The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Varroa mites and the purpose of foundationless frames

Varroa miteVarroa mites are the worst pests affecting honeybees in our area.  In fact, most beekeepers around here will tell you that you can't keep hives without using chemical treatment for mites --- they put in chemical strips religiously every fall to kill off the arachnids.

Of course, telling me I can't do something is like waving a red flag in front of a bull*, so I'm bound and determined to prove my friends wrong.  If you need a more scientific reason to forego the chemicals, you should also be aware that beekeepers are overtreating and the mites are developing a tolerance to the chemical.

One of the causes of our varroa mite epidemic is the foundation most beekeepers fill their frames with.  Foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax imprinted with hexagons to show the bees where to build their comb.  The foundation does a good job of keeping the bees from building crooked combs, but the width of the store-bought hexagons is significantly larger than the width of hexagons bees would build by themselves with no foundation.  The larger cells give the varroa mites lots of room to slip down into the cells with bee larvae and suck them dry, but beekeepers put up with it because the larvae that do survive tend to be bigger and are able to produce more honey.

Frame with only a strip of foundation.I'd rather have a little less organic honey than a little more honey which has come in contact with a chemical.  By using just a small strip of foundation at the top of my frames, I'll be able to give the bees a hint where to build their comb without inviting varroa mites in for a party.  (Read all about foundationless frames here.)  I was also careful to get hives with a screened bottom board so that I can monitor my mite populations in case I need to take drastic measures.

* You do know that bulls are color blind and respond to red flags only because of the motion, right?

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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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That's similar to what we did with our top bar hives. We just put in a thin strip of wood on the bottom of each bar to give the bees something to start building onto. I've always heard that top bar hives tend to have healthier, lower-maintenance bees and now I know one reason why. :-)
Comment by Everett Mon Apr 13 15:54:29 2009
How long have you had your top bar hives? I've read about them and am curious to hear how they do! I know you said you were catching swarms, so I figured you might be just getting started....
Comment by anna Mon Apr 13 16:08:31 2009
What do you think about using a small cell foundation with the central portion removed, i,e.,leaving only about an inch of waxed foundation on all four sides of the frame?
Comment by Robert Mon Jul 11 15:59:03 2011
I'm sure it would work, but it would be wasteful since you'd cut out centers that then couldn't be used for anything. What I like about the strip method is that you can take one sheet of foundation and turn it into 8 strips, so you're spending very little per foundationless frame.
Comment by anna Tue Jul 12 17:51:54 2011

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