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Treating varroa mites organically

Varroa miteRoss Conrad spends 50 pages talking about the varroa mite, which he considers to be the current bane of the organic beekeeper.  Although I'm not interested in trying out his "soft chemical" controls (which are on a toxicity level similar to Bt), I'm intrigued by some of the other solutions he presents.  Conrad recommends using many or all of the options below in concert, and warns that ignoring mites will kill your hive within one to two years without some mite-reduction actions.

1. Breed for resistant bees.  Natural beekeepers seem to be unanimous in their admonition to stop buying out of town bees and to instead learn to breed bees that are well-suited to your local conditions.  Bees resistant to varroa mites may be more hygenic, brushing or biting mites off other bees' backs, and they may also be more prone to swarm.  Short of scientifically measuring these traits, if you reproduce the genetics of the hives that survive the winter in your apiary, you're automatically selecting for bees that will do better in your area.  (More on how to breed bees in a later post.)  Of course, this is a long term measure and won't help your bees survive this year.

Bee with deformed wing from varroa mites2. Monitor for mites to know when to take drastic action.  Although Conrad mentions several mite-counting techniques, he takes a simpler approach and keeps his eye out for signs of high mite levels when he checks the hive.  Noticing mites on drone brood pulled apart during your hive check, or wandering around in the hive, is a sign that mite populations may be increasing and you need to keep an eye on the hive.  If you begin to see deformed wings on worker bees --- caused by a virus carried by varroa mites --- then mite levels are too high and you must take emergency measures.

3. Split off nucleus colonies.  The simple action of propagating your hive seems to put a damper on mite reproduction since splitting causes a pause in brood production within the hive.  Varroa mites reproduce by laying eggs on bee brood, so if the bees aren't producing brood, the mites can die out.

Screened bottom board4. Use screened bottom boards.  By using a screened bottom board instead of a solid bottom board, when mites fall off a bee's back, they tend to fall through the holes onto the ground and die rather than jumping aboard the next bee who passes by.  Screened bottom boards reduce your mite levels by 10 to 20%, and Conrad notes that even in his northern location, leaving screened bottom boards open all winter doesn't cause increased winterkill.

5. Encourage mites to fall.  Various techniques can be used in conjunction with screened bottom boards to cause even more mite casualties by tricking mites into loosening their hold on a bee.  Plugging up all the holes in a hive and then filling the hive with the smoke of tobacco, black walnut, cedar, grapefruit leaves, or creosote bush for 30 to 60 seconds before airing the hive out causes major mite falls (although tobacco and creosote smoke may also harm the bees.)  Alternatively, you can sprinkle confectioner's sugar over your bees, which tempts the bees to groom mites off (but don't use confectioner's sugar during cold weather since it contains an inert ingredient that your bees will need to void from their systems.)  Both of these techniques should be used when no honey is present in the hive to prevent contamination, and most should be repeated two or three times over the course of a few weeks to catch mites on bees who were out foraging or were in capped brood cells during the first treatment.

Drone comb6. Trap mites.  Since varroa mites like drone brood much better than worker brood, you can kill a lot of mites by putting a sheet of drone foundation in your hive, waiting for it to be drawn out and filled with capped brood, then freezing the frame for 26 to 30 hours to kill drones and mites.  You should repeat this technique throughout the year, moving the drone frame throughout the hive, but it does seem a little hard on all of those dead drones (who you need if you're going to breed your own new queens.)  Alternatively, Conrad builds mite traps that look like a deep frame, but with boards on each side covered in slits too small for a bee to fit through.  In the bottom of this little box, he puts a piece of sticky paper covered with methyl palmitate bait to attract and then catch the mites.  The sticky paper needs to be changed once in the middle of summer and the whole trap is removed in August.

7. Use heat to kill the mites.  A temperature of 116.6 degrees Fahrenheit will kill varroa mites, but not bees, so some beekeepers build special heating chambers into which they pour their bees once a year to delete the mites.  This sounds pretty tricky, but Conrad also mentions that painting your hive boxes a dark color might do the job for you --- at temperatures above 97, brood within the hive will die, but it might be worth it to let the hive get too hot a few times a year to keep mite levels manageable.

Thyme8. Use essential oils of thyme and mint.  A variety of chemical companies have started making "organic" mite controls out of thymol and L-menthol dissolved in a grease patty, but Conrad admits that these chemicals cause a temporary lull in egg-laying by the queen, which doesn't sound very healthy for the hive.  I wonder if you could plant a bed of thyme and mint around your hive and get mites to drop off workers as they pass over the anti-mite planting?

9. Make your foundation cells smaller.  I've discussed the benefits of foundationless frames previously.  Suffice it to say that if you get your bees to build cells a more natural size, mites don't fit in as well and mite populations plummet.

We're already using options 2 and 4 (and 7 accidentally when we had our hive meltdown last summer), and this year I plan to split our hives to start working on options 1 and 3.  I'm curious to see whether throwing a few black walnut leaves in the smoker when I check on the hive in the summer might act as a milder version of option 5, and I hope to remember to plant mint around the hives this year.  What organic techniques do you use to keep your hives' varroa mite levels within bounds?

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This post is part of our Natural Beekeeping lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I think this may be something you may want to consider in your efforts to control varroa mites.

Paul Stamets - Six Ways Mushrooms can Save the World

Field Trials Using the Fungal Pathogen, Metarhizium Anisopliae

Comment by Chowgene Koay Sun Feb 27 09:15:04 2011
I remember reading about that in one of Paul Stamets books, but I didn't think it was at the consumer level yet. Looking at more current literature, it looks like various scientists are trying out a few different fungi to kill varroa mites, but I'm not sure how I feel about inoculating the hive with fungi on a regular basis --- I'd like to come up with a method that doesn't require storebought materials.
Comment by anna Sun Feb 27 19:59:21 2011
Have you tried any termite Metarhizium anisopliae-based termite pesticides? Or do you know if anyone has cultures of Metarhizium anisopliae? I know Paul Stamets developed a non-sporulating version to deal with Carpenter Ants and he says on page 122 of Mycelium Running that it isn't harmful to humans or bees. Do reply if you find a source for this. It occurs naturally in soil, so I presume if I knew enough (which I don't) and had the appropriate equipment (which I don't) and skills (again), I could make a culture.
Comment by Stewart Lundy Thu Mar 31 19:08:34 2011
That's just what our other commenter was asking about, but we haven't tried it. If you do, you'll have to drop back by and let us know how it went!
Comment by anna Thu Mar 31 19:27:02 2011
I'm not sure that planting thyme around your hives will have a significant effect on varroa - I was in Crete a couple of months ago and speaking with some of the local bee keepers - despite their bees feeding almost exclusively on thyme and related species varroa is seen as a significant problem (assuming I understood their Greek and they understood my English of course).
Comment by Swing Swang Wed Aug 22 02:40:50 2012
Swing Swang --- Excellent data point! I had wondered whether thyme outside the hive was guesswork, and it sounds like it probably is. Thanks for sharing!
Comment by anna Wed Aug 22 08:34:38 2012

My grandfather planted Thyme and Peppermint in his bee yard for as long as I remember. I do the same thing. The only treatment I use. I check my screened bottom boards a couple of times a season and see no reason to change.

Comment by Paul Sat Jun 11 21:32:40 2016
Small hive beetles and mites find their host by smell. THey can since the smell of a hive for miles. The mint and time plants may be masking the smell of the hive so the pest cant find it. They do hate Thyme , spearmint , wintergreen, and mint . Also Other flowers that have mint smell. I even add them to my sugar water with blinder.
Comment by michael Mon Jun 20 15:10:10 2016

not sure what part of black walnut is intended to be burned for smoke by the original source, you suggest maybe its leaves in the smoker...

maybe the leaves have it too, not sure as I said, but I do know Black Walnut wood which is black (surprise) and smells very creosotey, like a railroad tie but in a good natural way (if that can be imagined).

Black Walnut is awesome kindling as this pitchiness burns like mad and it splits easily to as small a pieces as you like.

I HAVEN'T TRIED THIS YET, but I'd think making splinters and adding it to a smoker would work well for this anti-mite smoking as suggested

Comment by Jamy Sat Dec 17 11:34:32 2016

all the trials I can find use leaves, the above trial suggest a rather dreamy optimism regarding honey production...

just wanted to update and suggest caution, if I ever have a major mite problem in my hives I'm going to try the WOOD smoke as I suggested as the smell of it burning in my stove just demands such a test...

I'll let you know, but hopefully not for a long time ;)

Comment by Jamy Tue Dec 20 09:31:28 2016

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