Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to do some pretty awesome things in the name of doin’ my job here. I get to travel to distant lands, meet very cool people, speak to an incredible variety of groups and get asked my opinion, a lot. And when I need information, most times any door I knock on gets answered. Plus, every day I get to work with some of the keenest beekeeping writers and minds in the world that have consistently produced excellent material for our magazines and books to  share what they know and find. And I get paid to do all this no less.

But I’ll tell ya something, last week I got to be a part of something that I think was even better than almost all of this.

A large contingent of University and Government scientists are applying for a humungous grant to deal with honey bee health by looking very hard at Varroa and virus. And to their credit, rather than assume they know the problems and where to find the solutions and proceed without any interference from those of us in the world who actually have to keep honey bees alive on a day to day to day basis, they invited commercial beekeepers, University Research and Extension folks, USDA bee scientists, Apiary Inspectors, Apis m people, queen producers, chemical and other industry researchers, and me, to come together for a day to share what we know, and to find out what it is this industry actually needs to economically, efficiently and profitably keep bees alive, doing what they are supposed to be doing. And to their credit, a third of these folks actually keep bees for a living.

Dr. Reed Johnson, our Ohio State Honey Bee guy in Wooster spearheaded this whole thing by actually writing another grant to make it possible for all these folks to get together for the meeting that covered travel for some, hotel and the rest so they could be there. Those of us not involved in the actual grant along with those writing the grant spent a day talking and listening and learning what it takes to keep bees alive, how successful those attempts are, what are the problems, what are the off-label solutions if any, how much does it cost, how long does it take, and in the end, does it work. This was, to me, an incredible eye-opening experience. To listen to that many commercial beekeepers, running from a small few thousand colonies to many tens of thousands of colonies detail their operation’s Varroa control programs and quietly list how well it works, or doesn’t, was a once in a lifetime experience for me, and, I’m told, by many in that room. The next day the grantees took what they already knew and what they learned the previous day and put their collective heads together to get the most, best information together to ask the hardest and best questions possible. I’m impressed with just the fact that this happened, let alone what we were able to accomplish in a day. Here’s some highlights . . .

Quick reviews of Varroa life cycle, chemistry, mating and varieties (there are four, you know); Varroa genetics, resistance to chemicals, cooperation with viruses, susceptibility to honey bee behaviors relative to resistance to mites; the viruses – one of the other reasons this grant was being pursued – including a very long list of some of the viruses honey bees have, like Deformed wing virus A & B, Israeli acute, sacbrood, Varroa destructor A & B, acute bee paralysis, Kashmir bee virus, black queen cell virus, chronic bee paralysis virus and Lake Sinai virus. Get all that?

Then a quick discussion on action thresholds. When should you treat for Varroa? Well, that’s a moving target anymore. The old way was to gather a half cup of bees, from anywhere in the colony as long as you always gathered them from that part of the colony (honey super bees will have fewer phoretic mites, but will always have fewer so if you always check those bees, you need a lower threshold, but if you know that you’ll do OK). But, if you gather from the brood nest, give the collection tub a shake and the old bees will fly away, so you’ll have mostly younger bees and always do it that way. Once gathered, do an alcohol wash to measure how many/300 bees. That threshold was 3%, or 9 mites in a sample and you should do something (see below), but that has changed because unofficially, commercial guys, well some of them anyway, have found that to be too high and too late and are now going with 1% and treat. But that, too, depends…on the time of year. See below on that, too. And that seems to be working better, kind of, so far. 

Treatments . . .

  • Hard chemicals include Apistan, thymol, apivar (amitraz, tactic/mavrik), checkmite,
  • Or, soft chemicals like oxalic acid (seems to be working about as well as amitraz), hopguard, formic acid, and the essential oils, 
  • Or, prevention, which includes finding a pest free area to have a beeyard, powdered sugar and small cell, controlling swarming so you had isolation from colonies with mites, 
  • Or, avoidance which includes isolated bee yards, screen bottom boards, drone trapping, brood interruption and resistant bees. 

You’ll note where resistant bees are on this list. And every one of these folks tell me it’s not because resistant bees don’t work or they don’t want them, it’s because nobody is producing any in serious quantities. There’s no demand because nobody is producing them so nobody asks. 

Cost – rough estimates, but more better than  I’ve ever seen. These are on a per colony basis for materials only, labor extra.

Apivar – $5 – $6, Apistan – $4 – $6, Checkmite – $5 – $6, Apiguard – $4 – $5, Apilife – $4, Mite Away – $5 – $7, Oxalic – less than $1, Hopguard – $4 – $7. Can you imagine the labor costs to monitor, treat and re-moniter when you have thousands of colonies and hundreds of beeyards? Re-monitoring isn’t really an issue they tell me because they’ll be monitoring again in a month or so any way, and that’ll tell you how well the treatment worked, or didn’t.

But how many times do they monitor? On average for all these operations, eight to 12 times a year, with, depending on the year, four to eight treatments per year to keep the numbers of mites below that threshold, which does change over the season, running from zero to one in Spring, two to three early Summer, five in Summer and as many as six in Fall. Less brood in the fall means there will be more phoretic mites so you can expect more in later samples. 

But you can’t go by just this. After some significant research by commercial beekeepers, in the field with thousands of colonies, they are finding much different outcomes than researchers with a dozen colonies just outside the lab door. For wintered colonies in warmer areas there’s high brood, thus lots of mites, and they need monitoring every 10 days. And, depending on where they sit after Winter, some will need 10 treatments a year, some only one. It just depends on – association with nearby colonies, farm management in the area (pesticide exposure), available nutrition, where they came from with an initial mite load. By sampling only three to four colonies per yard good beekeepers can almost tell without sampling how the load will be by how close to other bees, and how many operations are nearby – one big, but well run operation is less of a problem than lots together and one or two who don’t take care of mites and mess up all the nearby bees. 

As far as treatments are concerned, they need products and delivery to control pests with limited risk to the bees, they need new ways to deliver current products, novel modes of action on the mites, better cooperation from EPA and USDA, more examination of orphan compounds, and closer looks at adjuvants and carriers and delivery techniques. Needed too are antiviral products (mushrooms were mentioned) and reformulation of existing compounds. Wanted, too, are a lot are extension specialists who can actually talk to commercial beekeepers and offer that scale of advice and knowledge. And one excellent suggestion – survey almond growers and find out which beekeepers are consistently good, and then find out why from the beekeeper. 

And problems. What were the problems that everybody in the room could list . . .In no particular order, except that all should be at the top of the list: drifting/immigration of mites from other locations and nearby crashing colonies, off label use of unregistered compounds,

lack of incentive for chemical companies to spend money on new compounds, sustainability/loss of efficiency, cost of material/cost of application labor, equipment contamination/collateral damage to bees, queen effects/non target issues, purity of honey, needed frequency of treatments/monitoring/labor, efficacy of existing treatments and resistance, new beekeepers, viruses, DWV/monitoring, the overall agricultural system’s use of pesticides, and the general overall negative philosophy of state level ag departments toward beekeeping. 

OK, that’s what we did that day. I know I didn’t get it all, and some of this may be a bit jumbled, but it was an eye opening day for me, and, I’m told, for many in that room. What does the commercial beekeeping industry need in terms of Varroa and virus control? Now you know. And so do those researchers applying for that multimillion dollar grant. Study hard friends. Ask the right questions, seek the right answers. 

Oh, and one more thing, before I forget. About my job. Every day I get to go to work with my wife, who’s my best friend. And you just know that’s the most awesome thing of all. 

All this brings to point the issues with Varroa, and not controlling Varroa. There is, as you well know, a fair number of beekeepers who espouse non-treatment, or natural beekeeping, offering nothing to the bees to deal with the mites. Chemical free, small cell, local, survivor, Varroa sensitive hygiene, Russian, ankle biters, hygienic – there are lots of names given to bees who either do deal with mites to some degree, or are left to their own devices and if they do deal with them, great – but if they don’t, then they weren’t meant to survive and good riddance. And any treatment at all is simply out of the question.

We all know the problem when they don’t survive and the good riddance signal is given. Those bees don’t simply all die, quietly, on the floor of the hive, without a whimper, without a whine, without so much as a good bye and good night. What they do is, swarm, abscond, leave. Taking mites and viruses with them. Research shows marked bees from collapsing hives in apiaries more than two miles from the original hive. Two miles! That collapsing hive infested nearly every hive within two miles with mites, with virus, with death, so not only do the bad die young, they all die young. And mites and bees and virus and death are spread around and around and around. Even quite hardy, nearly mite proof bees can’t withstand an onslaught from an untended, uncontrolled, natural hive. Letting these hives collapse and spread their deadly message is a criminal act. Pure and simple. 

But there is a right here. Selecting for bees that don’t die of mites and virus means getting those bees out of the system. It’s really the only way to make resistance/tolerance happen in the population. But it’s not the bees. It’s the genes. It’s the queens. It’s the queens. Let me say that again. It’s the queens. 

Got a collapsing hive, loaded with mites? TREAT THOSE BEES, AND REPLACE THAT QUEEN. And don’t replace her with a queen from the same place you got the queen from that’s in the hive that just collapsed. You know the saying about doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time – that’s just plain crazy. 

Don’t let the mites and virus spread from your natural hive. Save the bees, lose the queen and keep checking for mites and save the bees – and lose the queen. 

Happy New Year.