Ahhh Mites! Treating For Varroa Destructor

Those blood sucking, drone thirsting, parasitic, bee vampire creatures.

See that red circle on the back of my bee? That is a blood sucking, bee vampire parasite called Varroa destructor.

See that reddish-purple circle on the back of my bee?  That’s a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor. It’s a nasty blood lusting, bee version of bedbugs and every hive in America is infested. These parasitic things suck the life out of developing and adult bees and even favor the taste of the boy bee’s (called drones) blood.  Look at the size of that monster, it’s almost as large as the bee’s eye?  Imagine a tick as large as your eye on you? Thinking about it gives me nightmares! Yuck!

Bees infected with mites is problematic. Since both bees and mites are insects using any kind of insecticide is dangerous to the bees. It becomes a balancing act with integrated management.  Some methods use mild pesticides when needed. Some people dust the bees with sugar every few weeks to make the little tick gremlins lose their balance, falling off the bees to the ground below. Some people are even trying to breed mite resistant bees with some success.

Drone inspection is a method used to monitor the hive’s mite count.  This is when the developing boy bees are all snuggled sleeping soundly in their happy cocoons, then BAM!  The beekeeper stabs them with a fork like tool, killing them instantly. This is done so he or she can inspect them for mites.  Some beekeepers bait the mites with special drone only comb, then remove and freeze the comb sending both drones and mites to an early death.

Whatever method is chosen to reduce the mite level, low Varroa levels are critical to a hive’s health.  The belief is when bees are afflicted with mites, that suck their blood, this causes a wound on the bee, opening up the door for other more deadly diseases, viruses and bacteria to invade the bees, and possibly kill the hive.  It’s too bad they don’t make bee bandages and antiseptic cream.  But, then again, can you imagine the hours spent attending to each and every bee?

This year I was undecided if should treat my bees for mites.  I did a mite count on the hive which involved utilizing the screen on the bottom board and placing a sticky board underneath it.  A sticky board is a plastic board with grid markings, that gets sprayed with Pam or rubbed with oil, to trap any debris that falls through the screen.  I left mine there for 3 days, removed it, and counted the number of mites that dropped off the bees and landed on the board.  My mite count was average at 49.  It was below the level which indicated I needed to treat.  But due to all the problems I had with this hive, I decided to do my best to get rid of the mites before the winter came.  I treated the bees using Apiguard gel, which is a natural substance called thymol derived from the thyme plant.  The Apiguard is a 4 week treatment.  It kills the mites but not the bees.  It is considered one of the more mild hive treatments.  Still, it should not be used with honey supers on the hive, due to its strong smell that may permeate the honey.  Apiguard should only be used in the brood boxes where the mites reside.

Apiguard works by stinking up the hive, which makes the bees upset, so they remove the thymol gel and take it outside the hive.  The act of removing the gel gets the worker bees covered in it and they inadvertently disperse it throughout the hive.  The thymol in the gel kills the mites.  The picture below shows the Apiguard treatment in the hive after about a week.  The bees have removed a large portion of the white gel.

Throughout the entire 4 week treatment I left the sticky board on the hive.  I wanted to determine how effective the Apiguard would be against the Varroa and see how many mites were actually on my bees.  To my surprise, when I removed the sticky board I found it was a significant amount and much more than I expected.  The photo below shows the screened bottom board removed with the sticky board inside it.  The mites fall through the holes in the screen and get stuck to the board.  If you look carefully you can see a live wasp on the bottom right hand corner.  She was hiding under here to forage for dead bee parts.


A closer inspection of the sticky board reveals the dead mites, which are red-brown circles in the picture below.

This is what the whole sticky board looked like with mites and debris (but mostly it is all mites).

I am glad I rid my bees of this infestation, at least temporarily, and I hope it helps them survive the long cold winter because they need all the help they can get.

Note: Although this treatment did knock down the mite count and the bees made it through winter, I no longer treat my bees for mites.  I treated one hive in my apiary only once in the fall of 2011.  I have never treated any other hive. Thymol can actually make the bees cuticle more permeable to other toxins.  I now believe what we really need is not treatments but mite resistant bees.  Treatments end up breeding stronger mites resistant to chemicals, instead of breeding better bees resistant to mites. Mite resistant bees do exist and you should get some in your Apiary if you really care about the long term survival of the honeybee.

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

  1. Cutting Comb Is A Sticky Gooey Mess
  2. I Want Candy! So Let’s Make A Candyboard For Winter Feeding
  3. Duct Tape, A Rock And A String Saved My Swarm – Part 2 of 3
  4. A Hive With Two Queens


Author: Anita Deeley

Anita Deeley is a biologist who maintains 30 honey bee hives. She is the beekeeper, writer, owner and creator of BeverlyBees.com. When she is not spending time with her girls (the bees), she enjoys being a wife to her beekeeping cohort, Brian and mother to 3 little boys (the beekeepers in training). Read more about Anita here >> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Connect with Anita on Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ or Facebook here.

9 Comments

  1. i already took 10 frames from my hive for the honey, theres still 1 super on the hive with partial honey which i left, do i take all supers off to treat with apigar?what about the a second honey flow?dont the bees need the room?
    pat

  2. Hi Pat,
    Did you do a mite count? I would do a mite count first before deciding to treat. If you don’t have a lot of mites, no treatment is needed. It may be different in your area but here it is suggested to treat colonies in the fall with Apiguard after you pull the honey and before it gets too cold (which is usually around October). You cannot have any honey supers on when using Apiguard because it will contaminate the honey. They are other mite treatments you can use with honey supers in place but I have not used them. Another thing you could try is a powdered sugar treatment which gets rid of 1/3 of the mites and won’t hurt the bees. Email me at beverlybees@gmail.com and I can send you an instruction sheet for that. You can also see a post on that here – http://www.beverlybees.com/mass-bee-field-day-2012/. Good luck with your bees!
    Anita

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  4. I agree with your footnote. We need stronger bees. By poisoning the mites, we are building stronger mites and weaker bees. We’ve GOT to let the bees adapt to the mites. You have to ask, how do the feral bees exist for years in the trees? They don’t have humans inspecting them every couple of weeks and throwing antibiotics, sugar, or replacing their survivor queens with some import. (Russian Hygenics seem to be the rage around here). Whenever I say (at the bee meeting) get swarms, instead of package bees) for your hives because they are acclimated, the more experienced Beekeepers recommend killing the swarm queen and replacing her with a new one, one with a known history, sometimes artificially enseminated. No wonder our bees are in trouble. My mentor is into maximum honey production. He scolds me for not using fumagellin to kill the nosema that weakens the bees so you don’t get as much honey. I say STOP THE BEE EXPLOITATION!!

    • I have seen that happen too where people kill and replace the swarm queens thinking they are inferior. I try to explain to them (when they will listen) why that is not a good idea. When you have the “right” type of bees, beekeeping is a whole different experience. It takes more effort and more research on the part of the beekeeper to get the right bees, so I think most people can’t be bothered. Package bees are a simple and easy way to get bees, although one of the hardest ways to start a new colony. If people buy package bees, I try to encourage them to requeen with mite resistant stock as soon as feasibly possible.

      The new research coming out on Nosema is getting conflicting results. With the rise of nosema ceranae over nosema apis, treating with fumagillin (for those who treat) may not be effective anymore. http://www.plospathogens.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.ppat.1003185

    • Pat, I couldn’t agree more. I run a host a hive program I
      In Eugene to create pesticide free neighborhoods. I promote early swarming in Spring and it must help clean the hive of varroa with no eggs being laid. Almost all of our hives come from swarms! The tree hives die where I live but new swarms move in so it appears they don’t die. Maybe some live?

  5. Thank-you for your reference to the fumagillin research published on PLOS. I have recently subscribed to their site but had not yet seen this article. I made the decision not to treat when I began keeping bees four years ago and find this research very reassuring. 

    • You’re welcome. Treatment recommendations are always in flux as treatments stop working or become less effective as pests become resistant to them. You said you don’t treat but for people who do it is really important that people who decide to treat make sure they have done before and after mite counts to make sure the treatments are working (for mite treatments), get bacterial diseases tested by a bee lab for antibiotic resistance and always follow the instructions on the treatments exactly (especially related to temperature). As well as stay up to date on the latest research.

  6. There is the (IMHO valid) argument to start a small colony with any leftover swarm queens and use simple natural selection to see which ones prosper.
    Also this helps the long term survival of the honey bee, as those queens might well be more resistant to parasites etc but are never given the chance to thrive.