Small hive beetle found in Ontario

When a beetle looks like Darth Vader, chances are it isn’t a beneficial insect.

In early September, Ontario government inspectors found the small hive beetle within bee colonies in Essex County, in the southwestern corner of the province.

The detection was significant because the small hive beetle, an invasive species originally from Africa, can destroy a beehive, said Rob Currie, an entomologist at the University of Manitoba.

“It’s a weird looking thing…. It has a spiky, kind of Darth Vadery look to it. The thoracic part of it is quite sharp and pointed on the ends. And looks sort of (like a) shield,” Currie said, noting the beetle is a few millimetres long.

“The adult beetle will get inside the hive and lay its eggs…. And those will hatch into larvae and the larvae consume the honey and the pollen and everything that’s in the hive.”

Besides eating honey, the beetles cause other havoc inside the hive, Currie said.

“The larvae leave a slime trail behind…. The whole hive turns into a slimy, gooey mess,” he said. “It can cause pretty serious damage. It can kill colonies.”

The sap-eating beetle came to North America from Africa around 1998, Currie said, most likely in a ship that docked in Florida. After establishing a population in that state it quickly moved to other jurisdictions in the U.S.

The small hive beetles found inside hives on several farms in Essex County Sept. 8 were the first verified cases in Ontario, said Paul Kozak, an apiculturist with the province’s department of agriculture.

However, the discovery wasn’t the first case in Canada. It was found on the Prairies back in 2002, said Rheal Lafreniere, an apiculturist with Manitoba Agriculture. The beetle arrived at a beeswax rendering plant near MacGregor, Man., most likely in a shipment of wax from Texas.

Adult beetles in the shipment flew out of the plant and established populations at beehives in the MacGregor area, Lafreniere said. The province quarantined those bee colonies and the plant owners thoroughly cleaned their rendering equipment to eliminate the beetle from the building.

“They even excavated the soil around the perimeter of the building,” he said. “Because if there were small hive beetle mature larvae that had crawled out the building, they could actually pupate in the soil.”

The key to controlling small hive beetles is the soil around beehives, Currie said.

Even if a colony is destroyed or treated with insecticide, a hive can be reinfested by pupae in the soil. Manitoba’s cold winters likely killed off pupae back in 2002, preventing the beetle from establishing a permanent population in the province.

But the insects may be able to survive a milder Ontario winter, Kozak said.

“It is a much milder climate in southern Ontario that it is in Manitoba…. But really the short answer is it’s too early to tell at this point (if they can survive).”

Nonetheless, Lafreniere does wonder what might happen if the insect arrived under different circumstances.

“The big question for Manitoba and some of the western provinces, is what would happen if this thing came in large numbers in the month of May?” he asked. “It may be one of those pests that migrates (to Western Canada) not necessarily every year, but on occasion it will migrate from the south and cause some potential damage to equipment and bees.”