Protecting your bees from diseases and pests

As a beekeeper, caring for your hive is the best prevention against nasty pests or diseases. But, it’s still good to know what to look out for and what you should do. We’ve outlined the most common honeybee pests and diseases so you have the best chance of keeping your hive buzzing with health.

Small hive beetle (Aethina tumida)

Tiny and black-brown, the small hive beetle (SHB) made its way here from Africa in 2002. Although just 0.5cm long, it can fly up to twenty kilometres and infect hives incredibly fast, causing tremendous damage to bee colonies around Australia. The beetles cleverly imitate honeybees’ behaviours to make their way into the hive without being attacked. They’ll then lay their eggs, which take only two to six days to hatch. The larvae feed on honey, beeswax and pollen and slowly destroy the comb structure. This may cause some bee colonies to exit the hive in an emergency swarm, leaving you with no honey and no bees.

Keep on the lookout for

  • Small brown-black beetles running around the comb or hiding in cool, out-of-sight areas of the hive
  • A smell of rotten oranges coming from the combs or slimy-feeling comb
  • Small eggs (that look like grains of white rice) hiding in the cracks of your hives
  • Honey dripping or fermenting out of the cells
  • SHB larvae burrowing through the brood combs or eating brood and their food stores
  • SHB larvae grouping in clumps either in corners of frames or comb cells

Prevention

Unfortunately, there is no way to eliminate the risk of SHB entering your colony. The key is to catch them quickly and stop the life cycle before the bugs can cause too much damage. If you find SHB, you should immediately report it to your local government that manages pest control and bee safety.

Chalkbrood

Chalkbrood disease is caused by Ascosphaera apis – a fungus that produces spores. These spores are swallowed by honey bee larvae while feeding. The spores germinate in the gut of the larvae causing them to die of starvation. The disease is usually brought home by foraging honeybees, with the infection spreading quickly through a hive. This can cause significant damage if left unnoticed, and can often leave the hive weakened and susceptible to other diseases.

Keep on the lookout for

  • Cotton-like chalky covering on bee larvae
  • Grey or black larvae (at a later stage of infection)
  • Mummified larvae in the hive entrance or on pollen traps
  • Dead larvae in the brood nest

Prevention

Maintaining a vibrant and healthy colony is the first step to prevention, so the bees have more chance of fighting off infection themselves. If the fungus has already caused considerable damage, it may be a good idea to requeen with a stronger brood, or fully replace comb frames to ensure complete eradication of the disease.

Nosemosis (Nosema)

Nosemosis is a disease caused by single-cell fungi Nosema apis and Nosema ceranae. It’s the most common animal disease in adult bees and is highly contagious, sometimes leading to a shortened life span of adult bees. Bees ingest spores through food, cleaning the honeycomb, at watering places or through other hive parts. The spores then travel to the bee’s abdomen and harm the intestinal epithelium, which affects the bee’s metabolic activity.

Keep on the lookout for

  • Worker bees crawling around the hive with swollen abdomens
  • Declining bee population or poor survival over winter
  • Poor honey production or reduced brood production
  • Dysentery in and around the entrance of the hive (with Nosema apis)

Prevention

Like with most diseases, the greatest protection against infection is to maintain a healthy hive, ensuring bees have optimal nutrition available to them. You can also undertake a hive rotation every three-four years to keep hives strong and avoid moving the hives unnecessarily to minimise stress. If you suspect you have an outbreak of Nosemosis in your colony, report it to the department of agriculture in your state – you can send a sample of your bees to undergo testing. You can also do this as a precautionary measure each spring to maintain the healthiest hives.

Wasps

A very recognisable pest, you definitely don’t want wasps hanging around your bees – or your home in general. They’re a nuisance and pose a significant threat to other insects, including bees.

Keep on the lookout for

  • Big groups of wasps – a sure sign of an infestation

Prevention

The easiest way to prevent wasps from coming near your bees is to make the area unattractive to them. Certain scents repel wasps, so growing plants like eucalyptus, mint, wormwood and citronella may help keep them away. You should also keep tabs on food waste around the bees – particularly meat scraps or anything sweet, as these will attract wasps. Gather fallen fruit off trees as soon as possible, and ensure lids are tight on your compost and rubbish bins. For more information on wasps and how to keep them away, you can read our article here

Wax Moths

There are two types of Wax Moths – the greater Wax Moth (Galleria mellonella) and the lesser Wax Moth (Achroia grisella). Although they look slightly different, both types eat beeswax, pollen and the remains of larval honeybees. Wax Moths lay their eggs in the cracks or gaps in a hive and if left untreated, they’ll slowly start to take over your whole hive.

Keep on the lookout for

  • White webbing cocoons
  • Disintegrated comb
  • Bald patches in your brood
  • Dark-coloured, cylindrical faeces in the bottom of the hive

Prevention

As with most pests, the greatest chance of prevention is to keep your hive clean, healthy and strong so the bees have a greater chance of ejecting the moths before they cause damage. Give the moths fewer opportunities to enter the hive and lay their eggs – make sure your hive roof fits well, with no cracks or gaps, and think carefully before adding a second entrance to the hive.

AFB

American foulbrood (AFB) is caused by the spore-forming bacterium Paenibacillus larvae and can be fatal to even the strongest honeybee and hive. Bacterial spores can be spread between hives through the exchange of infected beekeeping equipment. The disease is incurable, and spores can remain active for more than fifty years.

Keep on the lookout for

  • Irregular or patchy brood patterns
  • Sunken, greasy or darker cell cappings on infected brood
  • Dead larvae – light or dark brown liquid mass
  • Decomposing larvae inside the hive, which may produce a sulphurous smell

Prevention

The biggest protection against this deadly disease is to maintain best beekeeping practices. Examine your brood combs at least twice a year and if you do experience an outbreak, you’ll need to eradicate the infected equipment and destroy infected colonies or hives.

Keep your colony healthy

It may seem overwhelming to think of possible pests or diseases around your colony. The first line of defence is beekeeping best practice: maintaining a healthy, clean and strong hive. Check your hives regularly for signs of pests or diseases, and if you spot anything, contact your local pest control or bee safety management.