Varroa mites are the scourge of modern bees and their keepers. Apparently, before the mite beekeeping could be a rather hands off affair. Giving the bees enough space to do their thing, harvesting honey from time to time… sounds nice! But now every beekeeper is effectively raising mites as well as bees, and must respond accordingly to preserve the health of her bees. There are several less toxic ways to deal with the mites. Thus far I have been using powdered sugar shakes. You literally sprinkle all the bees with powdered sugar! It loosens the mites’ grip on the bees so they get groomed off when the bees clean the sugar from their bodies. The girls sort of hate it, but I feel very satisfied when I see the mites that have dropped from the hive with each treatment.
This time of year, however, it is time to get more serious. I just took a class on Varroa mites through The Biofuel Oasis that was very illuminating. The bees that are being raised right now will in turn be raising the bees that will live throughout the winter. Your average summer bee might live 6 weeks, but the winter bees might go for several months due to lower levels of activity in the hive. These bees need to be very robust if the hive is to survive the winter at all. This means good nutrition in the fall (I am feeding because my hives were not looking strong enough) and good mite control. On the recommendation of the class I am trying a formic acid treatment. It sounds scary, but apparently the acid is similar in strength to household vinegar. Formic acid is relatively “natural,” as it is found in very small amounts in honey, but it’s still an unfortunate measure to have to take. While it does not build up in the honey or the wax and is relatively less disruptive to the hive than some treatments, it is still a rather blunt instrument. It will likely kill off some brood and perhaps weaker bees as it kills off the mites. At the very least the hives will find it stressful to have their homes invaded by noxious fumes. Next year I will start using drone trapping frames (more in a future post on that) and step up my powdered sugaring so perhaps I won’t need to treat.
How do you know when you need to treat? Well, there are various ways to get a sense of how many mites you have in your hive, but a really good one is the powdered sugar roll. We did it in the Varroa class. It was nuts! I’ll have to do a post when I muster enough courage to try this method on my own, but it involves shaking bees into a box, scooping a bunch into a jar with a screened top, coating them in powdered sugar and then vigorously shaking out the sugar/mite mixture to get an accurate sampling of mites. You SHAKE a jar of bees. After you scoop them up out of the box you just DUMPED them in. Did I mention my girls are GRUMPY this time of year??