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The Fight Against The Destructive Varroa Mite

Editor's Note: The Valley Hive would like to commend Madison on a job well done. The varroa mite is a very difficult subject to write about. Madison took a very complex topic and created an informative, easy to read article, that will surely benefit any beekeeper who take the time to read it.

By Madison Newman

Varrowhat?varroa mite

I am about to type two words that may induce a hysterical episode for many of you: varroa mites. Take a few moments to collect yourself, because I understand that these worrisome external parasites can produce a number of responses among beekeepers. Terror, shock, confusion, and annoyance seem to be a fairly common reaction throughout the beekeeping community. For newbees and experienced beekeepers alike, the varroa mite is no laughing matter. Varroa Destructor originated from Asia (thanks a lot Asia), and managed to make its way to all parts of the world with the exception of certain Hawaiian islands, and Australia. Unfortunately, I have no desire to live in Australia, and I am not financially stable enough to reside in Hawaii. So I guess I will just have to grit my teeth, and deal with varroa mites like the rest of you. I would like all of you to bear with me here, and place your fist on your arm. This is roughly the size relation between a varroa mite, and a honeybee. Sort of unsettling, isn’t it? I know I would not be pleased with a menace that large attached to me. These nasty buggers are quite visible when latched onto honeybees, and resemble ticks (another well-loved parasite). To fully grasp why varroa mites are so detrimental to the safety of a hive allow me to describe the numerous problems they pose.

The Monstrous Varroa Mite

 There is a reason the varroa mite is also known as the varroa destructor. Although these pests may be small in size, researchers are pointing to the varroa mite as a huge contributing factor to colony collapse disorder. All hives struggle with varroa mites, unless they are located in the spots listed above. The varroa mites are little vampires that gorge themselves upon the blood of our poor honeybees. They insert themselves into drone cells and worker cells in order to feed upon the larvae and reproduce. Some beekeepers suggest that varroa mites typically prefer the drone cells over the worker cells as they are larger, and the varroa mites have more time within the cells since drones do not emerge for twenty four days as opposed to twenty one days for worker bees. The varroa mite population can expand rapidly which leaves you with a much weaker colony. The varroa mite can pass on about twenty six transmittable viruses to honey bees, including Deformed Wing Virus, Black Queen Cell Virus, Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, and Kashmir Bee Virus. Some of these viruses are more easily identified than others, and will likely require an entire post dedicated to explaining them. My point here is to convey to you the seriousness involved with varroa mites as these diseases can wipe out your hives. Before we cover management techniques I will go over some of the symptoms that indicate a varroa mite infestation.

Varroa Mite Indicators

entnemdept.ufl_.edu_.jpg mite on bee entnemdept.ufl_.edu_.jpg
mite on bee

Earlier in this post I described the varroa mite’s appearance as similar to that of a tick. Varroa mites are very distinguishable on the white glistening body of larvae. However, once you see worker bees with varroa mites this is an indication of a large varroa mite infestation. The bees do their best to clean one another, and often they will knock off varroa mites in the process. So when yo begin to observe varroa mites attached to adult bees it means that the varroa mite population has gotten out of hand, and the bees are unable to keep up. When I listed some of the diseases your bees can face when plagued by varroa mites, I mentioned Deformed Wing Virus. Keep your eyes peeled for bees with twisted, distorted, wrinkled, gnawed wings as this is usually a symptom of a high varroa mite population. These bees do not really live long, but can help you to realize that you may have a problem within your hive. Now you are thinking, “C’mon Madison! On top of ensuring I have one to three day old larvae, capped brood, nectar, pollen, honey, and a steady bee population, you now want me to look out for varroa mites!?” Yes, because it is crucial to catch the mite population early so that you have a strong healthy hive going into the Fall and Winter months when the population dwindles. Before you take any steps to treat your hive it is important that you test your hive to have an estimate as to how severe your varroa mite problem is.

Powdered Sugar Roll Test and Screened Bottom Boards

scientificbeekeeping.com sugar roll test scientificbeekeeping.com
sugar roll test

To check for varroa mites, beekeepers can either use the powdered sugar roll test, or a screened bottom board. If you attended our Beekeeping 101 courses you probably witnessed our beekeeper Keith covering some bees in powdered sugar, and lightly shaking them. No he was not making a snack for later, he was actually demonstrating the powdered sugar roll test. Click here for a video of Keith performing the powdered sugar roll test. For this test we recommend you have on hand: two wide mouth quart sized mason jars, ⅛-inch hardware cloth screen to cover one jar, ¼-cup of powdered sugar, 8 fl. oz. of water, and of course your handy dandy bee brush, smoker, and hive tool. First take a frame of bees out of your hive, and lightly brush about ½ to a cup of bees into one of the jars. Of course make sure to exclude the queen from this jar. Then pour about two tablespoons of powdered sugar into that jar of bees. Place the hardware cloth inside the outer ring, and screw it onto the jar. Lightly roll the jar, with the bees in it, around. Next, wait ten minutes! This will provide the bees with time to clean each other, and knock off any varroa mites. I recommend in these ten minutes that you read my previous article on Robbing. Okay! Now that ten minutes have passed, and you have finished my amazing Robbing article, you can shake the contents of that hardware cloth covered jar into the other empty jar. Add the water into the jar that now contains the powdered sugar, and swish it around. Hold up your jar, and count the varroa mites. If you see less than six you are alright, but if you count more than six then you will need to treat your hive. We at the Valley Hive prefer this method over the alcohol wash since no bees are harmed! They simply come out as little sugar ghost bees, and hey who doesn’t like being covered in powdered sugar? Remember that you have to test once again after you have treated to see if your treatment was effective. Some beekeepers prefer to use a screened bottom board (you can purchase one at The Valley Hive) instead of a solid bottom board.  Since bees are clean freaks they are constantly cleaning each other, and in the process knocking off varroa mites. The varroa mites can fall through the screened bottom board, and onto a sticky board where you can check the count. Another benefit of the screened bottom board is it will give your hive some extra ventilation. Once you have an estimate as to how high the mite population is, you can start thinking of some steps to alleviate your mite problem. There are various varroa mite treatments you can try within your hive such as: Apivar, Mite Away Quick Strips, and Apiguard. Some beekeepers will opt for natural treatment techniques such as drone comb, powdered sugar, and foundationless frames which I will cover as well. I just bombarded you with a jumble of technical treatment names, but do not fret I will explain.

Apivar

Apivar Apivar

The active ingredient in Apivar is amitraz. Amitraz causes excitation within mites, and eventually a state of paralysis. This paralysis not only leads to the mites falling off the backs of bees, but it also causes them to starve. Do not use Apivar when you have honey supers on! It is suggested that you use Apivar before the nectar flow in the Spring, and after you have harvested your honey in mid to late Summer. The purpose of the crucial Summer treatment is to ensure you have a strong colony by the time Winter rears its head.  The Spring treatment is to maximize your honey yield, and to prevent colony collapse in the lead up to your Summer treatment. Apivar strips work when bees come into contact with the strips since this is where the amitraz is released. Once these bees come in contact with the strips they will go about their day normally, going throughout the hive, and coming into contact with other bees thus spreading the amitraz. After a short period of time the amitraz disappears from the hive. The recommended dosage for Apivar is two strips, and you want to place your strips in your brood chamber which is the area of high activity. You can insert one strip per five frames of bees with a separation of two frames between the strips. It is recommended that you leave the strips in for forty two days, or a maximum of fifty six days in the case of a heavy infestation. Once the treatment has ended it is important to remove your Apivar strips, because at that point the strips release a very low amount of amitraz which can aid the varroa mites in building up a resistance.

Apiguard

Apiguard Apiguard

The active ingredient in Apiguard is thymol. Apiguard comes in the form of trays, with usually two trays recommended to treat a standard colony. You peel back the lid of the tray, providing the bees with enough space to climb in, and then place it on top of the brood chamber with the gel side up. After two weeks you can remove the previous tray, and add a new one. Then, after another two to four weeks, you can finally remove the last tray. Similar to Apivar, Apiguard is also spread throughout the colony from bee to bee. Also Apiguard, just like Apivar, should not be used when honey supers are present in order to avoid tainting the honey.  As if it wasn’t already difficult enough to distinguish them, because of their “Api” beginnings. Apiguard emits a vapor that the bees can smell which leads them to the trays. The bees climb into the trays to remove the gel, because they are our wonderful little neat freaks. Due to their obsessive cleanliness the gel gets all over the branched hairs of the bees, and they will scatter Apiguard particles throughout the hive. It is best to use Apiguard during warmer periods between sixty to one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit, because the thymol vapors are released more efficiently. Also be mindful of ventilation within your hive as the thymol vapor requires space to escape. So take off entrance reducers, or consider a screened bottom board when treating with Apiguard. You may notice more bees bearding outside the hive, because they dislike the smell of the vapors. There can be risks when using Apiguard. Some beekeepers have reported the bees growing more agitated when using Apiguard. For example bees may tear out pupae, queens can be superseded, or their laying patterns may be disrupted.

Mite Away Quick Strips

Mite Away Quick Strips Mite Away Quick Strips

The name of this treatment makes it sound as if it is so simple, and easy. But, make no mistake folks this is beekeeping, so nothing is ever simple and easy. However, Mite Away Quick Strips can actually be used when honey supers are present unlike Apiguard, and Apivar. The active ingredient in Mite Away Quick Strips is formic acid. These strips target male, and female varroa mites in capped brood and on adult bees. Since the strips are situated on top of the brood chamber, the formic acid molecules are tiny enough to pass through the thin wax layering of the brood. Inevitably adult bees will come into contact with the strips which affects the mites that are not located in the capped brood. Right now these strips probably sound like a fairly simple treatment, slap on the strips even with your super on, and badda bing badda boom it takes care of mites in brood, and mites on adults. But hold on there is a catch! Similar to Apiguard, Mite Away Quick Strips are temperature sensitive. If you choose to execute a full dose consisting of two strips then you must take into consideration the weather conditions for the next seven days. When using the strips the temperature range must stay within fifty to eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit, especially within the first three days. If temperatures exceed eighty-five degrees Fahrenheit, there could be excessive brood and queen loss. If you, like The Valley Hive, are situated in the San Fernando Valley, and dealing with temperatures well into the hundreds, make sure you are aware of what the temperature will be in your area at the time of treatment. Before opting for this treatment ensure that the weather is going to be within the limits, that you have at least six frames of bees or more, and that you have no entrance reducer present as maximum ventilation is also required for these strips.

Natural Treatments

Often you will hear people at The Valley Hive uttering the joke, “If you ask ten beekeepers a question you will find yourself with twelve different answers!” This is just to say that each beekeeper is unique in their style of beekeeping. Some beekeepers refuse to use plastic frames, some opt for foundationless frames, some beekeepers will use all medium boxes, or use double deeps even here in Southern California, and the list goes on. It appears that there is a large divide in the beekeeping community when it comes to varroa mite treatment. Above I have listed three separate chemical treatments that we carry at The Valley Hive. However, there are beekeepers who prefer nonchemical treatment options for their hive. These options include: drone comb, foundationless frames, and powdered sugar.

Drone Comb

Drone Frame Drone Frame

Drone comb are specialized bright neon green frames whose cell size is bigger to encourage an entire frame of drones. The reasoning behind this is due to the fact that varroa mites typically reside in drone cells because, of the longer gestation period of drones. Drones emerge in twenty four days which gives the varroa mites more time to develop, and reproduce. Actually mites will actually latch on to nurse bees awaiting the opportunity to insert themselves into the drone cells, whose pheromones they can smell. Placing a frame, or two, of drone comb within your brood chamber may help to contain a portion of the mite population. But, you must be extremely careful and timely when you remove the drone comb. It is crucial that you remove the drone comb before the emergence of the drone bees, because if you allow them to emerge you have increased your mite population. Before the drones emerge, remove the frames. You can either scrape them, or freeze them in order to kill the mites inside. Unfortunately, you will be sacrificing some drones within your hive to complete this treatment. Also it is not a proven method of treatment and is most effective when used in the Spring.

Foundationless Frames

Some natural beekeepers claim that foundationless frames are better at fending off varroa mites. By allowing the bees to build out their own cell size free from the guide of foundation, foundationless beekeepers state that this leads to a natural cell size not suitable for varroa mites. This cell size is in turn smaller, and varroa mites cannot easily fit inside.

Powdered Sugar

Earlier I discussed the powdered sugar roll test that is intended to aid you in assessing your mite problem. Some beekeepers will attempt to use this as a form of treatment for varroa mites. You can take a pound of pulverized and ground up white granulated sugar that is reduced to a fine powder (never use regular powdered sugar as this will cause the bees to have dysentery when used for an application greater than a mite test) and place the sugar into an empty bottle that has holes at the top such as baby powder container. Then open your hive, and lightly cover the bees with the sugar. Make sure not to completely douse your bees, as this technique only requires a light coating. Just as with the powdered sugar roll test, the bees will knock the varroa mites off while cleaning themselves. You should repeat this process once a week for about two to three weeks. Most beekeepers utilize a screened bottom board for this procedure.

Take Action

Whether or not you choose chemical treatments, natural treatments, or a middle path, you should always treat for varroa mites, and then test after the application to ensure efficacy.  If you allow the varroa mite population to go unchecked within your hives, then not only are you hurting your hives, but you will inevitably hurt other hives in the vicinity as well. The varroa mite population will escalate, and eventually begin to latch on to forager bees. These forager bees can then spread varroa mites to other hives, so please take action against these parasites. In the beginning, treating can be a confusing process, but over time you will grow more confident on how to curtail varroa mites. Keep in mind that the proverbial magic bullet treatment for varroa mites does not exist. Never use the same treatment back to back.  Experts recommend rotating treatments so the mites are not able to build resistance to the miticides currently available. Regardless of what treatments you intend to use, The Valley Hive is here to help! Treatments are available at our store in Chatsworth at 10538 Topanga Cyn Blvd. You can call us at 818-280-6500, email us at info@thevalleyhive.com, or stop by anytime to get answers to your varroa mite questions. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will do their best to help you with your fight against these nasty pests.

Many of the treatments discussed in this article are used by The Valley Hive. There are more treatment options available. Do your homework. BEE-informed, and choose the right treatment path that is best for you and your bees.

references:

Bessin, Ric. Varroa Mites Infesting Honey Bee Colonies. Apr. 2016, entomology.ca.uky.edu/ef608

Moore, Philip, et al. “Honey Bee Viruses, the Deadly Varroa Mite Associates.” EXtension, 29 Nov. 2016, articles.extension.org/pages/71172/honey-bee-viruses-the-deadly-varroa-mite-associates

“Apivar FAQ's.” Apivar, www.apivar.co.nz/FAQs.htm#FAQ 2

“Apigaurd - Frequently Asked Questions.” Mar. 2015, www.vita-europe.com/wp-content/uploads/VitaApiguardFAQ201607a.pdf

Oliver, Randy. “The Arsenal: ‘Natural’ Treatments – Part 2.” Scientific Beekeeping , scientificbeekeeping.com/ipm-7-the-arsenal-natural-treatments-part-2/

“Mite Away Quick Strips - Frequently Asked Questions.” NOD Apiary Products, nodglobal.com/faq-maqs/

“Treating Varroa Mites Organically.” Treating Varroa Mites Organically, 3 Feb. 2011, www.waldeneffect.org/blog/Treating_varroa_mites_organically/

 

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