Beekeeping with Asian hornets in France

After I wrote about the Asian hornet (Vespa velutina) entering Great Britain, a beekeeper living in southern France wrote to me about his five-year struggle with these aggressive bee eaters.

Michael Judd, originally from England, keeps ten hives at an elevation of 789 meters (2588 feet) under a small wild-flower-covered mountain near the village of St. Vallier. These higher elevation hives have remained free of the hornets. But he also keeps a couple of small hives in his backyard where the hornets thrive. Here in his backyard is where he has been experimenting with control measures.

Sadly, Michael had an inauspicious beginning with hornet control. His local bee association in cooperation with the government started a program to research solutions to the hornets. Michael signed up for an experiment and agreed to follow all the rules. As a result, he lost all four of his garden hives.

Furious with the deal, Michael asked for compensation. Although none came, he was introduced to a local beekeeper with 70 colonies who builds hives and raises queens and nucs. Even better, he is actively developing ways to deal with hornets. Happily, the ensuing friendship outweighed the loss of Michael’s experimental colonies.

Here is Michael’s take on controlling Asian hornets.

I have lived with Asian hornets for about five years. At first, I lost five hives, then I improved the defenses and so did the bees

The first thing to know about the Asiatic hornet is that, unlike its European counterpart, it hovers in front of a bee hive. This makes for the first line of defense for the beekeeper. A badminton racquet makes it really easy to swat them. I am fortunate that I can have bee hives in my garden so my physical presence gives me the ability to visit often during the day and swat them. A more remote location makes this somewhat difficult.

The Asian hornet life cycle

Asian hornets all die off at the end of the summer, in my case around the end of October. A mated queen or queens then go and hide in a tree or in the ground. They emerge in spring (about April) and search for a place to make a temporary nest. This is a small one, possibly the size of a golf ball. She lays a few eggs there, yielding 6 or 8 hornets. They then search for firstly food and secondly a place, usually high up a tree, to make the main nest.

The hornets are said to only want protein at the end of the summer. Before that they feed just like bees and sometimes together on the same plant. I spotted them in April (South of France near Nice) on a plant that was flowering.

Trapping the queens

I put out a trap made out of a plastic water bottle with a bought product that is a special hornet attractive. This is important, as catching the queens at this time reduces the chance of a large colony being formed. At his time of the year I catch and also swat a reasonable number of hornets, sometimes up to 10 a week. Once the main colony has been formed, with a nest that can be several feet round, there seems to be little chance of finding the nest, which is usually high up in a tree.

For a while during the early summer the hornets seem to disappear. But not completely, as from time to time I see one or two around my hives at the other side of my garden. But by the time mid July/August comes along the hornets can be seen flying about the hives.

The attack

The hornet hovers outside the hive and awaits a departing or returning bee and catches it in mid air. It takes the bee to a tree where it takes the wings and head off and then the hornet takes the bee to its nest.

The hornet will only go into the hive when the bees are very weak, not flying, and unable to attack in numbers. I have seen the bees on an entrance or inside the muzzle (see below) attack and kill a hornet, so generally the hornets do not seem to like going in the hive. However, I notice that at this time of year, mid to late September, the hornets are desperate for protein and they get more bold.

How the honey bees react

The reaction of the bees is to feel trapped in the hive. There is a siege going on and their flights are down to an unsustainable minimum. Without any action, the colony will simply reduce in strength until it fades away.  In my first year, I found 2 or 3 very small (the size of a tennis ball) swarms in the garden. I got the impression they swarmed out of total desperation. At other times the bees ate all their stores and simply died.

I have noted and read on blogs that up to about 3 hornets around a hive allows the bees to more or less fly normally, but any more than that forces the bees to stay in the hive.

Control measures

First, I put out several traps. Some made of plastic water bottles and some purpose-built wasp traps. I use two different liquids. The first is an “attractive” bought from my bee association. Sometimes I add a little honey-soaked beeswax. The second is a mixture of white wine, apple vinegar, and cassis. Both of these work very well. A lot of people recommend beer, but I find that it does not work. This year I put both mixtures out in 6 traps (3 each).  At the height of the rush, I was catching between 10 and 20 a day.

The next thing I do is to reduce the entrance to the hive. This, of course, makes it easier for the bees to defend their entrance. Then I add what the French call a “muzzle.” It is a wire contraption (see photo) with the holes in the wire measuring 13 mm square (0.5 inch). This allows the bees to enter, but the much bigger hornets are very reluctant to enter as the bees attack them inside. This allows the bees a safe area where they can see the hovering hornet, and either go the other way or exit later.

The bees’ line of defense

What I noticed with one of my hives which had Italian bees is that they set up a line of bees on the floor of the muzzle and this acted as a defense and landing and take off strip for arriving and departing bees. They ware also in position in large numbers to attack any hornet silly enough to get too close. It seems to take the bees about 20 minutes to kill a hornet. It is also interesting to note that a guard bee is often seen scouting around the hive after I have swatted hornets. The scout appears to give the “all clear” when she does not see any more hornets.

This year I noticed that the hornets, rather than hovering directly in front of the hive entrance while waiting for a returning bee, would hover underneath the hive. I found it therefore impossible to swat them with my badminton racquet. So I took a piece of old bed sheet and cut it to fit to the base of the hive and tall enough to get to the ground. I put a skirt on the back and front of the hive. This really seemed to annoy the hornets as they attacked the sheet and could not get to the bees. The result, for me, was they had to hover in front to the entrance and I could swat them easily.

I would also note that when I approach the hive with my badminton racquet, the bees would not react. I would calmly swat, say, a couple or more hornets and the rest would disappear. They are very frightened of me, it seems. The other thing I noticed was if, for example, there were three hornets in the area and I swatted all three, it would take over an hour before any hornets returned.

Everything taken together

The object of all the defenses is to make it more difficult for the hornet to be able to sustain an attack. To this end, I have been moderately successful as I have kept hives operating, harvested honey, and got the colony through the winter..

None of these measures on their own make much difference. However all measures together allowed me to keep the hive strong. In early spring I had 4 hives in my garden and I took 3 of them to another location where I keep most of my hives. At this location (16 kilometers away and 780 meters above sea level) for reasons unknown, there are no hornets yet, so I moved 3 away for safety.

Michael Judd

Here you can see hornet “muzzles” on the hives. The bees pass through freely, but the hornets are reluctant. © Michael Judd.
Here you can see a fabric skirt added to the front and back of the hive to prevent the hornets from hanging around underneath. This made it easier to swat the hornets. © Michael Judd.
The honey bees set up lines of defense to guard against the hornets. It takes about 20 minutes for the honey bees to kill one. © Michael Judd.

Will American foulbrood make a comeback?

As many of you know, the drugs that are currently labeled for the prevention and treatment of American and European foulbrood will no longer be available for over-the-counter purchase beginning January 1, 2017. The decision by the US Food and Drug Administration to tighten control over antibiotics is a response to the ever declining list of antibiotics that actually work. Overuse of medically important antibiotics has led to resistant strains of many pathogens that affect both human and animal health.

The new regulations will restrict the use of antibiotics that enhance growth in livestock. In addition, veterinary oversight will be required for certain drugs used to treat diseases in livestock, including honey bees.

From a public policy standpoint this type of restriction is long overdue. The indiscriminate use of antibiotics is rampant, and important drugs are often used even when they are not needed, leading to the resistant pathogens which are cropping up everywhere, especially in hospitals.

The impact on honey bee colonies

In spite of the good that can come from this legislation, as a beekeeper I wonder what the potential impact may be. Many, many beekeepers use Terramycin (oxytetracycline) to prevent or suppress American foulbrood (AFB) or European foulbrood (EFB) in their hives. In addition, some use lincomycin or tylosin for treatment. All of these drugs will soon become unavailable without a prescription. Both of these brood diseases are highly contagious among honey bee colonies and the only non-drug “treatment” for AFB is burning of the infected hives.

We don’t see much AFB these days, and I wonder if that is because it is disappearing or because it is being suppressed by drugs. I know of people who purchased nucs from beekeepers who routinely suppressed AFB such that symptoms never appeared. But when the innocent purchaser didn’t continue the suppression, the disease reappeared in short order. What these stories suggest is that AFB is alive and well and about to make a comeback.

The incidence of infection may increase

Since drugs like oxytetracycline will require a veterinary prescription, I speculate that the incidence of infected hives will increase. As a result, people like me, who have never given much thought to AFB, may suddenly be hit with it.

Simply put, those beekeepers who were suppressing AFB kept it from spreading. Those suppressors left many small-time beekeepers pretty much free of the disease. Although I’ve never treated for it and have never seen it in my apiary, I wonder how long that will last under the new system. As with other diseases, absconding bees, drifting bees, swarming bees, robbing bees, lost bees, and drones can all carry the disease. Since foulbrood does not affect adult bees, they can easily carry it wherever they go.

I further speculate that the reappearance of AFB and EFB will not happen immediately. I suspect that beekeepers who have been using the drugs are stockpiling, so for a while, at least, we won’t notice a large uptick in cases. But as stockpiles disappear or lose their effectiveness, the incidence of disease will rise. And once your hive becomes infected, how easy will it be to find a veterinarian who is willing to diagnose your hive and prescribe treatment? And how affordable will that be?

It’s not getting easier for beekeepers

I really do have mixed feelings about the new laws. Yes, they are most likely a good thing. But with all the problems honey bees face, perhaps we need an exception. Should we be allowed one easy-to-get drug for the brood diseases? I assume that not all beekeepers with AFB will burn their hives or go to a vet. Instead they will try to keep their bees alive, spreading the pathogen far and wide while their colonies collapse.

If nothing else, beekeepers should be aware of this potential new problem and be on the lookout for symptoms. Beekeeping is tough and every day seems harder than the one before. Knowing what I know now, would I do it again?  I wonder.

Update (9/24/16): A recent statement in Catch the Buzz has caused much confusion among beekeepers. The FDA “final rule” will allow beekeepers to mix and administer an antibiotic to infected colonies without being licensed. However, in order to purchase the antibiotic, the beekeeper must obtain a prescription from a licensed veterinarian. The antibiotic may only be prescribed for control of AFB or EFB and not for prevention. This “final rule” may still not be final because the comment period is still open, but as it stands now, beekeeping antibiotics will be prescription only.

Honey Bee Suite

burning bee hives
The only remaining prescription-free treatment for foulbrood. By Jrmgkia (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Asian hornet found in the UK

This is a bad piece of news, although not entirely unexpected. British beekeepers have been bracing themselves for years for an invasion by the Asian hornet (Vespula velutina), especially since the introduction of the hornet into France in 2004.

A serious threat to honey bees

The Asian hornet is a nasty piece of work whose favorite food is the honey bee. According to an article in Bee Craft Magazine, in its home territory, the hornet can destroy up to 30% of an Apis cerana (Asian honey bee) colony in just a couple of hours.

The Asian honey bee fends off the attack by heat-balling the hornet to a temperature of 45 degrees C (113 F), which effectively kills the invader. But the western honey bee, Apis mellifera, is not so adept at this maneuver, meaning the colony is more susceptible. According to Wikipedia, in areas where the Asian and Western honey bee both live, the Asian hornet prefers to hunt the western honey bee.

Although the hornets are very territorial about their hunting grounds, as soon as a hornet snags a bee it leaves and a new hornet takes its place. This switch off takes a matter of just seconds, so an afternoon of bee hunting can wipe out thousands of bees.

Bee Craft also reports that:

“Repeated and sometimes severe attacks from V. velutina on French honey bee colonies have been reported, in particular in the summer and autumn…Asian hornets also have indirect effects on honey bee health. Chronic hornet activity around a colony causes honey bees to mount a constant defence of the hive entrance, thus greatly limiting time spent foraging. Pollen reserves become depleted, leading to mortality in developing bee larvae, weakening of the colony and potential colony loss. Even low levels of hornet numbers (fewer than 5 hornets/hive) can result in significant disruption.”

A quarantine in place

A press release from Gov.UK details the actions being taken to quarantine the invasion area around Gloucestershire. Anticipating this for years, the National Bee Unit has been developing an action plan and Bee Craft Magazine has been educating beekeepers since 2011. It is not too soon for the rest of the world to take similar action. With global trade, the hornet could arrive in imported goods at any time, especially in wooden products or plants.

If a foundress queen makes her way into new territory, she can in one season spawn a huge colony that can produce hundreds or even thousands of mated queens by fall. Take a look at the Bee Craft article and learn to recognize this serious threat.

Honey Bee Suite

Why do honey bees waste pollen?

A beekeeper in Nebraska said she found a hundred or so pollen pellets on her screened bottom board. She said she watched for a long time, but the busy bees completely ignored the fallen pellets. She wanted to know why the bees didn’t pick them up. “If honey bees are so careful to conserve nectar and wax, why are they so sloppy about pollen?”

Pellets are hard to move

The problem honey bees have with pollen pellets is simple: they cannot easily pick them up. It seems like they should be able to, after all, honey bees move all kinds of debris out of the hive, such as dead bees, deformed brood, small predators, pieces of cardboard and wood chips. But for some reason, picking up a pollen pellet, moving it to a storage comb, and dropping it in a cell seems to be an impossible task.

Honey bees have very specific ways of dealing with pollen. In the field, the tiny particles stick to their bodies due to electrostatic charges. The bees then groom the pollen from their bodies. Using all six legs, they eventually stuff the pollen into the corbiculae, where it is squeezed into place by the action of the pollen press on their rear legs.

The movement of pollen in the hive

According to The Biology of the Honey Bee (1991) by Mark L Winston, once the pollen forager returns to the hive, she removes the pellets with her middle legs and drops them into in a pollen cell. This is very different from the movement of nectar in the hive, which is passed from bee to bee before it is stored.

Once the pollen load is removed, the forager leaves the area and house bees of a particular age press the pollen into the bottom of the cell with their mandibles and forelegs. During this step, the workers moisten the pellets with “regurgitated honey and saliva.” Additionally, the saliva contains enzymes that help preserve the pollen while it’s in storage. According to Seeley (1982), these pollen handlers are 12–25 days old with a mean age of 16.3 days.

Lost on the bottom board

But if the pollen pellet should become dislodged from a bee’s leg while she is in the hive, it drops to the bottom where the other bees ignore it. If they need more pollen, they go out and get a fresh supply. According to Dr. Norman Gary in The Hive and the Honey Bee (2015), “to collect a full load of pollen a bee may spend as little as 6–10 minutes.” Who knows? Perhaps collecting more pollen takes less time than trying to retrieve the dropped load.

Personally, I have never seen a honey bee attempt to move a pellet with her mandibles. Similarly, pollen fed to honey bees as supplementary feed is usually pulverized into dust or mashed into a moist cake.

Although I have heard of beekeepers feeding pollen pellets by sprinkling them on a piece of paper above the top bars, these would be munched like a pollen patty, not transported to a storage cell. Furthermore, the pellets would be subject to drying into hard little nuggets with the consistency of gravel.

What is your experience? Have you ever seen a honey bee try to collect a dropped pollen pellet? How do you feed pollen pellets back to your bees?

Honey Bee Suite

Honey bee with a pollen load. If she loses it, she starts again. Pixabay photo.

When poison falls from the sky

Every now and then I decide to bury my head in the sand and pretend I don’t notice the headlines. Invariably, this approach doesn’t work because dozens of people will ask my opinion until I’m more or less coerced into saying something. Then, the something I say is dissected, splintered, and ridiculed until, once again, I think deep sand is the best alternative.

So, caution aside, what do I think about wholesale spraying for zika virus? Well, as someone who cares deeply about our environment, it almost goes without saying.

Was the use for the greater good?

First, let me clarify that I am not completely against pesticides. I believe pesticides have legitimate uses and are necessary in certain situations. What I am strongly against is improper use of any pesticide, whether it is designed for insects, weeds, fungus, or arachnids. In my opinion, the South Carolina case was an improper use. It clearly demonstrated what happens when politicians are allowed to make decisions about biological systems.

The situation is not unique. Time and again I’ve seen doctors adjust medical care based on a patient’s insurance coverage. The insurance coverage is based on statistics and government guidelines. So even if your doctor thinks you should have a certain test once a year, if the guidelines say once every two years, the insurance won’t pay and the doctors won’t prescribe. So who is deciding your health care? Not you. Not your doctor. Nope. It’s the government. Some politician who never met you is deciding your fate.

Just doing their jobs

I’m absolutely sure the South Carolina decision makers were not malicious. Most likely they actually believe that the aerial spraying of mosquitoes to prevent the spread of zika was in the public interest. But I’m not convinced. I’m willing to bet that at least some of those people have no idea what an ecosystem is, yet they are perfectly willing to destroy one to protect a minority of people who may or may not come down with the zika virus.

I’m not belittling the heartbreak and devastation of the disease. It is treacherous, scary, and sad. What I am questioning is the method of control. Any time we fool with an ecosystem, it becomes easier and easier for diseases like this to reappear. That’s because a spray like Naled affects not just the target mosquito, but things that eat those mosquitoes. Creatures like toads, frogs, snakes, birds, fish, spiders, and other insects all eat mosquitoes and keep their numbers in check. An insecticide like Naled is harmful or fatal to some of those creatures. For others, it destroys their food supply until they perish from starvation.

History is fated to repeat itself, and we know from past experience that wholesale killing usually results in an unbalanced ecosystem where the “bad guy” is more likely to proliferate in the future. Once sprayed, an ecosystem may never recover. In a balanced system all organisms keep the others in check as each species competes for natural resources. In a balanced ecosystem, there wouldn’t be enough mosquitoes to provide a rapid conduit for human disease. We see rampant disease in places where humans have destroyed the natural system of checks and balances.

When poison falls from the sky

Whenever the issue of wholesale spraying comes up I think of Silent Spring. In her book, Rachel Carson says humans have a right to be free from poison dropped from the skies. She says the only reason it is not specifically stated in the Bill of Rights is that the authors could not have conceived of such a thing.

Aerial spraying is particularly pernicious because it affects so many aspects of our lives. I’ve heard people say, “It’s just a few beekeepers. So what?” But the damage is much greater. The bug eaters I mentioned are injured or killed, as well as the pollinators, including hundreds of species of native bees, moths, and butterflies. The entire line-up of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and mantids are killed as well, as are innocent fish, amphibians, and birds.

It’s about people too

And how about people? How about the conscientious mom who decided to raise organic vegetables for her family? The retired folks who built pollinator habitat so they could watch and enjoy and pollinate their crops? How about the household pet who had poison rain down on its fur and the children who give it a big bear hug? Do the parents even realize their kids may have Naled on their fingers? The ones they stick in their mouths?

When you spray from the sky you hit gardens, ponds, swimming pools, swing sets, picnic tables, and laundry left on the line. You hit the fruit on the tree, the berries on the vines, the porch rail, and the car door. You hit the tricycle on the driveway, the trampoline in the back yard, and the baseball bat. Is anyone thinking about these possibilities?

Safe for humans?

The politicians say Naled is safe for humans. What does that mean?  A quick look at Extoxnet shows “Naled is highly to moderately toxic to birds…Naled is toxic to most types of aquatic life…Naled is toxic to bees.” And for humans? Extoxnet shows “Naled is moderately to highly toxic by ingestion, inhalation and dermal adsorption. Vapors or fumes of Naled are corrosive to the mucous membranes lining the mouth, throat and lungs, and inhalation may cause severe irritation. A sensation of tightness in the chest and coughing are commonly experienced after inhalation. As with all organophosphates, Naled is readily absorbed through the skin. Skin which has come in contact with this material should be washed immediately with soap and water and all contaminated clothing should be removed.”  And there is much, much more.

Of course I don’t know the particulars of Dorchester County, South Carolina. Perhaps, all things considered, it was the best choice for this county at this time. But my bet is that all things were not considered. If the beekeepers didn’t see it coming, imagine all the other residents who were caught unaware. All those who didn’t prepare. All those who didn’t bring in their pets or clean their picnic tables.

So what instead?

No matter what decision is reached, we need to remember Silent Spring. A decision with so much fallout needs to be a community decision and not a behind-the-desk decision, and all those affected need to be warned in advance and told how to prepare. Anything else is just plain wrong.

Honey Bee Suite