Honey Bee Enemies


Birds—Mice—Moths—Braula cœca—Hornets and Wasps—Spiders—Toads—”Robber Bees”—Prevention of robbing.

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It might well be imagined that creatures armed with such deadly weapons as bees, would have few enemies who would dare to contend with them. The fact is, however, that they are exposed to dangers from numerous sources. Various kinds of wild birds, domestic fowls, mice, certain species of moths, hornets, wasps, ants, spiders and toads, are more or less destructive to them.

Among the common birds fond of these insects as food, may be mentioned the titmouse tribe. Mr. Hunter says he has found hundreds of stings of bees adhering to a fence, evidently extracted by these active and clever little birds previous to swallowing their prey. Their depredations, however, are usually not great, and they are often satisfied to regale themselves on the dead insects which are carried out of the hive. In America, the King-bird (Tyrannus muscicapa) is mentioned by Langstroth as devouring scores of our winged friends, which he does not hesitate to seize on flower-blossoms, showing, indeed, a sensible preference for those who are distending their honey-bags with nectar.

The swallow was credited by the Greeks with being a robber of apiaries, as the address of the old poet indicates:—”Attic maiden, honey-fed,Chirping warbler, bear’st awayThou the busy buzzing bee,To thy callow brood a prey?Warbler, thou a warbler seize?Winged, one with lovely wings?Guest thyself, by summer brought,Yellow guests whom summer brings?Wilt not quickly let it drop?’Tis not fair; indeed, ’tis wrong,That the ceaseless warbler shouldDie by mouth of ceaseless song.” [6]

[6]Translation given in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee.

We have no reason to charge our swallows with the crime of bee-eating. Domestic fowls will sometimes regale themselves with a meal of live bees, it they can reach the entrances to the hives, so that it is advisable to forbid their access to them. Mice occasionally effect an entrance, especially into skeps, and annoy the inhabitants by their disagreeable odour, and by gnawing the combs, and eating brood and honey.

The winter is the time when there is most danger from these plunderers, as the bees are then too torpid with the cold to notice and to attack the intruders. It is easy to prohibit their inroads, by sufficiently contracting the entrances, and preventing their gnawing the rims of the hives, or getting under the top coverings.

Moths, being active at night, require constant watchfulness on the part of the bee-sentinels to exclude them from their abodes. Attracted partly by the favourable conditions for egg-hatching, through the steady warmth kept up in the hives, they lay their eggs in crevices, and along the borders of bee-homes. The larvæ, when able to crawl, make their way over the combs, which, with their contents, they greedily devour, and if attacking in large numbers they sometimes prove fatal to a stock.

Fig. 42.—The Enemies of Bees.

The two kinds most destructive are the British wax-moth, Achroia grisella, and the Galleria mellonella. The latter is more troublesome in Italy than in our own country. If the population of a hive be strong and in thoroughly sound condition, there is not much danger to be apprehended from either of these foes. Should, however, a colony be weak, and still more if queenless, such a hold may be gained by these their lepidopterous enemies, as will be wholly ruinous.

Combs in store are yet more liable to their attacks, but the moths may be dislodged, and their eggs or larvæ destroyed, by exposing such combs to the fumes of burning brimstone. An examination of hive-coverings and floor-boards in the spring and autumn, and the destruction of all grubs found about them, will often save much trouble from the moths. The presence of these intruders among the combs may be detected by the occurrence of their excrement, resembling grains of very fine gunpowder, on the floor-boards.

The death’s-head moth, Acherontia Atropos, is also said, by some writers, to be troublesome to apiarians; but it is too rare an insect to be seriously destructive. A parasitic louse, called Braula cœca, is occasionally found in considerable numbers in hives on the Continent. Happily, the English climate does not appear to suit its constitution well, so that its occurrence is not very frequent, and is generally the result of the introduction of Ligurians and other foreign varieties into an apiary.

Pre-eminent among the enemies of bees stand hornets and wasps, particularly the latter in the autumn of the year. They are active, courageous, and persistent robbers; and, unless the hive-entrance be well guarded, they will slip in, and, escaping notice, will pilfer the honey without stint. So determined are their attacks, that they will utterly ruin weak colonies, and will sometimes so dishearten even tolerably vigorous ones, as to make them desert their hives.

When once they have learnt there are stores to be plundered, they do not fail to come in numbers if they know that only a feeble resistance will be offered to them. Various means of stopping their depredations may be adopted. The most radical measure is to destroy queen-wasps in the spring.

They are the only ones in existence then, and are considerably larger than their worker-daughters. Again, every wasp’s nest in the neighbourhood of an apiary should be got rid of, by pouring gas-tar into the entrances, and ramming earth over it. Thirdly, by hanging a narrow-necked bottle of sweetened beer near the bee-hives, many wasps will be attracted to the liquid; and, becoming surfeited and silly, will be unable to escape, and will be drowned. A fourth precaution is to narrow the entrances of the hives, so that one or two bees can defend them.

The sentinels are able to master these their enemies in fair fight; indeed, the wasps rarely show any inclination for a battle. They trust to their activity and boldness, rather than to any real courage. The best preventive measure is to keep the stocks of bees strong. It is usually only the weak who suffer serious attacks from their insect enemies.

Spiders prove a nuisance and destructive, chiefly by spinning webs into which the weary workers fall when returning home, or into which they unwarily rush on emerging from their abodes. Care in sweeping away the cobwebs will remove danger from this source.

Toads are credited, or charged, with a love of honey-filled bees, and may sometimes be seen watching their opportunity of making a meal near the entrances, where they are said to pick up many a dainty morsel with honey-sauce ready made. These slowly-moving creatures may easily be caught and taken away, so as to do no more mischief.

We must not pass from this part of our subject without speaking of the aptness of bees to rob one another. If an unfortunate individual makes the mistake of going to a hive not its own, it will immediately be seized as an intruder. In the hope of propitiating the assailants, it will extend its proboscis, and offer some of its internal honey-store.

Nor will the custodians refuse to accept what is evidently intended as a peace-offering; but they will not cease their attempt to drag off or to kill the interloper, who is happy if able to escape from the onslaught. This kind of robbery is, in a manner, to be regarded as justifiable.

Such is not the case, however, with the organised or desultory pillage which frequently goes on when the inability of a stock to defend itself has been discovered by its neighbours. We have known the contents of a hive completely cleared out by “robber-bees” in a few hours, crowds of them rushing in and filling themselves.

Then, having carried the spoil to their own homes, they will return again and again, till there is nothing left for them to plunder. Of course the community attacked wholly perishes in the battle or from starvation. Nor is this the worst of such an occurrence; for, when once these unhallowed sweets have been tasted, when these insects—it must be confessed, of very low morality—have discovered that robbery is much more easy and more productive of results than honest work, they appear seized with a perfect mania for living as freebooters, and will attempt hive after hive, when their first onslaught has been effective.

Terrible mischief is often the result; for, not only is the habit of ordinary nectar-seeking broken off, but fierce battles are fought with strong stocks, and many hundreds of the combatants perish. Moreover, the ordinary avocations of an assailed colony are completely interrupted, and general disturbance, if not complete disorganisation, prevails.

Such a disastrous state of things is sometimes begun by carelessness on the part of the bee-keeper, in allowing pieces of honey-comb to lie about within reach of any of his stocks. The taste of the sweet liquid, for which they have a perfect passion, seems to act like a glass of gin on an abstainer who has formerly been a drunkard.

Their thirst for more is fired, and, once enkindled, will not easily subside. It is particularly necessary, therefore, especially in the late summer and the autumn, when supplies from flowers begin to fall short, to take care not to provoke the lust of having honey at all hazards, by allowing any to be exposed to the smelling or other perceptive powers of the bees. It is equally important in feeding stocks to prevent any exposure of the syrup, and not to permit stranger-bees to get at the feeding-bottles.

If the mischief of robbing is detected in its early stage, much may be done to stop it by narrowing the hive entrances, so that only one bee at a time can get in. This will enable the sentinels to examine each one who tries to enter, and to turn back strangers. If, however, the evil has taken a serious hold, it is better to close the attacked hive altogether for a time, and to hang near the entrance a sponge or cloth soaked in diluted carbolic acid, or some liquid potent and disagreeable in its odour.

If these methods are of no avail, it will be better to remove the colony to a distance, or to a dark cellar; and by taking care to secure ventilation, and to give a supply of syrup, the community, which would otherwise surely perish, may be rescued. If returned in three or four days to its former stand, it is well to take the precaution of placing a sloping board before the entrance, so that its exact position may escape the notice of would-be robbers.

These can often be detected early in their operations by their hovering restlessly in front of a hive, without the courage to settle, or, perhaps, because they do not know precisely where the opening is. A shower from a watering-pot will sometimes send them about their own proper business.

Another method for stopping robber-bees from their plundering is to put at night into the hive attacked a small quantity of some strongly-smelling substance—a little musk, for example. The unwonted odour seems to rouse the inhabitants, and if they have a healthy queen, they will, in the morning, resolutely meet the robbers.

Moreover, if any of these get in, the musk will so scent them that when they return to their own hives they will not be recognised by their own people, but will be put to death; and thus a double check is put on their depredations.

It is a remarkable fact that, if a robbed colony be queenless, or if the queen is killed in the mélée, survivors from the fight will often fall to on the remnants of the stores, and, joining the forces of the conquerors, will convey the honey to the hive whose inhabitants are the plunderers, and will be peacefully accepted as citizens among its population.

Of course the absence or the slaughter of a queen much more readily exposes her disheartened subjects to attacks from other bees; and this is another reason for seeing that no such calamity as queenlessness has befallen any stock when food is scarce.

In the facts recorded in this chapter we have striking evidence of “the struggle for existence” which seems to have been ordained as “a law of nature” in this world. We can readily discern some useful purposes connected with it, both as regards conquerors and vanquished. For, on the one hand, it is for the benefit of the race that the strongest individuals should, as a rule, survive to propagate it; and, on the other, it is better for a sharp and speedy end to occur to a weak community, rather than that it should perish by the slow pangs of hunger, or from inability to continue the rearing of a progeny.

But, even in this respect, as in several others, bees furnish a serious difficulty to the theory of evolution. For it is not the strong and victorious community which propagates the race, but the individual queen; and she, of course, may be weaker than the one whose stock has been destroyed by the more numerous robbers. The case evidently is not a genuine one of “survival of the fittest,” so far as the succeeding generations are concerned; nor do we find any special adaptation for future advantages secured.

The battle is lost and won, but there can be no impress made, even by successive victories, on the general physical condition of the stronger party; for the fight is never undertaken by a single drone or queen, who alone can transmit any qualities to posterity.

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