I’ve been keeping bees for a little over 3 years now, and every winter I’ve lost my colonies to varroa mites. These little pests are so insidious their official name is varroa destructor and that’s exactly what they do. Some bee scientists theorize that most reported cases of colony collapse disorder are actually cases of colonies overwhelmed by varroa mites. They’re a relatively recent immigrant to the US, having been introduced in the 80’s, and ever since beekeepers and bee scientiests have been struggling to find ways to eradicate them. It’s absolutely crazy that all the current media frenzy about colony collapse disorder and bee extinction almost never mentions varroa, even though any beekeeper will tell you it’s THE most pressing and concerning issue in beekeeping right now.
I’ve been trying to manage my bees without chemicals since the start. There’s a few integrated pest management techniques for varroa, the most common of which is dusting the bees with powdered sugar, and using screened bottom boards and sticky traps. The sugar makes the bees slippery, and it makes them clean themselves, so the mites get knocked off and fall through the screened board to the sticky traps. So I dusted, and I used the screened bottom boards and sticky traps, and I watched my hives crash from the heavy mite loads every winter. This winter I wised up and put in the chemicals. Those chemicals are actually pesticides, engineered to target the mites and not the bees as much as possible. I started with Apistan, but on the advice of a local beekeeper switched to Apivar, a newer pesticide that the mites haven’t become resistant to yet.
Before I put in the Apivar, I was watching my hives collapse again. Every morning I woke up to piles of dead bees at the hive entrances. My mite tests were showing an infestation at 6 times the level at which the Big Ag beekeepers recommend you start chemical treatment. My bees were clearly dying. Again. And now, as we go into January, they’re thriving. I’ve never seen such healthy hives this time of year. Granted, the weather has been amazingly warm, so the rest of winter could still be a struggle. For now, I’m celebrating getting this far.
Capped honey in January is a glorious sight, even though I know that it’s mostly the sugar syrup I’ve been feeding them (in drought conditions, flowers don’t produce the nectar bees need to make honey).
Still raising brood, in perfect concentric pattern, and there’s still enough bees to keep the brood at the required 95 degrees all through the night. The queen is in this photo, top right, marked with a red dot.
I wised up to a proper feeding regimen too, now working in gallons rather than cups. They get the sugar syrup out of the bag through two slits I made on top with a razor. The crumbly stuff on the right is a pollen patty from a couple weeks ago that they’re still working on. The white plastic things are the Apivar strips.
There are some beekeepers who say that bees can take care of themselves just fine in the wild, so we shouldn’t do anything to them when we keep them in our backyards. To that I say we already did something to them by sticking them in a box in our backyards and making their well-being our responsibility, not to mention occasionally taking all their food. It’s an unnatural way for this non-native species to live, so they’re going to need a little help. And besides, varroa is wiping out wild populations too, so the argument that wild bees take care of themselves just fine is a bit of a straw man.
There are other beekeepers who promote capturing the supposedly tougher, more varroa-resistant wild swarms and sticking those in our backyard boxes. Tougher, sure, and they’re also likely Africanized. I like to enjoy a cup of coffee in my backyard without being stung to death, and I’m pretty sure I’d get in trouble with the neighbors if my tough bees killed their dogs. We don’t even have to go that far. Even if the wild swarm is not blood-thirsty, they are more likely to sting, and very unpleasant to tend, especially in a suburban situation. I’ve tended Africanized colonies on rural land and their response to my opening the hive was terrifying even in my full bee suit with my smoker going full blast. I’ve heard the same story over and over about amateur beekeepers being chased into their houses by their wild-caught swarms. They started out so docile for the first few days, they always say, and some old grizzled beekeeper patiently explains to them that all bees act like this when they’re first re-homed. I think the jury is out on whether wild bees are mite resistant, but I don’t think they have any place in anyone’s backyard or bee yard.
My sweet little Italian and Carniolan bees couldn’t care less about having humans or pets around, they’ve never chased me anywhere, and when I open up their hives to tend them they hardly even buzz me. In the last 3 years I’ve been stung just 2 times by my bees even though I open their hives weekly. I think they’re breeds worth saving, and pesticides are going to help us do it.