I’ve been kind of sparse about posting to the blog lately, but I felt that my most recent mite treatment and its result warranted a post. We had a great speaker, Dr. Evan Sugden, come and speak to our club last week about varroa mites, their life cycle, and how we need to deal with them. He was pretty clear in his opinion that you are being a negligent beekeeper if you are doing nothing to control the mites in your hives or to assess what your mite levels are.
We at the club run into many new beekeepers with the attitude that they are going to be treatment free beekeepers and are going to raise “survivor stock” bees. They say and do this for a number of reasons, but most commonly it is because they are opposed to any chemical treatment of their hives. While I don’t subscribe to the opinion that all chemical treatments are bad, I understand this sentiment. My problem comes from the realization that most of these people having no idea what it means to be actively breeding for survivor stock. If a beekeeper is not monitoring mites, assessing how each hive is doing with the mites, using the best hives to constantly requeen the poorer performing hives, and planning to do so over many years, they aren’t raising survivor stock. All they are doing is killing their bees and being lazy beekeepers. In addition, while a beekeeper may not believe in using chemicals to treat the mites in their colony, there are a number of other things that can be done to control mites. Things like drone comb trapping, brood breaks, and even powdered sugar shakes can all help reduce mite loads in their colonies, but they typically involve more work and active management.
Now, the reason I am posting this blog today is that I got really busy this summer and was very slow pulling my honey supers off the hives, and as a result I was much slower to begin treating for mites they I ideally would have been (I don’t like to treat with honey supers on even though some materials allow this). Since pulling the honey supers I began treating with my oxalic acid vaporizer, with two days ago being my third oxalic treatment spaced with each treatment 3 days apart. In the first two treatments I had actually pulled out the slide-in panels from my screened bottom boards an hour after treating because I was concerned about hight temperatures, but with the latest treatment I decided to leave them in for a few days to get a more accurate assessment of my mite drops post-treatment. What I found today when I pulled those bottom boards was shocking. My hives have all seemed really strong, and they are booming with lots of new brood and tons of bees. My biggest concern before I pulled those slide-in panels had been how were all the bees going to fit in the hives with the honey supers gone. Here is a picture of one of the worst mite drops on a slide-in panel along with a close up of one area of the panel:
Some of those spots on the panel are pollen and tree sap, but a very large number of them are mites. I would estimate that on the worst hives I was seeing on the order of 500-700 mites dead on the slide-in panel, and that is after two previous treatments with oxalic vapor. What this tells me is that A) I was really close to being a negligent beekeeper likely to kill all of his supposedly strong colonies as their bee populations declined for winter while the mite populations continued to grow B) as I suspected, I should have treated for my mites much earlier in the season, probably by pulling my honey supers 2-3 weeks earlier and then immediately treating C) I should plan on treating my hives at least two more times with oxalic vapor and monitor my mite drops to see whether they have significantly dropped from these extremely high numbers.
I want to point out that I carefully inspected all of my hives back about 8 days ago to check on queens and see which hives had swarmed and requeened themselves while I wasn’t paying attention and to see the status of brood rearing, honey stores, and bee bread stores. During those checks I saw NO evidence at all of twisted wing virus or paralysis virus or even any bees with noticeable deformations due to mites being in their cells as they were developing. I did see piggy-back riding mites in maybe 3 of my 12 hives, but that was about it, and all of the hives seemed relatively healthy. The mite drops I looked at today tell a very different story. If I don’t get the mites under control very quickly I am going to be bringing my bees into winter with weak and diseased winter bees. I may not see them collapse in the early part of winter, but I would very likely see them crash in late winter or early spring. Ironically, the hives that would be most likely to do this would be those hives that I thought were boomer hives going into winter. That is because those hives would have been raising the most brood and thus providing the greater number of closed cells for the mites to multiply in.
I’m writing this blog post because I really hate seeing our new beekeepers get crushed by losing their hives in their first winter, and it will be especially painful for these people because, with the poor honey year that most of us have had, it is unlikely that they got any honey at all from their hives this year if they were establishing new hives from packages. If they lose their hives over the winter then they will have spent lots of money and time and won’t have gotten anything out of it except demoralized. As a club we try to help our less experienced members and sometimes that means we need to admit our own mistakes in order that they may learn from them without experiencing the painful failure themselves. Sadly, I feel like I let this bee year get away from me at one of the most important times of the year and as a result I got less honey than I should have (because I pulled honey late and had brood nests move up into what three weeks earlier would have been harvestable honey), and I probably almost lost many of my hives to mites and the viral diseases that they spread. I may still lose some or even many of my hives if I can’t get these mite loads under control soon!
I implore you all to make an effort to find out what your mites loads currently are by sugar shake, or ether roll, or alcohol roll, or even by the less accurate method of monitoring mite drop on your screened bottom boards. Then, use this information to figure out whether the mite control you have been doing is working sufficiently. If it isn’t you need to do something about it. If you don’t and your bees die over the winter or in early spring it’s your fault. Hold no illusion – a dead hive of bees has nothing to do with rising “survivor stock”. It’s just a dead hive of bees that were killed by poor beekeeping. With no survivors and no careful selection and propagation of good queens there is simply no raising of varroa resistant bees going on in your apiary, regardless of what you may tell yourself or others. I’m not saying that raising varroa resistant bees isn’t possible. It’s just far beyond what your typical hobbiest or even side-line beekeeper can invest in terms of the size of apiary, amount of time and effort, and number of successive years of selection necessary for functionally significant changes in genetics.
If you aren’t going to monitor your mite levels, then at this time of year you need to assume that they are very high and treat your bees with something that will bring the mite levels down. You need to carefully read the instructions for the products that you intend to use, and you need to understand which products require only one treatment and which require successive treatments with specific numbers of days between those treatments.
Good luck, and may your bees be with you next Spring!