The Birds and the Bees of Natural Beekeeping

Say you’re listening to “She’s Like the Wind” by Patrick Swayze on your iPod. You’re sitting under an apple blossom tree, eating fresh honey out of the jar like Pooh. You harvested the honey from a hive you developed yourself, with bees you learned how to raise. You’re a woman now. A man now. Whatever you want to be.

How? By knowing the birds and the bees of natural beekeeping, of course.

The following is an excerpt from Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture by Ross Conrad.

For the most part, birds are a minor difficulty for beekeepers outside of Africa and Asia, which are home to avian species such as bee-eaters, the beeswax-eating birds called honeyguides, and at least two species of bird that will lead honey bee predators such as honey badgers or baboons to a hive and then dine on the spoils left behind after the larger mammal has exposed the nest and eaten its fill. In North America, heavy local predation of honey bees may occur by species of birds such as titmice, swifts, flycatchers, and some shrikes, which may present a problem for queen breeders and others working to rear their own mother bees.

I have also observed on several occasions, while working in one particular bee yard located just a couple miles from the Canadian border, a flock of seagulls circling high above the apiary for long periods, and I have wondered whether they were dining on some high-flying bees. Other than the possibility of seagull slaughter or the capture of a queen on her mating flight, the bird that catches the occasional bee on the wing in North America does not present any serious threat to beehives, with one notable exception: the woodpecker.

Although not a common occurrence, a woodpecker will occasionally peck holes in a hive to gain access to the tasty honey bees within. A woodpecker can seriously harm a weak hive, though the primary damage these birds cause is to the hive equipment itself. The one instance of this that I observed was damage that occurred after the fact when a woodpecker had opened up a large hole in and around the thin layer of wood located by the handhold on a hive body. The size of the hole was fairly large, which seems to indicate that the woodpecker spent a considerable amount of time feeding at the hive, either in one sitting or during repeated visits. The damage was discovered early in the spring and no further woodpecker activity was observed during the course of the season, which suggests that perhaps the woodpecker attacked the hive during the cold weather, when other insects were scarce and the number of honey bees that would emerge from the hive to investigate such a disturbance were few and slow-moving. Presumably, once the number of bees venturing forth to look into the situation increased with the temperature to the point where the bees were able to land a number of stings, the woodpecker lost interest and moved on to easier pickings.

Controlling damage in such an instance is difficult at best, and although I know of nobody who has experience dealing with an active woodpecker attack, it is possible that introducing a barrier, such as a cardboard box slipped over the hive, may create enough of an inconvenience to deter such activity once a woodpecker is actively engaged in feeding on a hive. Alternatively, if a power source is available nearby, a motion detector connected to a floodlight or a radio may provide enough deterrence to discourage all but the most persistent bird. When necessary, woodpecker holes can be patched up by nailing or screwing a piece of sheet metal over the inside of the opening.

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