Ant season is coming! So, what can you do to stop ants from invading your beehive? If ants are a problem in your area, read on to find out the best strategies for keeping them out of your hives.
In coastal California ants can be a real challenge. We have an invasive species of ant originally from Argentina which has grown out of control. This Argentine ant has actually spread all over the world. In their natural environment, ants from different families go to war with one another, which keeps their populations in check, but scientists have confirmed that the Argentine ant has formed intercontinental mega-colonies. This means that the ants (found in the U.S., Europe and Japan) are so closely related, that they interpret each other as being from the same colony and will not fight with each other. The enormity of these colonies allows them to easily outcompete native species and has made them one of the most damaging ecological invasive species around.
If ants are a problem in your area, all you can do is stay vigilant and approach the problem from as many angles as possible. It’s important to know when your bees are most vulnerable too. Large, strong colonies have the resources to keep ants out, but weakened colonies can become overwhelmed by them. If you are nurturing a recently caught swarm or a new package of bees, you have to be on guard: in our experience, bees will often abscond because of an ant invasion. Sometimes an ant invasion can be a sign that your previously strong colony has weakened. A strong colony can unexpectedly crash and find itself once again susceptible. For this reason, it’s best to have always have any protection in place.
Here’s what we do at Girl Next Door Honey to keep bees protected.
Place your hives on stands with legs.
You may see photos of hives on cinderblocks or just plopped on the ground, but if you want to properly protect your bees from ants, you need to put them on stands with actual legs. There are various methods for protecting from ants, but most of them involve fortifying the legs of your hive stand. If you are using a Langstroth or a Warre hive, remember that the hive is going to grow vertically over time, so don’t make your stand too tall! Four to Five inch legs are sufficient for ant protection and will make lifting those top boxes much easier when your colony expands. You should also consider the thickness of your stand legs. Of course, you want something sturdy to support the weight of your hive, but bulky legs, like the ones on this stand, make ant control more challenging, while the slender legs of this stand, will be much easier to monitor and keep secure.
Make observation for ants routine.
Keep this list of questions in the back of your mind for things to regularly look out for. Yes answers mean action needs to be taken. Do you see trails of ants going up the hive stand or boxes?Are ants on the inside of your roof, on top of your inner cover, or crawling on the top of frames or inside walls of the hive? If a colony recently absconded — do you see ants inside the abandoned box?
Keep the area around your hive free of tall weeds.
Be on the lookout for plants, branches, or weeds touching the stand or boxes. This includes scanning for seedlings that could grow tall and eventually touch too. These plants are thoroughfares that ants can and will use to get onto your hive. You may want to take preventative steps to suppress plants from growing near your hives by spreading DG or gravel below your stand.
Know your ant season and about the ant species living near you.
Do some light research about ants in your local area. Knowing just a little can go a long way. In Southern California, ants peak during certain seasons and with summer approaching that time is drawing near. Ant problems can also flare up during heat waves. So, what kind of ants are in your area? Do you have the dreaded Argentine ants? What patterns have you noticed? Asking yourself these questions may lead to strategies for protecting your bees from potential any invasions. You may also find out that ants in your area aren’t a problem at all, lucky you!
Can you borrow ideas from like-minded industries?
Who else in your area needs to control ants to protect their projects? Ask other eco-friendly professionals what they do. We heard about an ant bait station from a California Native Plant Society meeting. The mammal-safe, borate-based trap the speaker talked about helps protect vulnerable native plant seedlings in gardens where Argentine ants had previously wreaked havoc. We would recommend this option to a desperate beekeeper over an exterminator any day!
Try Some DIY Ant Protection
We’ve tried pretty much everything when it comes to ant control and have found that none of these solutions are perfect. Here’s a list of practical DIY techniques you can try and some of their pros and cons.
Raid, Borax, and other poisons may be effective, but have some strong cons. The obvious one is the worry that spraying or applying a pesticide so close to your hives is worrisome. The second is that these products are fighting a battle that cannot be won. You will never be able to kill all the ants or even dent their populations with these products so it’s better to focus on deterring them in my opinion.
Diatomaceous Earth or Cinnamon can be used to create powder barriers around your stand legs and may be a solution that works for you. Their main advantage is that they are natural, but they can still harm your bees, especially DE. Try to limit the area where you apply these and do not put them inside your hives. A simple ring around each stand leg is enough. Aside from overzealous application, the biggest problem with this method seems to be longevity. Wind, rain or even just fallen leaves (which may create ant bridges) can render these powder barriers useless.
Tanglefoot is a sticky glue often used on fruit tree trunks to keep ants at bay. It can be effective when used on the legs of your hives. However, it’s terribly messy, must be reapplied monthly and tends to catch bees in it.
Dirty Motor Oil or Grease when applied to stand legs will keep ants from crossing. This is nasty stuff, but at least it is a byproduct. I find this method to be very effective against tough Argentine ants. I paint a ring of the used oil around each leg with an old toothbrush. It soaks into the wood and lasts about a month. When using it, be careful not to spill any on the ground. The advantages are that it’s free and that it doesn’t kill klutzy bees, but it is pretty unpleasant to work with.
Moats are in my opinion the most secure way to protect your hive from ants. However, they can drown a lot of bees and must be refilled often. To avoid or reduce these pitfalls, make sure your moats are not oversized. The bigger they are, the more bees they will drown. To avoid having to frequently refill them, try using vegetable oil instead of water. It evaporates much more slowly, though it may attract wildlife. If you do choose to use water, you may want to put some detergent in it. Some ants can walk across water and soap will break up the surface tension.
We are always on the lookout for better ways to protect our bees from ants since none of these solutions are perfect. At the moment, most of our colonies are outfitted with modified moats that we call “ant bowls”. The moats are designed to replace the stand legs completely and consist of two metal bowls with a gap between them. The lower bowl is filled with veggie oil and acts as a moat, while the upper bowl holds the table and helps to prevent klutzy bees from falling in and drowning. This is a low maintenance, inexpensive solution, but still has its flaws. The main problem is that sick or old bees taken out by undertakers still end up crawling into and drowning in the bowls, which creates a nasty, smelly buildup over time. When this happens, it is difficult to clean the bowls out.
Want to give our moats a try? If you have a pipe cutter in your tool box and a knack for bargain shopping, you can complete the project for less than $30. Read on if you’re ready for a tutorial on how to make them!
Ant Bowls Tutorial
For a 4-leg table. Cost estimate: $30-$50.
Gorilla Glue Epoxy, $10
2-inch diameter ABS Pipe (about a 2-foot piece), $4
pipe cutter, $25
- 8 shallow .75-quart stainless steel bowls, $.89/bowl
- cheap vegetable oil, $9/gallon
- funnel (with long, slender spout), $2
- -Cut the ABS pipe, so that you have four pieces of equal length. Measure a length that will keep the bowls from touching each other (typically we leave a 1-2 inch gap).
- -Make sure the bowls are clean, if they’re dirty, the epoxy might not stick.
- -Set up all the bowls and pipe pieces in an assembly line. Once you mix the epoxy, you’ll be happy you took the time to do this because it has to be used quickly!
- -Follow the instructions, including safety directions, on the gorilla glue epoxy package, and mix your first small batch (about a tablespoon) of glue.
- -Work quickly, dabbing the glue around the entire rim of the pipe, either with the applicator from the package or a disposable plastic spoon.
- -Center the pipe, glue side down, in the middle of a bowl. Dab glue around the other rim, and set a second bowl on top. Leave the bowl undisturbed for at least 30 minutes.
- -Repeat steps 4-6 three more times.
- -Allow your creations to fully dry for at least 24 hours before using them.
- -When dry, install the ant bowls by putting them under your table legs. Check for balance and make adjustments. Hopefully, you are doing this before you’ve placed any hives on the table, so you don’t have to move a heavy hive!
- -Fill the bowls with vegetable oil, using the funnel.
- -Check the oil periodically. We recommend doing oil checks after colony inspections.
Many have expressed concern regarding the stability of these moats, pointing to the slippery nature of the metal. Often I get suggestions for adding additional features for grip, but I have so far found them not to be necessary. Though they may look unstable, the weight of the hive(s) seems to be enough to keep the bowls solidly in place. After three years of using these, I have yet to have any incidents.
This post was co-authored by Sara Everett.