Snacking skunks: Pests causing major problems for beekeepers

Province is seeking an emergency-use registration for strychnine, 
as skunks continue to target honeybees

Not everyone prefers honey. Some critters go straight for the honeybees, and that’s causing major headaches for beekeepers.

Skunks have the process of luring and eating adult bees down to a science, said David Ostermann, a pollination apiarist with Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives.

“The skunks will actually go to the front of the hive and scratch… and create a disturbance,” he said. “The bees will then come out to either defend the hive or see what’s going on, and the skunk will just grab them with its mouth and pick them off.”

The problem isn’t a new one for Manitoba’s apiarists, but when combined with overwinter losses, pesticide mortality, and issues around colony collapse, skunk-related bee loss is becoming more of a concern.

The province doesn’t try to track skunk populations, but often hears reports from beekeepers, said Ostermann.

“The reports we’re getting from beekeepers is that it’s a problem that is certainly not going away,” said Ostermann. “I don’t know if it’s getting any worse, but it’s certainly not getting any better.”

A skunk will feed for as long as an hour at a single hive, which has serious consequences, he said.

“There is a general critical size that you need in a hive to survive the winter, so if you’ve got something that is feeding on that critical mass of bees, it’s probably going to compromise their ability to survive ’til springtime,” said the expert.

Skunks feed on bees primarily during the spring and fall, although summer snacking also occurs. And because skunks are nocturnal, catching them in the act is difficult.

Beekeepers should keep an eye out for signs of skunk activity, such as scratch marks on the front of hives and paths of trampled-down grass leading from the yard to bushy areas.

Currently, there are no poisons registered for use on skunks in Manitoba, but the province has been trying to get emergency-use approval of strychnine for problem skunks, Ostermann said.

However, poisoning skunks requires caution and skill as other animals are often attracted to the bait as well.

“There certainly are other animals within the bee yard — cats, dogs, raccoons and other kinds of animals — that we may or may not want there,” he said.

Grain- or nut-based baits, instead of meat or eggs, would be less likely to attract domestic animals, he said.

Trapping is another option, but again Ostermann said caution must be exercised.

“Even with the traps you can certainly kill animals that you don’t want to kill, but I think beekeepers are doing a pretty good job of trying to target the skunks only — the last thing we want to do is kill off other animals,” he said.

In fact, keeping animals like dogs in the area can help keep skunks at bay, he said.

Another skunk control option is to limit their habitat.

Skunks often hide or make dens in old outbuildings, along dilapidated foundations, in abandoned vehicles, or under woodpiles. Eliminating these habitats from areas around the yard can assist in keeping skunk populations at bay, Ostermann said.

“We know skunks can actually do a lot of damage… so it’s a matter of trapping, using deterrents, barriers and that sort of thing,” he said.

Skunks like to camp out in old buildings and foundations.   photo: ©thinkstock

About the author


Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.



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