We try to be frugal and practical when it comes to beekeeping; reusing and re-purposing equipment whenever possible. We use few if any chemicals, try to use natural products, and intervene as infrequently as possible.
When it comes to equipment, all of our hives are strapped to cinder blocks on top of old pallets. We do this for a few reasons.
First, our bees are toughing it out in the sand plains of central Minnesota. The wind is……unbelievable. The cinder blocks and ratchet straps keep the hive together through the toughest of winds.
A lot of people put a rock or block on top of the hives, but we think the cinder blocks provide better heft against the wind and because we have bears (see our instagram shots of the bears in our area) we rest better at night thinking the ratchet straps provide an extra layer of deterrent – on top of our caging and electric fence….
This system works for us. Our hives are at a workable height. We’ve never had one topple from wind. And so far – we have had no big animal problems.
But we have battled with ants (and wood roaches!)
Since we are in the sand plains, we have untold numbers of ants. Zillions and zillions of ants. We don’t really have earthworms because the soil is too dry; ants do most of the mixing and recycling.
And they get into our hives.
We wanted to build an ant proof beehive stand!
Beekeepers are inventive people, and if you talk to enough of them, you will see amazing creations. Some of the best include ant moats and other protection.
We wanted one of those, but working with wood is not one of our skills. I know, I know!!! Beekeepers are notorious for building their own stuff. I wish we could.
We tried cinnamon, mineral oil, vaseline and…..
The first thing we tried to get rid of ants was cinnamon. Cinnamon is not harmful to honey bees and we just happened to have a big Costco sized jug of it at home. We put a layer of cinnamon around the hive and on the landing board. The bees went through it without a care….but so did the ants.
Then we greased the cinder blocks with vaseline. It worked, but because our straps run through the cinder blocks, they started getting gummed up and it threw our whole system out of whack. Plus the vaseline would wash off (or cook off in the sun) and got full of dirt and other ick over time.
This inspired us to put a layer of mineral oil around the base of the bottom board to keep ants from climbing up the inside of the hive. It didn’t seem to work very well and ants were also entering from the outside of the hive (somehow they found cracks or spaces to enter.)
Maybe ants and bees are supposed to work together?
At this point, we started thinking maybe bees and ants have a symbiotic relationship. Ants sting with formic acid and wasn’t formic acid useful against varroa mites? Do ants eat varroa mites or at the very least sting them? It didn’t seem like the ants were adding benefit to the colonies. They seemed to bother the bees.
We did notice less ant trouble in our stronger hives, but they were still irritating the stronger bees. They took away time and energy, dirtied up the hive, and stole honey.
Do ants eat bees?
Many insects live in and around our bee hives. When the girls drop out their dead, there is a trove of beetles waiting to carry off the carcass. Ants are no different. They eat the dead bees. Are they eating the live ones? The pupa or larva?
We don’t know that answer. We have seen ants eat wasp larva and dead honey bees, so it’s definitely possible.
How do I get rid of ants without harming bees?
We discovered this trick quite by accident. We set out an empty 10 frame box and filled it with our blackest, oldest frames. We had intended to use it as a swarm catcher. In prior years, we used lemon grass oil to bait our swarm traps and never had any luck. (Side note – since we are in a dry cold area, it is very likely that swarms are few and far between. And this is most likely why we have never caught a swarm, despite having the right equipment.)
This year we were going to try our new favorite herb – lemon balm. If you’ve never grown lemon balm, look into it! It’s so easy to grow (even in our sandy desert) and it’s tasty. (Here is an easy lemon balm tea recipe.)
If you let it flower, honey bees love the flowers and all mint blossom honeys are spectacular tasting.
It’s also known to attract bees to swarm boxes.
We forgot to add the lemon balm for the first 3 weeks and ants moved into the box. They straight up moved in. Millions of ants covering all of the frames. They were in the cells. They had eggs everywhere. It was like a nightmare. It was gross.
We took the frames and shook all the ants out. Then we grabbed a few handfuls of lemon balm leaves and rubbed on the inside of the box and on the bottom board. We were hoping a swarm would move in before the ants could settle back in, and that would keep the ants in check.
It never happened. No swarms came, but no ants came back either. We didn’t kill the ants when we dumped them from the hive. In fact the ground (and our winter tarping (that someone left outside….) was full of ants and eggs. But the hive was empty.
Curious, we left the trap out longer than we should have. There is always a race against wood roaches, wax moths, hive beetles, AND ants. So we didn’t want all that comb left out. But nobody moved in. Even the wood roaches.
We decided to rub lemon balm leaves on the insides of all our hives. The ants stayed away.
And that’s how we finally figured out how to keep ants out of our beehives. This has worked in our apiary, in our climate. It’s essentially harmless and free, so worth a try. But until we add more hives and experience from others, we won’t know for sure if it works on a wide scale. PLEASE TRY THIS IN YOUR BEE HIVES AND COME BACK AND LEAVE US A COMMENT. WE WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR EXPERIENCES.
If you need to find some lemon balm – it’s easy to grow from seeds and will be fully formed in one season. Most nurseries carry starter plants as well. It is perennial and edible, so worth an add to the garden.
We used fresh leaves in all of our hives and grab all the leaves in a wad, scrubbing them onto the wood like a crayon – leaving green streaks and marks. We leave all the plant material behind inside the hive (on the bottom board.)
The leaves seemed to take longer than expected to dry out and didn’t mold. Our bees were slow to remove the old lemon balm leaves. We hope you try it and report back. If it works for you, then it may work for more people and wouldn’t it be great to have such an easy way to keep ants out of the hives?
We have noticed fewer wood roaches, but we also have stronger colonies this year. If you have more information on keeping roaches from the boxes, we would really love to hear it. Happy beekeeping!