The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Beekeeping Basics

Varroa Intervention — on a “Natural Beekeeping” Ethic

- August 1, 2023 - Eleanor Schumacher - (excerpt)

Monitor your mite load, or you’re beekeeping blind

Forensic discussion is some of the most important bee talk we beekeepers share. No one should feel ashamed to talk about their hive losses. It’s part of the detective work we do. Telling our deadout stories at our bee clubs, and listening to other beekeepers’ opinions, helps us refine our management.

If only the bees would attend our club meetings. If only we could talk to them at all, in the Dr. Doolittle sense. “This is for YOUR benefit — don’t be upset with me!” or “I’m just feeding you! Calm down!” If bees would just listen, it could save us a lot of grief. “You’ve been queenless for five and a half weeks! Workers can’t lay fertilized eggs! Please stop balling this Saskatraz queen — you’ll like her!” If I gained the gift of being able to talk to my bees, I would most like to talk to them about their kleptomania. “Your robbing gets you into a lot more trouble than it’s worth! You come home covered head-to-toe with another hive’s mites, not to mention EFB, and who knows what. It’s not worth it!”

We have some particularly barbaric bees in my neck of the woods. I can’t talk to them at all. And these were the bees I started with. The beekeeper who gifted them to me took eight stings just getting the swarm in the box. These beginner bees instilled in me a fearful respect of the raw, angry power of feral honey bees dwelling in the bluffs that contour the Mississippi Bottoms. They keep me on guard during times of dearth when no flowers are blooming. Feral bees in the trees can rob a weak hive in no time, so it’s important to keep managed colonies strong and healthy.

Mite management is a big part of it. During the midsummer heat of the dearth, it takes some discipline to initiate a mite-monitoring inspection, but it’s crucial. So, with honor, I invite you to don your ventilated suit like a coat of chain armor. We’ll discuss late-summer reasons to inspect your honey-heavy hellions.

A lot of beekeepers take time off from the apiary in late summer. Hives stop gaining weight, and foragers carry water into the hive for air-conditioning procedures. If you ever wanted to “leave them alone” and “let bees be bees,” this is the obvious time. Bees can be fairly cranky after your honey harvest when the nectar flow has slowed to a trickle.

But this is the first of a few distinct opportunities to catch a mite issue getting started. By the end of August, a rising number of mites tuck themselves under six-day-old larvae, determining the fate of a colony’s overwintering. That late-August brood will hatch out in early-to-mid September — your first “winter bees,” the ones responsible for rearing brood in the dead of winter and responsible for hunting for the first flowers in the strong, cool winds of early spring. If those late-August babies fall prey to mite feasting, their weakness may spell their doom — even with emergency feeding measures.

Mite monitoring is more than a good deed — it’s a colony saver to schedule in your calendar minimally twice a year. Even if you have a larger operation, taking a representative sample to get an idea of your mite loads gives you a window into the prime time to treat for mites.

I recently worked with a beekeeper in the aforementioned Mississippi Bottoms bluffs, but in a more suburban area where the beastly local genetics have been watered down by the uptick of new beekeepers buying packages and queens from commercial suppliers. A seven-year beekeeper, Joe Baker has recently become a dedicated monitor of his varroa levels. His trials and triumphs are the perfect demonstration of why monitoring and managing mites is a necessity in high-density beekeeping areas like suburban landscapes. Beekeeping-dense suburbs have the potential to create a community of beekeepers who can cooperate on bee breeding programs, encourage each other to manage better, troubleshoot, and find solutions to problems.

But on the downside, in communities of dense beekeeping, genetic factors are hard to manage. One beekeeper might have purchased the fuzziest, most gentle non-resistant Cordovan queens you ever saw, while the beekeeper five blocks away just inherited his grandmother’s Midnite bees. If the Cordovans survive the winter, and Cordovan drones mate with a Midnite queen, perhaps you will end up with some very cute, fuzzy, tiger-striped mongrels that pack an unforgettable punch. But a worse and more easily recognized problem is that as spring packages of non-resistant stock go untreated in some apiaries, mites and the diseases they carry spread to hives miles around. Not only do healthy, well-managed colonies rob anemic hives in decline, but when a colony succumbs to mite pressure, surviving bees abscond and drift into nearby hives. But the neighbor with solid mite management, however, is just as much to blame if their healthy colonies suddenly fail. A second mite-monitoring session should have been set for early October to help identify late-season mite spikes.

Rather than point fingers, it’s important to revisit these truths:

1) Honey bees are not native to North America. They were brought to this continent by European settlers in 1622.

2) Honey bees, when properly managed, are marvelous agricultural units, and have been managed by humans as livestock for nearly 11,000 years.

3) There are (at last count) over 4,000 species of bees native to North America, many of which are pollinating specialists. Where it takes thousands of honey bees to pollinate a fruit tree or small pumpkin patch, it takes vastly fewer native bees to pollinate these same crops. Native mason and squash bees evolved on this soil and are much more efficient pollinators of a surprisingly long list of fruits, vegetables, and crops. Bee enthusiasts who want to “help the bees” should first consider planting pollinator habitat to support native bees rather than starting an “organic, all-natural honey bee hive” that nature will care for. Saving the bees is more critical in 2023 than it has ever been, but the way to save bees is to plant nutritious flowers rather than purchase packages of Italian bees to leave alone, “doing their thing” in nature.

While hive management is key to prosperous beekeeping, the value of local, feral genetics can’t be understated. It’s not terribly feasible to study feral bees in a lab or research field study, however, it stands to reason that a feral hive living on its own season after season must have some behavioral differences leading to their unmanaged survival in the wild. Obviously, a colony that gets to keep its full honey stores in the well-insulated walls of a building or trunk of a tree will be less stressed than a managed hive. But particular mite-defensive behaviors that are the exclusive focus of research teams selectively breeding for mite resistance don’t simply exist at university bee labs. Mite-defensive behaviors are also present in feral honey bee colonies. Introducing feral genetics by successfully performing cutouts is a great way to bring in local genetics. Otherwise, simply managing for maximum survival of your existing colony can help local genetics establish over time as the feral breeds intermingle year after year with the genetics of the managed apiaries.

We are limited by what’s available when we start beekeeping. The majority of commercially sourced package bees and nucs come from beekeeping operations involved in the almond pollination industry. Pollination is the greatest source of income for these commercial operations, and therefore, the general American beekeeping industry itself. Commercial bees are bred and managed to maintain ….