This time of year is one of the most enjoyable times of beekeeping. Colonies are hopefully strong and productive. If you’re a newbee, you’ve figured out drone versus worker brood, what capped honey looks like, and how to keep the smoker going more than five minutes (salute!) You love your bees; they’re loving you back. You can just coast into fall, right?
Dr. Marla Spivak, recipient of a Genius Grant for her work with honeybees (among other impressive credentials) summarizes it well: “Left untreated, varroa mites kill most bee colonies within one to two years.”
All colonies have varroa mites; some (very few) have the genetic traits to keep them under control. Unless you are monitoring your bees to determine their level of infestation … and treating if it exceeds threshold, the little winged darlings are going to die a painful death. Lots of people have bees … but really keeping bees requires active and appropriate management, including knowing your mite level, and keeping it under control.
Beyond being able to call yourself a true beekeeper (instead of being a bee-haver), you probably got bees because you wanted to help them and the planet. You’ve put a lot of time, money and sweat into your bees and are emotionally invested in them. Don’t let them down now.
So let’s try and keep them from dying. Here’s what you do:
- Now – August — test your infestation level with a powdered sugar roll. It’s simple, takes about five minutes, and it is almost sort of fun (for you, not necessarily the bees, but it isn’t destructive to them.) I can’t get the video to upload on this site, but you can find it on my site, sorry! Detailed instructions are found in the HBHC Guide_Varroa_Interactive_23Sep, page 7.
- As described in the guide, determine the level, and see if it is OK for August (what’s acceptable varies by time of year; colonies in SW Michigan are generally at population peak in early August.) Page 8 of the guide tells you what is acceptable when.
- React to the number of mites appropriately:
- If the test revealed more than 15 mites, you’ve got “dead hive walking” unless you do something immediately. Review the guide to determine the best option for you … and treat. And then check again after the prescribed amount of time to ensure treating did what it was supposed to do.
- More than 6? You’ve got a week or so before you need to test again to see if your beloved insects are definitely in danger or not. Schedule to test again in a week or so.
- Less than 6? Awesome. Kick back until September, when you’ll test again.
“Denial is not a strategy”
When you were first learning about beekeeping, you might have missed the part about varroa monitoring and having a strategy for how you’re going to deal with this devastating parasite that all colonies have. The beekeeping learning curve is broad and steep, and includes understanding the very real varroa threat and strategizing what you’re going to do about them.
If you’ve read this far, you can’t claim ignorance any longer. As Dr. Meghan Milbrath said, “denial is not a strategy.” ALL colonies have mites; the issue is whether your bees can keep them under control or not, and unfortunately – most cannot as we go into fall. There’s an excellent blog here that explains why.
Assuming your bees are fine also doesn’t help the planet (one of the reasons you wanted bees, right?) Uncontrolled varroa in your hive not only dooms them, but as your colony declines from the undeniable, life-shortening impact of varroa, it can no longer defend itself. Strong colonies in the area, with varroa under control, will raid its stores. Mites are smart. They’ll hop on the back of the raiding bees and leave the sinking ship for more the healthy bee colonies of responsible beekeepers and wild colonies, starting them on a parallel march toward death.
But but but …
I know you wanted to keep bees chemical free. Most of us do … but first you have to keep them alive. And, “left untreated, varroa mites kill most bee colonies …”
Just do it
Monitor. Treat if need bee, and then monitor again to make sure it worked.
And then monitor again in September, and maybe even October depending upon your counts.
Meanwhile, study natural ways to help bees combat mites, like splits and drone trapping.
We desperately need bees …. And beekeepers.
Want further motivation? Think about your spouse. Your Honey is perhaps already a little miffed about how the time and money your honeybee hobby has consumed. (And if you’re like most beekeepers, well, we’ve kept Honey in the dark about some of the costs.) It won’t be that fun explaining to Honey that you need to drop another $125 next spring to replace dead bees.