Happy, healthy bees.

We want to do our part in helping deal with honeybee health issues and wrote up our varroa destructor management plan that we’ve been using for 3 years now with great success.

This is the second draft of our plan incorporating observations and results from 2 full years . We have brought 4 colonies through one of the nastiest winters on record in BC without any losses and started 2017 mite free. We have overwintered 5 cololines this year and do not appear to have any losses from the 2017-2018 season. This system is easy and I hope many people adopt this method, it works very well and the more beekeepers that adopt this method the better for everyone involved. More on that later. 

My ramble.....

Keeping honeybees is a fascinating and rewarding endeavor. Just when you thought you knew everything you needed to know about them, you find out something new which deepens your understanding and increases your fascination with these little unassuming critters. You can sit for hours watching your hives, seeing bees coming in with pollen and nectar, bearding on the supers and if you are lucky a queens mating flight. Once you get inside a hive it becomes more fascinating and far more mysterious. With the rise of issues surrounding bee health from pesticide use, colony collapse disorder and a heightened understanding of the role they play in our food system we’ve seen an increase in the number of hobby apiaries.

Unfortunately, that also has led to an alarming increase in colony mortality. We are now seeing mortality rates hitting as high as 44% and a new phenomenon of summer deaths. Overwintering was normally when colonies would be lost, now they are also dying off in the summer. There is a lot of disinformation as to the cause, such as clickbait sites that declare “Monsanto is killing our bees!!!!” which make the case that GM crops, pesticide use and other nefarious agents are at work colluding to kill the humble honeybee and threaten your supply of apples. Generally those clickbait articles conclude, long past the headline, that the real reason colonies are dying is the Varroa Destructor mite.

To be clear, pesticide use can and does kill honeybees and other insects they contact. The problem is that too much attention is focused on pesticides and GMO crops being the root cause of colonies failing. Efforts to address hygiene and management practices don’t get the attention they deserve. I am opposed to herbicides, pesticides and GM crops but blaming Bayer for the situation is not just misleading, it is wrong and undermines efforts to address the root cause of the problem…mites.

So, what is the Varroa Destructor mite? It is an invasive pest that originates from Asia with an affinity for honeybees. The mites suck the blood of the infected bees, use the bee’s brood to reproduce, and are a vector for a host of viruses that can kill off a colony. Colonies infected with varroa are weakened, increasing the odds that the colony will not survive their most vulnerable phase, overwintering. Honeybees are not native to North America. Our diverse climate characteristics and fluctuations can cause even strong colonies to succumb to moisture (Pacific Northwest) or the cold of Colorado. We have to take special measures to assist them during the overwintering phase.

Why would this pest be so impactful when it is so well known and understood? First there are beekeepers who feel that they should just leave their bees alone and let them be bees. I’ll admit that I had that attitude when we got our first nucs. I have a permaculture bias and want my animals to be as natural as possible. It didn’t take long to realize that might be great in those few areas that are still free of varroa, but not where we live which has an abnormal colony mortality rate. The second reason, in my opinion, is that the current methodologies to treat for varroa are backwards and don’t address the core issue of a varroa infestation properly. Generally the treatment regime is to maybe treat for varroa in the spring, but the norm is to treat in the fall as the bees are getting ready for winter. There are several treatment methods that are effective in knocking a varroa population down and the vast majority of beekeepers use these methods. However, everyone should raise an eyebrow at 20% loss rates let alone 40%.

So why is this not working and why do we see such dismal loss rates?

The conventional pest management system allows for a mite load to build up throughout the season and relies on a knock back in the fall. This is like cutting your finger, not cleaning the wound, holding off on the polysporin and waiting for it to become seriously infected and then heading to the doctor to be prescribed harsh antibiotics to treat the festering infection. As I said, this is the norm and any beekeeper that relies on these methods can be forgiven for believing in them. When my wife and I decided to get into this we studied our butts off on the topic. She read through Beekeepers for Dummies (a very popular book) and Natural Beekeeping and we also watched several instructional videos on the topic. In our first year we went with the plan, feed the nucs until the nectar flows went into high gear, inspections every 10-14 days and we treated for varroa like everyone suggested in the fall. We did a good job winterizing the colonies and when it became too cold for them to fly; we eagerly waited for spring to see them emerge again healthy and strong. They didn’t……Of our 3 colonies, 2 were completely dead and the third was queenless with a handful of survivors. I’ll admit that we both shed tears and beat ourselves up for doing such a poor job. We have other livestock and are proud that we never have health issues and are good, responsible stewards. We considered giving up, something I despise doing. In the end we decided that, no, we’ll not repeat the failure and we’ll figure out what we did wrong. The first thing we needed to know is what killed them. There were indications that it might have been Nosema (a fungal parasite) but we could not determine that for sure so we sent samples of the dead bees to our provincial inspector for a necropsy. He called us with the results; varroa had killed the colonies off. I should emphasize that a necropsy is free; you pay the postage yes but you get to know for sure what killed your colony. Knowing objectively what caused the deaths will help you deal with problems far better than a hunch so get your necropsy done if you lose a colony.

OK, we did what we thought we were supposed to do and failed as did so many other beekeepers. I felt we were lacking information on how to properly manage varroa given we had a 100% loss rate and the national average was around 40%. So I started researching more thoroughly, deepening my understanding of honeybees and their relationship with varroa. I developed an Integrated Pest Management program (IPM) for the 2016 season which I want to share with you as it worked very well for us and many other beekeepers who don’t experience anything close to the average mortality rates.

Before I start, a note on the topic of treatment free versus management free as this comes up a lot in beekeeping discussions. There is a natural bias to avoid treatments as they are harsh, hard on adult bees, can kill brood and have to be carefully timed as to not pollute honey for consumption. People confuse treatment free as being equal to management free (let the bees be bees, they know what to do) which is probably fine in areas free from varroa but not responsible in areas that have it (pretty much everywhere). You cannot just leave your colonies alone and hope to have healthy bees and an abundance of honey year in and year out. You need to be involved and ensure they remain healthy at all times. On our fledgling farm we have adopted Joel Salatin’s methods and techniques which fundamentally come down to health; everything else flows from the one premise that health is your #1 goal. The pasture that feeds our critters has never been treated with chemical fertilizers or herbicides (if the critters eat it, it is not a weed it is forage) and the healthy pasture feeds our sheep (which are never fed grains or antibiotics), our chickens (the coop is setup to use the deep litter method which ensures healthy birds and we use nipple waterers to avoid their water being soiled) ducks who share the coop, cats a dog and in a few months pigs. All of our decisions are based on ethics and health and when we do have a rare health issue, the root cause is our failure to manage properly as it was with our bees.

So here is the “almost treatment free” program we adopted.

The program exploits weaknesses in the varroa mites’ life cycle and works with the bee’s natural cycles to suppress the mites and discourage varroa from getting a foothold and prospering. Our method is relatively simple to execute and I am not going into full details on how it works. This guide is meant to be an overview and you can find more information in detail online which I encourage you to do. As you deepen your knowledge about bees, their lifecycle and health the better you’ll be able to respond to the myriad of things that can crop up.

The IPM we developed relies on Screened Bottom Boards, Inspections every 10-14 days, Powdered Sugar Dusting, Drone Comb Trapping, Brood Breaks and Oxalic Acid as a “just to be sure “ when you are preparing the colony for winter.

Screened Bottom Boards: The easiest option is just a matter of what you choose to buy when you are getting started. Screened bottom boards allow for better ventilation in the summer heat. Mites that fall off bees go through the screen and cannot climb back up into the colony. So if you are starting out, buy those as they don’t cost much more. If you don’t have them, consider replacing the bottom boards you have.

We inspect our hives every 10-14 days to look for signs of stress and any other issues. This may seem labor intensive, however a lot can change in 2 weeks. For example, in the early summer we did an inspection and found all to be well, the deep supers were heavy with honey and we had a lot of brood and bees. The next inspection wasn’t so good, the bees were healthy and plentiful but the honey stores were almost gone and it was summer…as it turned out we were in a dearth. Our weather was really unusual in 2016 and all the plants in our area flowered months before they should have, leaving no natural food for the bees forcing them to consume their winter stores. They were at risk of starving. This required us to feed sugar water through the rest of the season. There are many other issues that can arise and be caught during regular inspections, it is a very good idea to maintain a cycle and making notes after each inspection which allows you to be clear 3 months later about what you saw and how you responded.

Powdered Sugar Dusting: PSD is simply dusting your colonies with powdered sugar. At the end of each inspection, you apply about a cup of sugar per deep using a sifter and sweeping any sugar on top of the frame into the deep. This coats the bees with sugar and they then start cleaning each other, in the process knocking mites off. The mites then fall down through the screened bottom board. You do this each inspection, to be effective this has to be done regularly throughout the season and it as no benefit if you just dust in September. PSD is cheap, fast, and very effective when combined with the rest of the plan. This is your first defense at keeping mite populations down or helping to prevent them building up. PSD is highly recommended.
Drone Comb Trapping: Drone’s and drone cells are far larger than worker cells and varroa mites prefer to lay their eggs in drone brood by a factor of roughly 10:1. Trapping involves removing frames with plenty of drone brood and killing them which also kills the mite eggs that were laid in the comb. This can be aided by modifying a deep frame to make it more attractive to the queen to lay drone in and placing the frame in position 7 in the deep super. When the workers have built out comb and the queen has laid her eggs you swap that frame out with another drone frame and you do this throughout the season. To kill the brood, you can simply leave it in a cool area (where the bees can’t find it, they get rather angry as I painfully learned) or better yet freeze it. There is no need to uncap it or remove the comb, when you put it back into the colony the workers will clean it out and make it ready for the queen to lay. Some object to drone comb trapping as healthy colonies need their drones which I absolutely agree with, but the queen will also lay drones in frames primarily made up of worker brood so plenty will hatch out and you will not be droneless during a supersedure or after a swarm.
Drone brood
A special made drone frame
Brood Breaks: This is a very important part of the IPM and should not be skipped. Brood breaks are a result of splitting your colony. You take roughly 3 frames of brood with their attendant bees and install it in a new deep super, leaving the queen with the remaining workers in the original colony. This is desirable for two reasons. The first being that both colonies will experience a sharp drop in brood production and varroa needs brood to breed and increase their numbers. As capped brood drops the mites have no place to lay eggs so they die off naturally and of course your sugar dusting is helping that process. The other benefit in spring is that it prevents swarming which is the uncontrolled loss of your queen and half your colonies bees. Swarming is the bees method of propagation and a natural way to beat back mite counts. They didn’t adapt this method in a response to mites, it is a natural behavior that happens to exploit a weakness in varroa’s breeding.

You want to split twice in the season. The first splits are done in early spring when bees want to swarm and the next in mid-summer. One of the consequences of splitting is that you will have an ever increasing number of hives on your hands. For example when we started over again this year we bought a package of bees which we split a couple of months later which left us with two colonies. Then in mid-summer we split those two and now have four on our hands and come the spring of 2017 those 4 will become 8!!! We don’t want 8 hives on our hands and of course we really don’t want 16 come midsummer either!!! We sell the splits we make as nucs for those replacing dead colonies or starting their own beekeeping adventure. As a bonus nucs sell for around $225 each and require very little effort to produce and we run a farm with revenue requirements so the $2,200 dollars is a great side effect of controlling swarms and varroa mites.

Oxalic Acid Treatment: We kept our mite loads well below the treatment level (more on that next) all season but our inspector recommended we do an Oxalic Acid treatment late September when there was no brood. Although we didn’t have mite loads that would trigger a treatment and our bees could pick up more mites while out foraging from the colonies that were infested polluting the environment around them. Oxalic Acid is cheap and easy to use, a bottle cost a couple of bucks and will last several seasons and we used the drip method which was fast and easy. Oxalic Acid is organic but will harm brood, so it can be used when getting a new package of bees, or as a late fall treatment when the hives are broodless to give your colony its best chance of survival over the long winter.

Mite loads and treatment levels: The best way to get an accurate estimate of your mite load is to do a sugar shake (not be confused with a sugar dusting) where you collect roughly 300 bees in a mason jar with a screened lid, dump in a bunch of powdered sugar and shake them!!! Shaking the bees knocks varroa mites off their backs; you return the dazed and dizzied bees back to the colony and then shake the sugar that is left in the jar into a small pail of water and count the mites floating. The bees are not harmed in this process, some beekeepers prefer to immerse the bees in alcohol, but that kills them and I could see no reason to do that when I get accurate measures without killing anything.

Mite loads that would trigger a chemical treatment are actually expressed as a percentage of the colonies population, but our inspector said a count is just fine and the number of mites found during a sugar shake that requires treatment is 4. At that point there is a large enough population of mites to weaken and potentially kill the colony and harsh measures must be taken.

A side note: One thing we learned in our second year is that your local inspector is more than happy to pay you a visit and inspect your hives. I would strongly encourage all beekeepers to contact their local inspector. In our area it is a free service and we learned so much. Having the inspector visit also helps you weed out a lot of bad information from the Internet and get advice from someone trained in their field. We love our local inspector Wendi Gilson. She’s very well-spoken, informative, and we look forward to her coming by to visit.
So how did we do? Through April and May I used a bottom board count which is not all that accurate in counting mites but nonetheless I kept coming up with zero. I was skeptical of zero mites and that’s when we found out about having our inspector come to take a look. Wendi came by and inspected our 2 colonies and found zero mites!!! I will admit that my wife and I were extremely proud of that after having beaten ourselves up over the loss of our 3 colonies the year before. We managed to tackle a serious problem and I’m still proud of that as I write these words.

However one data point does not make a trend so we booked Wendi back for an inspection in mid-August and late September. The mid-August tests of our now 4 hives (because we did mid-summer splits) were hive #1- 2 mites, hive#2- 1 mite and hives 3 & 4-0 mites. The late September tests were there same: 1 mite in 1 colony, 2 in another and she saw no need to test 3 & 4.
At that point I could say that we did a good job on this issue and have given our bees the best chance of making it through the winter. Wendi has encouraged us to mentor other beekeepers, but we are pretty introverted and couldn’t see ourselves leaving the property to do that, so I said I’d write up what we did with the benefit that it could be shared far wider than our mentoring, not to mention we don’t feel like we really know the intricacies of beekeeping properly to field other questions.

It still bothers me that we had any mite loads at all, even well under treatment levels. I attribute that to our own personal failings. Our inspection regime fell off the 10-14 days due to my becoming weary of them after a very nasty episode and my wife’s mother passing after a long illness. So we were not on top of the dustings and were slower on drone comb trapping than we should have been. All that said we did well and will work to improve next year.

Update March 30th 2017: All 4 colonies survived a very unusually long, wet and cold winter for the West Coast of BC. Three of the colonies are going very strong and foraging. One colony isn’t doing as well, the bees are alive and eating food but they are only foraging on the nicest days. This hive was a mid-summer split that wasn’t doing as well as the rest and I probably have a bad queen but don’t know for sure as it has been too cold to do a proper inspection.
Over course of the year I interacted with (mostly through Facebook groups) several other beekeepers that use a similar IPM strategy and they too had the same positive results. However, many other beekeepers that used the traditional methods did not.

Our inspector wasn’t just inspecting our hives; she was doing a tour inspecting many apiaries in our region. What she was finding was depressing, counts of 40 were normal (remember a count of 4 means the colony is being harmed and immediate treatment is required) and the general health of the bees not good. In her second visit she said she was very concerned about the colony health she was seeing in her inspections which were yielding high mite loads. At that point I asked our provincial inspector for statistics so I could see the data for myself and yes, it was very depressing. On her third visit she was very concerned and the provincial inspector was predicting that 50% of the colonies in our area would be dead by Christmas.

Different management and treatment methods show clearly different results. This illustrates that we need to change how we are managing this issue quickly, or accept 40% loss rates as normal. This is as unacceptable as getting 2 kittens and expecting one to be dead in the next year.

Now this issue is not an individual one, it is a collective issue. How you manage your varroa mites affects your surrounding area. Colonies with high mite loads send mites out with every forager who can then infect other bees from healthy colonies. Colonies weak from varroa can be robbed by strong ones who will then pick up mites in the process. Since the mites are also a vector for several diseases you ensure those diseases have plenty of hosts. By not staying on top of your mite loads you raise the environmental load in a large area around you, ensuring that varroa has plenty of opportunities to infect new colonies. I would imagine that if I suggested that you pour a can of motor oil in a stream you’d think me insane and reject that! To me, following the traditional methods and not staying on top of mite loads is akin to polluting that stream.

So thank you for getting this far, reading my personal observations and I hope my rants didn’t offend you too much. It may seem like a complicated strategy, it is a bit more labour intensive than the traditional methods, yet it matches natural bee cycles and exploits weaknesses in varroa mites breeding habits. The results are well worth the effort. Or put another way “is this strategy more effort than regularly having to replace dead colonies or getting out of beekeeping altogether?” No it is not; it is quite easy and imagine what would happen if a significant portion of beekeepers adopted this strategy. I would expect to see loss rates drop, the environmental load would then drop and at some point zones might become varroa free. I’m hoping this document inspires many people in my area to adopt this IPM come spring; it would not take many to start having an impact on the issue and they in turn might inspire others.
I doubt we’ll ever see an eradication of varroa destructor but I like to dream and why not dream big?

Update January 1st 2018: So far the 2017/2018 winter has been milder than the last couple of winters which should have been easier on honeybees. Even with the mild winter early reports are coming in of significant colonie losses once again. These losses are coming from beekeepers who are traditional  management strategies. Beekeepers are either observing completely dead colonies or weak colonies filled with bees with deformed wings. Deformed Wing Syndrome is caused by high varroa destructor infections. The virus that causes DWS is carried by the mites and is transmitted to bees when they mites feed. 

Of our 5 colonies 4 are very healthy and strong with 1 causing us concern but we knew that colony was weak going into winter for other reasons. We will not know the state it is truly in until the weather warms up enough for a proper inspection. The thing is, even if you do everything right, stay on top of your IPM other factors impact honeybee health. That weak colony may have a weak queen &/or bad genetics which happens. It is a harsh perspective but if that colony is weak after the management methods we have used it is better that it die off and we re-populate it with bees from better breeding lines. There is an overarching topic on honeybee health that focuses on favorable genetics trying to breed stronger, healthier bees. We are participating in and also helping to lead a significant effort in that area this year and for the next 4-5 years trying to breed bees that are naturally hygienic, varroa resistant and well adapted to our climate. 

But that's another topic for another day!!!

David McDonald
Four Winds Farm
Fanny Bay B.C.
Please share as widely as you can but do not alter.

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