We don’t struggle with the option of using mite treatments or just going treatment free when managing our honey bee colonies any longer.  Our first year of beekeeping (50 colonies) we chose the treatment free route to test theories associated with keeping bees in that fashion.  We felt better knowing that we acquired our honey bees from a commercial, “chemical free” beekeeper so varroa mite treatments were not applied to our colonies the first season.

In 2012 we had an opportunity to participate in a nation-wide USDA honey bee health study.  We jumped at the opportunity.  We wanted our bees tested for disease and pathogens!  After all, what better way to test the impact of not using varroa mite treatments (and selecting stock from “chemical free” apiaries) in our operation than to have official USDA scientists tell us what was found in our bees and how we compared against all other participants.

Varroa Mite

Varroa mites were discovered in the USA during the late 1980s.  Scientific studies have proven that this parasite vectors viruses while extracting hemolymph (analogous to blood) from our honey bees.  The mites have become a major contributor to declining honey bee populations.  Eliminating varroa is difficult while control is an ongoing effort.  Back in the early 90’s beekeepers used harsh chemicals as mite treatments to eliminate this little bug that preyed upon our slightly larger bees.

So what happened by not using mite treatments?

  • high rates of queen failures
  • less than ideal brood patterns
  • lack of colony build-up
  • absconding
  • hive collapse due to mite loads
  • increased aggressiveness
deformed wing virus

The most revealing part of our experiment came from the USDA report:

  • Deformed Wing Virus – very common and associated with varroa mites
  • Acute Bee Paralysis Virus – rare, and has been associated with colony losses
  • Black Queen Cell Virus – very common, may be associated with nosema
  • 7.4 mites per 100 bees in the sample – way too high!

Over time, both scientists and beekeepers realized that residues from chemical miticides (coumaphos and fluvalinate) persisted in hives.  The search for better solutions began and now more organic acids and natural oil based treatments are available to beekeepers.  These organic and natural mite treatments have proven efficacy rates and so far many have not produced resistance in varroa mites.

Subsequent use of HopGuard and Mite Away Quick Strips, (MAQS) purchased through our favorite bee supply company, provided immediate improvement in our colonies.  We have dropped mite counts to 1 or fewer per 100 bees, vastly improved our brood patterns, and saw significant increase in colony build-up rates and overall demeanor.  We will continue to use these and other non-synthetic products in rotation.  Our goal is to improve the health and vitality of honey bees in the state of Texas, and throughout the USA, not watch colony after colony die off in a heroic effort to produce a superior honey bee totally resistant to the insatiable varroa mite.

Success rates of “survivor stock” and “chemical free” environments are questionable.  We experienced the demise of our honey bees’ health and watched colonies collapse due to the varroa mite while not providing any solutions beyond basic integrated pest management (IPM).  Combining IPM principles with organic acids and natural oil based treatments have allowed us to reverse that condition and provide a healthier environment for our honey bees at Spiral Horn Apiary.