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Winter is typically a time for rest, even in the wild, yet it is also a time when creatures become desperate for food. Each geographical region presents its own challenges against predators, but in the more mild climates in the continental U.S., predators rarely rest in winter. More southern beekeepers might experience an increase in predation of their hives, finding that winter’s chill is just enough to make predators desperate.
As with any domesticated or farm animal, keeping honeybees and their hives safe falls squarely on the shoulders of human keepers. Domestic honeybees have remained largely unchanged in their behavior and makeup from their wild counterparts, but they have an advantage that is also a significant disadvantage: They raise their young and manage their colonies in boxes that we create for them, quite low to the ground. Keeping hives low to the ground is in our best interest, of course. But it makes them a target for predators, large and small.
Here’s a quick checklist to ensure your colonies are safe from external threats this winter:
Black bears are the most common bear found across the U.S., and they have a voracious palette for honeybee brood comb and honey. Think Winnie the Pooh, but without a shirt, a bit less jolly and much bigger. An electrified bear fence will effectively deter bears from your apiary, if erected properly and maintained. Situate apiaries in locations without large hanging tree limbs over them (bears will climb up trees and jump down into the apiary to reach the bees, effectively skirting the fence). Mow or trim all weeds under the fence at all times; any loose foliage can interfere with the fence’s electrical abilities.
A simple metallic front entrance guard can keep away rodents and other tiny critters seeking asylum from the cold. With holes just large enough for bees to slide in and out, the metal mouse guard is chew-proof, and will keep rats, mice, snakes and other small predators out of the hive. Just be sure to scan the hive for stowaways and remove any residents before you install it.
Hives raised off the ground can be simple yet effective deterrents for predators such as skunks or raccoons. To keep things simple and economical, use two cinderblocks per hive with a sheet of plywood across them. Then place the hive on top. The cinderblock is a good height for most beekeeper’s backs to get a little relief, which is a bonus. The plywood is helpful in the event you need to move the hive.
The other big honeybee predator, which ironically is the smallest, is the wax moth. Thankfully, the wax moth is not prolific in winter so is no cause for concern while temperatures are cold. But do monitor colonies for wax moth larvae in the spring, watching for the white, stringy webs that are this predator’s calling card.