Varroa Mites Are Bastards (Apiary Updates)

Here are somes haikus that I have addressed to the varroa mite:

Magic School Bus Honey Bee Punches Varroa Mites

Magic School Bus Ride
Takes Me Inside Hive, Where I
Punch You in the Face

You Had More Choices
Roaches, Ash Borer, but Noooo
You Kill Honey Bees

Like The Highlander
It Seems You Are Immortal
But I Will Slay You


Now onto the updates.  I will be checking in every month to tell you all about how my apiary is doing and hopefully this will help you learn what to do or what not to do.  To make the updates cohesive, I’ll split the updates into 4 main sections: 1. mites, 2. positive vibrations, 3. blunders, and 4. outlook.

1. Mites

I am having really low mite counts this August, which is unusual because this is the time of year when mite populations explode (see graph below from Scientific Beekeeping). Before I go into an analysis of my mite counts, I want to preface this by saying I have never used any chemicals in my apiary to treat for varroa mites and vow never to use it.  I have had great success (80-90% winter survival rates) chemical-free beekeeping and so can you!  Now as I was saying, I am having low mite counts this year.  For comparison, at this time last year, my strongest hives were showing mite counts of 20-60 after powdered sugar blasting the entire hive.  The weakest hives were showing 70-120 mites.  Moreover, I was getting these types of mite counts weekly as I was powdered sugar blasting each of my hives every week so I could record the numbers.

Now just last week, I powdered sugar blasted my two largest hives and found 30 and 10 mites respectively.  Today, I went in and blasted two of my medium-sized hives and one of them only had 3 mites! The other only had 10!  That’s pretty darn low for this time of year, especially when compared to the mite counts I had last year.

Varroa mite and honey bee population curve growth

Why do I think the mite counts are so low?
First, I sold 7 nucs this year so I believe splitting some of my stronger hives early helped reduce mite populations.  By splitting a hive, you take half of a colony or more likely 5-6 top bars with eggs, capped brood, honey, and pollen to make a new hive and let them raise a new queen.  While they are without a queen, there are no new eggs being laid and hence no new brood for which the mites can feast on and no capped brood where they can reproduce in.  This is the perfect time to do a powdered sugar blasting.  When a new hive is made queenless, I wait 10-14 days for most of the remaining capped brood to emerge.  I don’t wait too long because I don’t want to disturb the virgin queen after she emerges, which usually happens on the 16th day of the hive being queenless.  With most of the cells now uncapped and empty, there are no more places for the mites to hide and that is when I go in and powdered sugar blast them.  The mites will mostly be hanging around in the empty cells or trying to feast on the adult bees, which is ideal for powdered sugar blasts.  This year, I even blasted a queenless/broodless hive a second time two or three days after the first blast.  In employing this strategy, I saw mite drops ranging from 150-300 for some of my bigger splits!  Those mite drops rival any chemical miticides treatments on the market, but with the added benefit that you aren’t killing any brood in the process.  Plus, I don’t think you can use miticides on splits because the chemicals might actually kill the queen inside her capped cell.  I did all this powdered sugar blasting in May and June so now I can relax a little bit going into September.  I’ll still probably do a blast every 2-3 weeks because I like doing mite counts and keeping records for future analysis.


Second, I believe that living in a rural area helps keep my mite counts down.  This may not be a big factor, but I believe it does help.  Thinking logically, there are less houses and potential beekeepers around me and therefore, less varroa mites to spread around.  As I continue to knock down the mites in my apiary, I won’t have as big of a problem with more mites coming in from neighboring apiaries. On the other hand, in the suburbs, there seems to be more and more people keeping bees every year and many of them have multiple colonies.  The problem arises when some of those beekeepers don’t control their mite populations and those mites spread to your colonies.

Third, I think that the horizontal orientation of top bar hives is a positive feature for controlling mites.  The horizontal orientation of the top bar hive makes it less likely that a mite will fall on another bee when a bee grooms it off or when the mite simply loses its grip on the bee.  In contrast, the vertical orientation of the Langstroth hive increases the chance that the mite will simply land on another bee or on top of a frame in a lower box (super).  All of my top bar hives have screened bottom boards and are placed on hive stands that put the bottom of the hive 2 feet off the ground which further reduces the chances the mites will find their way back up into the colony.  I know that the impact of screened bottom boards have been minimized in a lot of people’s minds, but I believe it is very necessary.  Chemical-free beekeeping means using everything at your disposal.

In conclusion, the lesson here is to make splits early in the Spring (for sale or to grow your apiary) and blast them with powdered sugar when they are mostly broodless because the mites have less cells to hide in.  Of course, this is all contingent on your hive surviving the winter and also coming out strong, which is no walk in the park.


2. Positive Vibrations

Having a honey bee business is hard.  Beekeeping in general can be difficult with all of the micro-decisions you have to make every time you inspect a hive and all of the second-guessing you do after you make those decisions.  So sometimes we do have to take a step back and take note of what is great about beekeeping.  This month, I replaced a queen from a mean hive.  I have a high tolerance for mean hives because if they survive a winter with me then I give them some leeway.  However, this hive would regularly sting me through my jacket and pants and find ways up under my jacket even when I duct taped my waistband to my pants.  One time, I must have gotten stung 25 times with a few being in the face.  Definitely not good.  I saw the hive was making some queen cells (already half full with royal jelly and almost capped) so I took the opportunity and killed the queen thinking that they were a third of the way to making a new queen. (Side note: I do understand that there was a good chance that the new queen would take after her mother and be mean as well, but I was willing to take that chance.)  Well, for whatever reason (dragonfly killed her or she got caught in a sudden rainstorm) the virgin queen never made it back to the hive.  I really can’t even verify if she hatched.  Well, I quickly took some eggs from my favorite hive that had a dark black queen and put it into this queenless, broodless hive.  Now four weeks later there is a beautiful fully black laying queen in that hive.  I have had great success with black queens and so I just have an affinity for them.  Nothing more beautiful then spotting a healthy laying queen to make you appreciate beekeeping and breath a sigh of relief.  She is like an oasis for the lost and delirious beekeepers.

Top bar hive honey bees entrance
When the bees are hanging out on the porch and showing off, it’s a good sign.

Also, look at how great one of my new hives is doing.  I just love it when the bees have a good sized population and the bees start hanging out at the entrance.

3. Blunders
I killed a virgin queen.  A beautiful, black virgin queen.  I waited 10-12 days after the virgin queen was to have emerged from her cell and went into the hive.  I was expecting to see a mated queen and some eggs because that was the case with another requeening I had done with another hive at the same time.  That queen was already laying and looking healthy.  Well, for this hive, I didn’t see any eggs or a mated queen.  So I tried to look for the virgin queen.  A virgin queen is very difficult to spot because she is about the same size as a worker bee.  For an analogy, I would say virgin queens are built more like fullbacks, whereas worker bees are more like running backs.  The virgin queens are a little bit thicker around the abdomen and it seems they are always running over the worker bees.  In the past, I have had good success spotting virgin queens so when I didn’t spot her this time, I assumed the worst and figured the virgin queen never made it back or didn’t even emerge from her cell. So I started to take some of the empty brood comb in this hive to put in another hive in exchange for one of its top bars with fresh eggs.  So I began to brush the bees off of this empty brood comb and in doing so I must have also brushed and rolled the virgin queen because after a few minutes I spotted bees huddling around a dead bee on my screened bottom board.  On closer inspection, it was the beautiful, black virgin queen.


Lesson: be patient with virgin queens.  Sometimes it can take them 2-3 weeks to start laying after emerging.  In total, it can take more than a month for a hive to go from queenless to having a mated, laying queen (16 days for the virgin queen to emerge from starting as an egg and then 14+ days for the virgin queen to bulk up, fly out to mate, return, and then start laying).  Be patient.  If you can’t spot the virgin queen it’s probably because you missed her or she’s on her mating flight.  Don’t panic until after 5-6 weeks of not seeing eggs or a mated queen.  If you are one to panic early even after reading this, you could always place a frame of eggs into the hive then go back in after a few days.  If they haven’t started making any new queen cups, then the virgin queen is most likely still alive.  If they have started making new queen cups and have even put an egg and royal jelly in there, the virgin queen is probably dead.

Large honey bee queen cell grafted
Look at how beautiful my grafted queen cell looks! Some beekeepers will keep only the large queen cells and destroy the smaller ones thinking that larger queens will have larger ovaries and be able to store more eggs. On paper this makes sense, but in reality there probably isn’t a strong correlation. Although, I will still destroy small, puny queen cells because they just don’t look right compared to bigger and better-shaped cells. Plus, smaller cells might mean that they had less royal jelly to feed on.
To keep things semi-positive though, one of my hives is trying to supercede their current queen and so I grafted this huge queen cell into my queenless hive whose virgin queen I killed.  Look at how beautiful and perfectly-shaped that queen cell is.  Again, you got to keep things positive. Maybe the cell will contain twins and I’ll have two mated queens.  Has this ever happened to anyone?


4. Outlook
I feel good going into the Fall with such low mite counts.  I do have to monitor my hives’ pollen stores because I might for the very first time ever make pollen substitute patties to feed to some of my hives.  I have always been against pollen patties because I thought it was just another “thing” we had to do to keep the bees alive.  I also believe it attracts small hive beetles.  Lastly, I have had good success not using them.  Why am I considering using them now?  Simply put, I read this Randy Oliver Scientific Beekeeping blog.  Also, I want to experiment and see if the bees come out of the winter stronger with extra pollen patty feeding now and into the Fall.  Healthy and big colonies in Spring means more top bar nucs that I can sell.  I’ll keep you updated on how this goes.

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