The Number 1 Struggle for Beekeepers [Varroa Mites]

Here we discuss the most devastating issue bees and beekeepers face – the dreaded varroa mite. It's all about the mites and the diseases they carry.

The Nasty Varroa Mite

The bees are the collateral damage in this war between us and the bee parasite – varroa mites.

Populations expand quickly in the spring.  Making more bees so they can split their colonies in two and swarm is how they reproduce. With all that brood production though comes an unwanted side effect, mite reproduction as well.

So, if your bee colonies are productive and you’ve experienced either swarms, or large honey production, you can assume that there were large numbers of bees produced to do all that work.

Here's a YouTube video I made about this very topic....

How do the mites take over?

Every foundress mite that enters a cell comes out as 6-8 new mites to reinfest your bees. The numbers are overwhelming and almost insurmountable it seems, but there’s a way to get ahead of them. The big trick is to not get behind! That requires vigilance in monitoring and knocking down their numbers, or at least keeping them at a level whereby most of the bees aren’t infected with viruses or stripped of their fat body reserves. The most vulnerable time for the colony is in the fall when “drift” from collapsing colonies reinfests what you think was a mite free unit.

When is all this happening?

The new news is that the viruses have been found to be transmitted both vertically and horizontally!! The fact that the workers feed the queen and can transmit viruses through feeding is an enormous issue. Vertical transmission is when the viruses are transmitted up the chain from generation to generation. So, the queen can transmit viruses in the eggs she lays if she’s infected, but now it also means that the workers can transmit viruses up to her level by feeding her infected food.

Horizontal transmission means that the viruses can be passed from worker to worker, or worker to drone and back again through cannibalization, which is a game changer. Makes one wonder if it’s possible to eliminate viruses from the bees at all??? ….and, of course, it’s not, we live with viruses in our bodies almost all the time at various levels. Most of the time all those pathogens swirling in the air have no effect at all. The reason is the Mighty Immune System.

What’s the best way forward??

Well, that’s a good question. Since for the most part we haven’t figured out how to control the mites very well, and we certainly can’t control the viruses they’re carrying– what’s left?

The amazing immune system. THAT’S the key to the issue of honeybee health and I think most often ignored. We put them in boxes not natural to their original habitat, we inspect them and stress them by breaking their homes open and flipping their rooms around, and we treat them with vaporized acids and chemicals that reside in their brood rearing chambers for long periods. All that said, this is livestock agriculture, and we have no options sometimes to cause a little discomfort to cure disease. But a little stress reduction goes a long way to improving bee health.

How do I monitor for mites?

Why is the Alcohol Wash an Important Test? Useful metrics is what you get with an alcohol wash. The sugar rolls are notoriously inaccurate and with so much at stake – why risk it. It’s about being able to make decisions about how to treat, when to treat, and if treatment is working.

During the honey harvest season when the colonies have 3 or 4 supers on it’s even more time consuming. One helpful tip is to use the oxalic acid vaporization treatment with a screened bottom board to count varroa mite drop and assess your infestation level.

About mid-summer, we see the last of the swarms and most of those are the big colonies, so those who probably have the highest mite counts. A good strategy is, if you’re going into the big colonies down to the brood box to check for queen status and brood assessments at the end of swarm season, well why not just take a sample while you’re in there after you find the queen?

During the heavy brood rearing periods you’ll see mites in the drone brood between the boxes and that’s when I start to fuss with testing. I do surveillance monitoring sampling due to my numbers in yards with at least 15-20 units (2-3 large unit samples each). Picking the largest two in each yard gives me the worst-case scenario for what I’m facing without breaking me in labor costs. The alcohol wash gives you very specific metrics over other methodologies, which is what you need when they're getting out of control.

Who’s the Biggest Bad Guy - Mites or Viruses

Well, that’s really a good question, but since we can’t control either effectively, it doesn’t really matter, does it? A few things we know for sure from research that’s been done are that without the varroa mite creating the damage and literally sucking the life out of the bees, they would handle the viruses with a proportional amount of loss.

The mite is creating stress, and a lot of it. Without that stress and fat body damage the bees’ immune system would be able to fight the lower viral load and recover. Also, we know that some viruses are directly correlated to the level of infestation of the varroa mite. Which means the more mites, the more virus. The big picture is no matter which problem, the mite or the virus, the outcome is the same, dead colonies.

What to do when you know you must?

There’s a ton of treatment information out there by some of the finest research institutions in the country. Know the basics. Formic Acid is about the only tool we can use during honey season. Not only is it much more expensive than oxalic acid, but we also can’t use it due to the honey on board (at least not just yet – OAV with honey supers on is coming, the label change just hasn’t happened so we must wait). 

So, if you must treat make sure it’s warranted. Formic is also very hard on larvae, so it’s better to treat earlier if going with the harsher treatment so that winter bee larvae aren’t affected. It’s also hard on the most fragile units – the ones with new or relatively new queens, especially the double pad protocol. You don’t want to interrupt the pheromone profiling going on during the acceptance/proofing stage of the queen in the colony, so it’s judicious to use another softer treatment for those types of units (a thymol-based treatment).

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That’s what we do here at The Road to Better Beekeeping. We guide you through those pitfalls every month of the beekeeping season so although you may toddle along the edge of some of the struggles (which is always a good learning experience), you don’t fall completely down into the pit of despair and irretrievable darkness!!

To get more information about our focus on Mites and Diseases hopefully we’ll see you on the inside.

For more basic information go to our 10 interesting things you probably didn't know about bees.....
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