For me, the biggest change in beekeeping over the years is how we manage the Varroa mite. Do this well, and you’ve gone a long way to becoming a good beekeeper.
It has been nearly three decades now that our bees have been infested with the Varroa mite, and yet it is still our number one problem (second in my book would be agriculture pesticides). Just a few years ago, it was recommended to treat at a 10–12 percent infestation rate; now it’s 1 percent in the spring, and 2 percent in the fall! – as suggested by Randy Oliver.
In 2012, I wrote the following which is as true today as then:
“Varroa control is still of preeminent importance. Keith Delaplane reported in January’s 2012 Bee Culture that ‘high levels of Varroa are associated with high levels of viruses and low populations of adult bees and brood.’ And Dr. Jamie Ellis states, ‘Left unchecked, even with the best cultural controls and genetic resistant stock, Varroa mites will eventually almost assuredly kill your colony.’”
The proverbial questions for all beekeepers: When to treat? How to treat?
When to treat is based on monitoring and sampling for Varroa mite infestation. The calendar is still very important. Randy Oliver has produced a nifty seasonal chart outlining times of the year to monitor. Please visit his site: scientificbeekeeping.com. You can find the map within “Basic Beekeeping” as Randy considers Varroa control to be basic. What I learned from attending the 2016 conference is that local beekeepers are treating their hives much more frequently for Varroa than at any time in the past. This may in part be because of our long brood-rearing seasons the last few years.
How to treat Varroa and not kill the bees? This is where it gets interesting. Most of our original mite controls are ineffective now, e.g., Apistan. For many years now, commercial beekeepers have relied on blue shop towels saturated with a solution of canola oil and amitraz. There are even strips now impregnated with amitraz called Apivar. It is my opinion that Apivar will hasten the already impending demise of the efficacy of amitraz. I hope this is not entirely true. For me, I have made a concerted effort to learn how to use other options. Randy Oliver lists these other options at his website, too, titled “NAME YOUR POISON” (under “Treatments for varroa control” in the “Basic Beekeeping” section). It, too, is a dynamic chart showing among things treatments that can be used at certain times of the year.
Randy’s top three treatment recommendations are: thymol, oxalic dribble, and formic. Here are my experiences with each:
The first time I used thymol, I followed Randy’s directions to the T. I suffered my greatest loss ever because of it – nearly 50 percent of my hives were fried. It was like putting an M80 firecracker between the brood boxes and igniting it. Dr. Ramesh Sagili had similar results in studies he did. At our 2015 conference in Silverton, Randy touted 98 percent efficacy with Apiguard that past fall with no deleterious effects. Randy told me he no longer places Apiguard between the brood boxes but on top with a spacer. I suspect the formulation for Apiguard has changed? My recommendation: Experiment before wholesale treatment.
Oxalic acid is now legal (not that this has ever been a deterrent for beekeepers). It is cheap! It is really easy to use. Also on the horizon is the use of a new mechanism to apply oxalic acid via a vaporizing system. Formerly this was shunned in part for safety reasons (burning your lungs) and better results from the dribble method. This “new” system I heard about is quick and maybe more effective. I need to learn more.
I was a big fan of MiteAway II. It has been replaced by MAQS. After my experience with Apiguard (thymol), I was very hesitant to try MAQS, especially after reports of queen loss and excessive brood kill by local beekeepers. Then George Hansen piqued my interest in it again. At the last Seaside state meeting, he explained that he used it to get a quick mite knockdown before using Apivar (amitraz-impregnated strips). He also said he used a rim. Hmmm… In August 2015, I experimented with MAQS. I was bold enough to experiment with all treatment configurations except two strips between the brood boxes – the directions. My unscientific opinion is, don’t use rims, don’t place strips on top, place one strip between the brood boxes, maybe two. I believe the formulation of this product has been dialed down. I feel comfortable using formic acid again with MAQS, especially one strip between the brood boxes. One caveat: At the 2015 Silverton meeting, Randy stated he suffered loss using MAQS. I did not inquire.
Have you seen any small hive beetles?
In the past three years, some of my returning hives from almonds have had small hive beetles. Then they disappear, nowhere to be seen for the balance of the year. At the 2015 conference, I discussed this issue again with Gus Rouse, proprietor of Kona Queen Hawaii, and inevitably an expert on SHBs now. He believes, because of the high mobility of the small hive beetle, they’re already distributed to regions they find hospitable. One of the speakers at the 2016 conference queried the audience whether they had seen any Small Hive Beetles. I saw more hands than ever. I’ve had no hive issues, but if I had not arrested a brewing problem in my honey house it could have gotten ugly.
My advice: Always be on the lookout for them, and be prepared to change your management practices quickly to avoid any problems. For example, when I take off honey now, I’m very diligent that I don’t get any brood mixed into the honey supers, and I extract the supers immediately. I also do not store wet supers anymore. Maintaining bee space to all regions of the hive is important; for example, cramming nine frames into a deep plus a deep feeder smashed against the wall would be inadvisable. Smashing a pollen patty to the top of the hive without a spacer rim would be inadvisable.
Okay, here’s the rubber stamped January–February tips:
* Heft hives to find any light ones. After the shortest day of the year, brood production resumes and energy demands increase. Provide light hives emergency feed (e.g., fondant, drivert, sugar in division board feeders, frames of honey, pollen patties, etc.).
* February has historically been the time to treat for Varroa prior to supering. Monitor hives to ascertain Varroa infestation rates. Current recommendations are to treat if the infestation rates reach 1 percent in the spring.
* Likewise, February has also historically been the time to prophylactically treat for foulbroods prior to supering. While I no longer prophylactically treat for foulbroods, I keep a ready eye out for it. I have a five-gallon bucket of Terra-Pro, a terramycin treatment, at the ready if I have the slightest suspicion.
* Find and remove dead outs. When I find dead outs, I go through the equipment and do a vigorous cleaning, in part to facilitate frame manipulation. This is the easiest time to cull comb that is dark brown and rubbery hard, comb that has a preponderance of drone cells, or comb with signs of disease (AFB). Everything goes into dry storage to preserve the equipment for future use.
* Make periodic checks of your apiary, for example, after a windstorm, to make sure nothing is amiss. I personally use single bottom boards for most of the year, and each hive is strapped down holding the lids and bottom boards tight to the brood boxes. My lids can’t blow off. If you don’t do something similar, and you’ve taken a lid off recently for some reason, then the bees most likely will not be able to propolis the lid back down. The next windstorm may blow this lid off.
* In general, disturb the bees as little as possible.