonies spread through neighboring areas easily. The queen of a colony goes some distance away and starts another colony. Closely related colonies in one area may meet and form one large colony spread over a wide area. You can distinguish Argentine ants from other ants by their small size. They are approximately 2 millimeters long. This small size allows them to enter very small spaces such as cracks, seams and crevices in a beehive. Another identifying characteristic of Argentine ants, is their formation of long columns walking from place to place. The number of ants in a single Argentinean ant’s colony varies by the seasons. In North America, they hit peak numbers in the month of October.

How Ants Invade a Beehive

Ants are omnivores. They also have a liking for sweet foods. This makes them highly attracted and motivated to enter beehives. They are lured to the beehive by the stored honey. Argentinean ants can easily gain access to the beehive due to their small size. In an invasion, ants will kill and eat brood, eat and take away honey, take comb and reuse it to build their nests, get in lethal fights with honey bees.

In addition to Argentine ants, Fire Ants are also a problem for beekeepers in many areas. While they do not damage the beehive itself and its components, the effects of an invasion are rather felt more by the honey bee colony and you the beekeeper. Some ant species can also transmit disease-causing organisms such as viruses to honey bees.

Protecting Honey Bees from Ants

When ants are a problem in your area, you should stay very vigilant. Apply a multi-directional approach to the problem for best results. Weak honey bee colonies are more susceptible to ant invasions. They also suffer more damage from the invasion. Repeated invasions gradually weaken a strong colony. Additional precautions and extra vigilance should be brought to bear on beehives with known weak colony of honey bees. Recently installed honey bee colonies should also be closely monitored and protected from ant invasions. Large and strong honey bee colonies with many bees, are better able to repulse some ant invasions of their beehives.

Bee Friendly Ant Killers

Bees and ants are very closely related. They share evolutionary ancestors and are thus affected by chemicals in similar ways. Treatments aimed at killing ants in a beehive, can easily kill honey bees too. Even in an apiary, honey bees coming into contact with flowers and grass in treated areas die. They may carry pesticides back into the beehive and cause the death of many bees in the colony. For this reason, beekeepers have to be very careful with treatments they use. They have to use bee friendly ant killers in protecting honey bees from ants.

You should be very cautious with sprays, powders and other solutions that promise to kill ants. Read the labels of containers carefully and find out if the treatment compound is harmful to honey bees. In some cases where the ant problem is big, you may treat areas near and around the beehive with some ant killers.

Ensure that the powder or spray does not drift into beehives and affect bees. To achieve this, you may try closing up beehives for the evening and then applying ant killer compounds. The beehive can be opened when you finish applying the compound. You may also leave it closed for a day before letting the bees out. This prevents bees from going out onto areas where the compound has been applied when its concentration is high.

1. Granular Ant Killer

Granular Ant Killer
The Amdro Ant Block Granule. Click to see more on Amazon.

Granular ant killers are available to beekeepers. They are heavy and safer for use around bees. However, they should not be used in a beehive; they are for use outside the beehive only. Applying the granular ant killer can be done any time of the day. The granules are spread over the grounds of the apiary and especially near beehives. This granular ant killing treatment helps to greatly reduce the number of ant colonies in the apiary and grounds near beehives. It also discourages ants from roaming around the area and possibly discovering locations of beehives.

This Granular ant killing method does not completely remove ants as a problem in beekeeping. It however, lowers the risk to bees and works with other methods to help you protect honey bees from ants. Granular ant killers are great for use with both Argentinean ants and Fire ants.

2. Cinnamon

Using pesticides to control ants in beekeeping is sometimes not the best option available to beekeepers. Various natural products and ant control solutions are preferred because they do not harm honey bees. Cinnamon is one herb you can use to protect honey bees from ants. It repels ants and is not harmful to honey bees. Even then, it is best to use cinnamon outside the beehive. Introduction of compounds inside the beehive can cause you problems with the quality and safety of honey and other beehive products.

A simple ring of cinnamon applied around the foot of a beehive stand is enough to deter ants from the beehive for a number of days. It can be used in combination with diatomaceous earth to keep ants from invading a beehive.

The use of cinnamon to protect honey bees from ants comes with some challenges. The cinnamon powders spread around beehives wears out fast. It requires frequent replenishing to keep it working. Additionally, winds and rain can clear recently applied cinnamon powder. This leaves the beehive you were protecting vulnerable to an ant invasion. Leaves crossing over the band of cinnamon powder can even help ants cross the barrier by acting as a bridge.

How do Bees Keep Ants out of their Honey?

Honey bees defend their beehives very aggressively. They are able to keep small invasions by ants at bay. Ants can colonize the upper section of the beehive. They go for the warm, moist and dark space between the top cover and the inner cover. You generally see them when opening the beehive for inspection. The presence of ant eggs and live ants moving about on the upper surface of the inner cover, should alert you to a potential ant problem in the beehive. Remedial measures should be taken immediately so that the ants do not later overwhelm the honey bee colony. If they find the colony is weak, they move down into the beehive where they start raiding for honey and bee larvae.

Can Honey Bees Keep Ants Out of the Beehive?

Bees keep ants out of their honey by chasing the ants to the top of the beehive and killing the ant if they can catch it When ants are living at the top of a beehive, it is because they do not want to venture down to the areas accessible to honey bees. The bees in a colony attack ants in the beehive and can kill them. Even an ant that wanders into a beehive with no intention of causing problems can come under attack from guard bees.

Honey bees work against the formation of a pheromone trail by ants. Invading ants need the trail to find the beehive and their way back to their nest. Honey bees move across the forming ant pheromone trail to disrupt communication between ants. The honey bee colony then shifts some worker bees from hive maintenance duties to guarding the beehive. They clear any remaining ants from the beehive by chasing them out, dragging them while they are alive, or simply killing them first then dragging them out of the beehive.

Things to note:

  • When the ants are in the top of the beehive, bees try sealing them out of it. You may find evidence of this by spotting propolis and resins being used to seal the inner cover to the top beehive box, on the side accessible to honey bees from inside the beehive.
  • An invasion of ants starts with scout ants knowing the location of the beehive. They go and inform other ants in their colony of the beehive’s location. Ants come to the beehive in a trail and start carting away materials while others might engage guard bees in fights.
  • Argentine ants invade a beehive in very large numbers. Once they have found the location and can access it, the efforts of honey bees are often not enough to stop the invasion.

Beehive Ant Barriers

Dealing with ant invasions in beehives can be difficult for the unprepared beekeeper. In addition to the activity of honey bees to protect their beehive, you can put in place measures to prevent the entry of ants into the beehive. Such measures can be physical or aimed at environment control. Natural methods to protect honey bees from ants are also available for use by beekeepers. They can be put into place and effectively managed to protect honey bees from ants by both beginner and experienced beekeepers. Using ant barriers of various kinds makes sure ants do not enter the beehive in the first place. They include:

1. Moats

Moats of various types are used to protect honey bees from ants. The moat consists of a container of some sorts. It allows for the legs of your beehive stand to be kept from being reached by curious ants. In the moat, various materials can be used. Water has been used in the past to varying degrees of success. It can however act as a bridge due to ants floating on the the water by surface tension. When this happens, the ants can reach the beehive and be a problem to honey bees. To prevent the water acting as a bridge, soap should be added to it. It makes it impossible for ants to float across the water.

  • Vegetable oil, motor oil and greases of various kinds are great for use in the moat. The moat setup you use for your beehives can be commercially made, or one you make yourself.
  • Modern moats for beehive stands are designed to prevent bees from accessing them and drowning. They leave a gap too small for bees to go through but large enough for ants to reach the moat filler and die.

2. Apply Oil on the Beehive Legs

Where you do not use a moat for your beehive, painting the feet of the beehive with some ant deterrent can be applied. Motor oil is great for the purpose. Other oils and substances you can use include vegetable oil, used engine oil, and lubricating oil. For best results protecting honey bees from ants using this method, touch up the ant deterrent on the legs of your beehive every month or two.

3. Clearing Vegetation near the Beehive

Natural bridges to a beehive can be exploited by ants. Beekeepers may plant flowers and grasses near beehives and in their apiaries to provide foraging plants for honey bees. When uncontrolled, the vegetation goes wild and can touch surfaces of beehives. Ants use the vegetation as bridges to reach beehives. Clear such vegetation from near the beehive to protect the honey bees from ant invasions.

You can prevent this problem by using gravel under the beehive to prevent undergrowth. This apiary management practice for honeybee protection from ants, works best when used in conjunction with other control measures.

4. Apply Tangle Foot to Beehive Legs

Protecting Honey Bees from Ants - Tanglefoot Tree Insect Barrier Tub
The Tanglefoot Tree Insect Barrier Tub. Click to check price.

Tangle foot is a very sticky compound used to keep crawling insects from going up fruit trees. The compound is naturally occurring. With beehive protection from ants, some of this compound is spread around the legs of the beehive. It is better to apply a strip of tangle foot on the leg of the beehive closer to the ground, than higher up close to the beehive boxes. It prevents cases of bees getting caught in the tangle foot. Dirt and water reduce the strength of tangle foot strips to protect honey bees from ants. Top up applications of the compound are needed every month or two.

Using Ant Proof Beehive Stands

Using an ant proof beehive stand is a reliable way to protect honey bees from ants. Making a beehive ant proof is achieved by making use of various techniques and ant deterrents. Beekeepers have different setups for the bases of their beehives based on individual preferences. Some have beehives sitting on stands while others use blocks to raise their beehives off the ground. Applying an ant deterrent compound on the blocks or stand makes the beehive ant proof. Grease and used motor oil are popular ant deterrents for use on beehive stands. High temperature lubricant is also great for use as an ant deterrent.

There are ant-proof beehive stands that are manufactured and sold as solutions for the protection of honey bees from ants. The stands use varying technologies to achieve this effect based on the manufacturer of the stand.

Some of the ant-proof stands require application of an ant deterrent to make them function as promised. The best ant stands have a cup for ant deterrent. The cup is covered using a wide plate to reduce dust settling on the ant deterrent.

The feet of the ant proof beehive stand are made using corrosion-resistant metal. They are light and strong stands that can support the weight of beehives on top of them. Beehive stands should also be weather resistant or increased durability. The stand may be assembled on site or come fully assembled and ready for use.

Maintenance of Ant Proof Beehive Stands

Maintenance of ant proof beehive stands is periodically required to keep them protected from ants. The container for ant deterrent at the foot of the beehive stand, should be cleaned and filled with fresh deterrent such as oil and grease. Placing the beehive stand on wooden beams or cinder blocks protects the metallic parts of the stand from corrosion. It also helps raise the sand over surrounding vegetation such as grasses. Once installed, maintenance is done by cutting down vegetation from around the beehive stand and making sure the oil level in the feet cups does not go too low. Periodically, use a wet cloth to wipe clean the ant proof beehive stand.

Apiary Beehive Management to Prevent Ant Invasions

Beekeepers contribute to protecting honey bees from ants in various ways. The way you manage your apiary and beehives can add to the protections you give honey bees. Integrated methods that overlap their protective capabilities are best to protect honey bees from ants. Some of the safe practices you can adopt include:

1. Avoid Spills and Fallen Comb near Beehives

Avoid spillages of honey and other sweet substances near beehives. Fallen comb should also be removed from the beehive and from the ground near beehives. The sugar in spilled honey and other sweet substances attracts ants to the area. They can then find out the location of beehives they did not previously know existed. Spillages can also cause robbing between honey bee colonies. When visiting the beehive for maintenance activities, have a bucket to contain fallen comb from the beehive. Feeders should also be set up carefully to avoid spillages. This goes hand in hand with discontinuing and discouraging the use of sugar syrup feeders near the beehive. Feeders are best used within the beehive.

2. Slippery Beehive Stands

Use a very slippery beehive stand in your apiary. Without friction, ants cannot move to reach the beehive on top of a slippery beehive stand. Greases of various kinds serve the purpose very well. You may also use some Vaseline to deny ants grip on the beehive stand. Some beekeepers wrap the beehive stand with some cling film and then spray the film with an appropriate lubricant.

3. No Dead Bees near the Beehive

Remove dead bees from under or near the beehive. When you can, make sure dead bees are not found anywhere near your beehive. Honey bees die of natural causes and may fall to the ground under the hive. Other bees are removed from the beehive and left near it. These dead bees alert ants to the presence of a beehive nearby. Use a spread to collect dead bees and throw them away somewhere else not near the apiary.

A Final Word

You should not let ants ruin your beekeeping operation. Ants are opportunistic scavengers that only attack the honey bee colonies that they deem weak. When a honey bee colony cannot patrol all the spaces in a beehive, it leaves room for ants to invade. The top of the beehive should not be allowed to harbor ants. Even when they are not going down into the beehive body area, they are a constant nuisance and threat to honey bees in the beehive. Use these tips on how to protect honey bees from ants to deal decisively with the threat of ants in your beekeeping.

What methods do you use to protect honey bees from ants? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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