Bottom Board: Marla & Mites

by Ed Colby

I did some dumb things when I was a kid, so I didn’t mind helping out a young man who could have wound up in a whole lot of trouble.

Driving down from Garfield Creek with a load of honey supers and thinking life was just peachy, I came onto a Toyota Tundra pickup on its side on the pavement, nearly blocking the whole road.

The driver was out of the cab. He might have been 20. “Holy guacamole!” I exclaimed. “How’d you do that?”

“I guess I was hot-roddin’ it a little,” he confessed, “I’d like to get back on my wheels. You don’t got a chain, do you?”

“Something better,” I said.  “I’ve got a big ol’ rope and a 460 under my hood. This’ll be easy.”

It was late Friday afternoon, but the kid didn’t reek of beer. I do suppose he’d had a few.
The rope was a ski patrol rescue relic, 100 feet at least. I doubled it and threw a bowline around the truck’s frame on the high end.

“Is that a square knot?” the kid asked.

I didn’t want to pull too hard. I didn’t know what was going to happen. When the rope went taut, the Toyota teetered, then slammed and bounced on the pavement, right side up! By the time I got out to untie the rope, the kid already had his truck started.  “Nice thing about a bowline,” I said, “You can untie the damned thing after you put a load on it. I saved you a ticket, you know.”

“I owe you big time,” he said.

I didn’t think so. “Not me, but maybe somebody else,” I said.

“Oh, I get it,” he said.

Speaking of doing favors for strangers, our own MacArthur Fellow and patron saint of beekeeping Marla Spivak says you extend a kindness to your entire beekeeping community when you control your Varroa mites. Marla hit on this at the Western Apicultural Society meeting this fall in Boulder, Colorado. Especially with the proliferation of backyard beekeepers, too many Varroa-plagued hives go untreated, she opined, and the mite problem has gotten way out of hand.

Marla argued for honey bee “herd immunity” from Varroa, much like the immunity conferred onto a human population when a majority of its members get vaccinated. If most of the people in your home town get vaccinated for say, smallpox, and then suddenly someone comes down with it, the disease is unlikely to unleash a pandemic.

Your hives can be a pit stop on the Varroa transmission highway, or they can be the dead end that saves the bees that live down the road. So gentle reader, maybe it’s not just about you and your little darlings. Maybe it’s about the rest of us, too.

Marla speaks softly and carefully, never jumping to conclusions. Throughout her distinguished research and university teaching career, she has always promoted bees and beekeeping, ever eschewing easy answers and radical bee ideology. She tirelessly seeks the middle way. We should probably send her to Congress.

Her talk also covered the importance of an ample, rich floral diet for honey bees and native pollinators. Bees that eat lots of pollen produce an abundance of vitellogenin, a blood protein that allows the glands in the heads of young adult bees to secrete good brood food for larvae. Among other benefits, a healthy diet makes it possible for honey bees to detoxify moderate quantities of pesticides, and brood food can be largely free from contaminants. Marla makes this all sound miraculous and wonderful, which of course it is. 
She approves of the movement to ban neonicitinoid pesticide production and use, because it forces discussion and research on this important issue. Native bees are more profoundly affected by the neonics than honey bees, she notes, because their larvae’s detoxification genes are not well developed, and they eat the pollen directly, rather than via nurse bees. But her goal is the judicious use of pesticides, not necessarily their outright ban. “We need to have our pollinators and some of our pesticides,” she concludes.

She reported on a study tracking a commercial beekeeper’s bees over three years, from North Dakota to California. The bees with the best forage had the least Winter kill. Remarkably, these bees also showed the greatest exposure to pesticides.

The next morning our Boulder hosts Beth and Dave asked if we might do a mite test on her bees. We stood in her bee yard in the rain, shaking powdered sugar-coated Varroa out of a quart mason jar, like coarse pepper onto fried eggs. We didn’t even shake very hard and counted 40 mites in a 300-bee sample. I said, “I guess we’ve seen enough!” We went ahead and treated her three colonies with Apivar, a time-release Amitraz strip.

Beth asked my opinion about hive wrapping for winter insulation. I said, “Look, your bees aren’t going to freeze to death. Don’t sweat the petty stuff. But do treat your mites. Now that’s important.”

Her beekeeper neighbors should thank her.