The Less Pleasant Side of Modern Beekeeping: Varroa Mite Management

The excitement of the honey harvest past me, I’ve turned my attention to Varroa mites.  I performed sugar rolls utilizing the handy kit from the Bee Squad mid July. I knew my hives had mites; all of our hives have mites. I wanted a baseline number and a push to choose a treatment because I loathe this aspect of beekeeping.

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The new kits make sampling for Varroa mites quite convenient since everything you need is in the box, ready to go out to your apiary, making excuses to do it next week less reasonable.

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While alcohol washes may provide more accurate assessments, 300 honey bees have to be sacrificed during the process.  Since I was relatively sure that I’d need to treat, I opted to use the sugar roll method, primarily to establish a baseline.  Did I have mites?  Of course.

Two pictures here: one shows the Varroa destructor, enlarged to show the familiar details; the second puts the tiny but mighty Varroa mite into context of size with the plastic fork prong as it appeared in my bin after shaking.   While it may seem common sense, I’ll state the obvious because many of us beekeepers are in denial when it comes to the prevalence of Varroa mites in our hives:  Visually looking for mites on tens of thousands of moving honey bees isn’t enough.

None of us want to dump chemicals into our hives but I think as beekeepers, we’re all unified in our goal to sustain honey bees for the future.  Ignoring the problem is a treatment choice in itself and will lead to the need to replace your colonies, and likely impact other bees and beekeepers. Our choices matter.  Per the Honey Bee Health Coaliton, “Every honey bee colony in the continental United States and Canada either has Varroa mites today or will have them within several months…. In addition, colonies with Varroa are a source of mites that can spread to other colonies, even in other apiaries, through drifting, robbing, and absconding activity of bees.” [Extracted from the Honey Bee Health Coalition, Tools for Varroa Management: A Guide to Effective Varroa Sampling and Control, 2017]

I posted the above pictures on my beekeeping club website, primarily for new beekeepers to show just how small these mites are that plague our honey bees. As well, I frequently, just yesterday in fact, hear beekeepers say that they “don’t have mites” and are “looking out” for them during inspections. Once you see them, they are a big problem and likely beyond your efforts.  Again, casually looking out for Varroa mites is not a worthwhile strategy to employ against a beast also termed “the Varroa destructor.”  Come on now.

I received what felt like condolences from a fellow beekeeper after the post.  Sadly, it is not at all surprising, both the response and the outcomes, albeit she was a new beekeeper and not yet in the trenches with the dealings of these nasty parasites.   Many of us are in denial about our Varroa mite situation, hoping that we don’t have a problem, wanting desperately to find another way, a more organic approach like IPM practices used in our organic gardening practices.  The reality is that we’re not there, yet.  I say yet because there are some interesting new treatments options being explored and utilized with success that may lend themselves to a more holistic approach.  For now, for backyard hobbyist beekeepers, intervention is necessary, using current tools.

If I seem adamant about this it’s because I’ve tried not treating in the past with unfortunate, preventable results.  Visit my post When Bees Die… and you’ll understand my current position.  Losing honey bees feels a lot worse than utilizing proven tools to prevent such losses.  If you are a beekeeper, you understand the feeling of failure and loss from losing a colony.  The loss of my blue queen and her colony will not be in vain as I’ve learned a valuable lesson and that is to treat when thresholds indicate the need to intervene.  Anything else is just not beekeeping.

I was surprised by the initial low counts from my sugar roll. Having placed my IPM board below the bottom board of my hives, my numbers increased as mites fell off and were groomed off of the bees after I put the sugared bees back into the hives. My mite load will only grow from here on out as drone volume decreases late summer and mites make their way into worker brood more regularly.

 

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The dark brown oval shapes are the tiny Varroa destructors (the rest is just hive debris, wax pieces and such).  This IPM board breaks my heart a bit, but doesn’t surprise me.  The original mite count from my sugar roll was just four mites per 300 which is quite low and wouldn’t really merit treatment, but I knew the count was higher because this was my big hive that cranked out a surplus of 100 pounds of honey.  It was full of bees and I knew there had to be more.  I sprayed the IPM board with Pam cooking spray to catch mites as they fell off of bees and when I removed it the next day, my heart sank.  But knowledge is power and now it’s time to intervene on behalf of these gracious honey bees.

 

All honey bee colonies have mites or will get them in short order.  The evidence is clear on this. The document referenced above is easy, clear reading on Varroa mites, serving as a good starting point to help us all be better informed, weigh treatment options and understand the current state of affairs in honey bee health.   Download your copy for free at Honey Bee Health Coaltion: Tools for Varroa Management

It is critical that we all assess our Varroa levels now as mites work aggressively to out-breed bees in late summer. We all make different choices in treatment. The important thing to understand is that Varroa mites affect all beekeepers and ignoring it is not an effective solution as we are mostly hobbyists with few colonies.

I’ve made my treatment choice and will use it next week.  I hate using anything but I hate losing bees more.  I’m in this for more.  I believe in being a steward to my bees, supporting their efforts and educating myself about the realities of modern beekeeping, not putting bees in a box and calling myself a “hands-off” beekeeper.  This is certainly the less pleasant side of beekeeping.

 

“Doing nothing about Varroa mites is not a practical option for most beekeepers. Honey bees are not capable of surviving or thriving unless the beekeeper prevents Varroa from reaching damaging levels. If the beekeeper does not control Varroa, a colony will most likely die and, in the process, spread mites and infections to other colonies in the same apiary and surrounding area.”  – Honey Bee Health Coalition

 

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8 thoughts on “The Less Pleasant Side of Modern Beekeeping: Varroa Mite Management

    1. Thank you! It made me happy to read your comment because the goal of my blog is to educate, passing on the little I know to both beekeepers and nonbeekeepers. There are many woes facing honey bees today including lack of forage, excessive pesticide use, and pests and diseases. Varroa mites are responsible for significant losses worldwide and are the worst pest to plague honey bees. They feed on both adult honey bees and developing brood, infecting them with diseases and leading to deformities of baby bees. As you can imagine, it is hard to kill a bug on a bug without harming one of those bugs. Fortunately, strides are being made via extensive research and trials. Absent honey bees, our food choices greatly diminish as their role is so profound within our ecosystems. We’re all in this together so thank you for taking the time to read and learn about the amazing honey bee!

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      1. Love the bee just the other day had to rescue one from getting trapped in underground parking! If I had a a suitable home for them I’d keep bees too! I try to plant bee friendly flowers but just containers on my balcony. I am interested in learning more!

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      2. You know Genevieve, I don’t think everyone needs to be a beekeeper even if they have the space, but we can all take stock in their plight and make small changes to better support them, like avoiding pesticides and planting bee friendly forage like you are doing. Your efforts go a long way! Thanks for supporting the bees the way you do!

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  1. I treat. Like you I’d rather not. We have had a huge drive for beekeepers over recent years, many practice a ‘ leave them at the bottom of the garden and hope’ style of keeping. That can cause problems for other hives both kept and wild in the area. I had deformed wing virus many years ago and watching my otherwise healthy bees falling out of the hive and wandering frantically around the ground was heartbreaking. Luckily we don’t yet have small hive beetle but I guess it will come, and I’ll manage that as well. It’s all of our responsibility to work together on these pests!

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    1. I agree with you. And I’d say for us both, these views come from years of experience, seeing colonies suffer from viruses or suddenly collapse. Not treating our hives leads to Varroa mite infestations that don’t just affect that one hive but neighboring hives and those with bees that forage in the same areas as mites hitch rides onto honey bees even when they forage. I’ve been struggling with some of this from area beekeepers that justify their lack of stewardship with a goal of “working towards survivor stock.” That’s just not feasible with a few hives and part time efforts to maintain them. This is irresponsible beekeeping not suitable for hobbyists that don’t have lots of hives and extensive understanding of bee biology to actually groom survivor stock, leading to more problems. Thanks for the comment!

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