#1 Killer of the Honey Bee
MITES ... MITES ... MITES ... The Arch-Enemy of the Honey Bee
What you think you know about the practice of beekeeping, or why the bees are dying, or about `Saving the Bees` is
W R O N G
So you want to be a beekeeper, eh? Do you know how to keep your bees alive and healthy? Did you know that to be a successful beekeeper you actually have to know much more about the Varroa Destructor parasitic mite in your beehive than you need to know about your bees? Also, it may be shocking to hear that you need to know very little about any of the hundreds of other beekeeping topics. Of all things, of everything, this is your number one.
To keep your bees alive and healthy, you have to be committed to becoming the expert in your own beeyard on varroa mite biology. You need to study the varroa mite to understand the methods used to find it, how to control it, and apply that knowledge to care-taking and managing your colonies. There is a standard level of animal husbandry involved with keeping bees. Knowing about the varroa mite is one of those mandatory requirements. If you do not know anything about mites, or are not doing what you can to learn everything about them, or you are not being diligent about controlling them ... then please do not try to keep bees. To overlook the importance of this may be considered irresponsible. If not for bees being an insect, ignoring the mite may perhaps even be called cruel - as you will see below.
In recent years many people are wanting to get involved with saving the bees by running out and getting a beehive. It is great to see the awareness of the plight of the honey bee and such interest in helping. With mentoring and a lot of support there are wonderful success stories of new beekeepers. Some are totally hooked and stick with it, while many others do not. The reality is that beekeeping gets complicated quickly and many of those new-bee-haver cases result in unintentional suffering and killing more of the bees and enabling the spread of the mites. The people mean well but are not doing well at what is required. Sadly, it ends in death to bees by kindness. To save the bees means educating yourself and others about this devastating parasite and joining the fight against it, OR it is to save the bees by not getting bees at all. Let`s be honest; just like some people should not own a dog or a horse or some other beasts, some people just should not have bees. A better option for a lot of folks who want to help and to enjoy having bees around is to seek out a local beekeeper and invite them to place colonies on their properties. Listen to them and support what the beekeepers are saying is needed to change to make the properties more conducive to bee health. The hosts get happy healthy bees buzzing around their gardens, and the beekeepers take proper care of the bees.
All that may sound very discouraging to the aspiring beekeeper, but do not let that deter you. The point being made is that having bees is not something you just decide you will go out and do, nor should you be doing so half-baked. Keeping bees nowadays is not easy. It gets complicated quickly, it takes commitment to the efforts that will be required, a passion for continuous learning, being tenacious about the health of your bees, and a considerable amount of money to set up a hive and to maintain it. That said, once you are ALL-IN Beekeeping is an incredibly rewarding lifetime experience.
As a start to learning about the varroa mite; let us begin by describing a simple picture of this parasite to put things in perspective. Comparing a varroa mite on a honeybee to a person: On a person`s body it would be a short-legged compact spider-like creature the size of a dinner plate clamped onto the right side of the persons belly with its head and pincers tightly wedged under the persons ribcage. Try it. Go get a plate from the cupboard. Set it against your side and press the edge of it up under your rib cage under your right arm. When it starts to hurt, press it up just a bit further, and hold it there. Now envision that as it feeds, this creature is injecting small amounts of digestive fluid into the person. This fluid is slowly dissolving tissues and the creature proceeds to suck out that persons liquified liver bit.. by.. bit.. by.. bit. What effect do you think that will have on that persons health, vitality, and lifespan? Could it get any worse? Well yes actually! Now imagine that this parasite first attaches itself to an infant in the womb, is feeding on that baby throughout gestation, and remains on that baby-child-person for most of their lifetime. You now have a deformed, chronically sick person not capable of functioning normally nor able to contribute to the needs of the community. Later this creature detaches just before that person is about to die, and quickly hitches a ride on the back of the next person walking by. While riding around it is seeking the next womb to get into to start the cycle again. This is the horror that the honeybee is experiencing with the varroa destructor mite. If you knew a parasite like that could be on your dog or horse, or your neighbours kid, what would you do? Would you go looking for it? Would you turn a blind eye? Do nothing? Leave the mangy thing out in the yard or at the other end of the pasture? Or, do you put your greatest efforts into doing your absolute best to help detect it and get rid of it?
The next chapter of this story begins with a beehive that has an unmanaged varroa mite population which can have thousands of mites in it. Those mites WILL spread to and infest hundreds of neighboring healthy beehives. Remember that person walking by that the creature jumped onto because its host was about to die? Now that new person, that new host, was just visiting the area and was innocently checking out the local garage sales and farmers markets. The person actually lives in the next town and has taken the creature home to a whole community of new hosts. The creature smells all that fresh new meat and gets right to work at multiplying as fast as it can. In this way the varroa mite does not just kill the all of the bees of the hive that it is in, it spreads and ultimately wipes out all of the colonies in the area. The mite does not discriminate. It infests and wipes out domestic and feral colonies. All of them. In geographical regions found to have had even just a few hives with high mite loads the colony losses all around can soon become devastating. Every year the varroa destructor mite infestations kill directly or indirectly between 155,000 to 310,000 beehives in Canada alone. That is 3.5 Billion to 7.5 Billion bees for those that want to count every bee. Some beekeeping operations can be completely wiped out in a matter of just a few months. The out of pocket costs for Canadian beekeepers to replace colonies is 42 Million to 92 Million dollars in beestock, every year. That is the nature and magnitude of what the beekeeping community is dealing with and having to recover from year to year. The point of this chapter of the story is that while you may be doing well and believe your hive is good with low or no mites, that situation can change very quickly with no warning depending on what is going on in the lands around your apiary.
You cannot afford to become complacent. The stakes are too high for the bees, for you, and for your neighbours. There is no such thing as innocent ignorance and blissful beekeeping. To be so is to be irresponsible. Ever since the varroa mite came to Canada in 1987, it has been a neverending horror show with short periods of utopia just long enough to keep you hooked between the massacres. As much as we want to cover our eyes and look away from those parts of the show that we do not like, doing so does not change the story nor the inevitable outcomes.
So, take the mite seriously and make studying and understanding the varroa mite your highest priority above all other things as a beekeeper. Then ensure you are doing your part to help your bees to control it. Do that well and you are well over 80% of the way towards having healthy colonies year after year. Yes, you will still lose some colonies to any one of many other things out there that are trying to kill the honeybee. But if you are in tune with the health condition of your colonies and the mite levels are kept under control those other losses are miniscule in comparison.
No, you are not special. No, your bees are not special. No, your hive configuration is not special. No, your natural small cell foundation is not special. No, you do not have a special bee habitat where your hive is. I am sorry to burst your bubbles. If you have bees you have mites and they are chewing on your bees. There is no denying it. That is undisputable. The only variables up for debate are how many are in there at the time that samples are taken and counted, how well you as the beekeeper are controlling them, and how well the bees are coping with the infestation level that is present. Unfortunately, the mite cannot be completely eradicated with current knowledge and methods. At this point in time there is no cure, no silver bullet --YET. However, with education and the tools we do have, the size of the mite populations can be reduced and controlled to levels low enough that the bees can thrive.
The varroa destructor mite is a worldwide problem threatening the worldwide bee populations. There are highly specialized research teams and innovative beekeepers around the world who are dedicated to finding practical solutions that help in the fight against the mite to Save the Bees. With their efforts the knowledge and the tools available to beekeepers continue to evolve. The Beekeepers who educate themselves, stay up to date on new findings, and actively control the mites in their apiaries have the highest successes of thriving healthy colonies year after year. Those are the people who are saving the bees. Those successful beekeepers are also protecting their neighbors beehives by being consistent at applying knowledgeable and responsible honeybee husbandry. For the sake of your bees, and your neighbours bees, and your neighbours neighbours bees, and the feral colonies --- Your roll in saving the bees is to continuously strive to be one of those educated and responsible beekeepers in your community.
Watching Dr. Samuel Ramsey`s presentation is a great place to go next for the varroa mite biology lesson.
After the presentation, go to the other links to articles and videos in the within the Education Library of this Bee Club website and other useful links page. From there step off into other places as you dig for more information to learn more about varroa, about sampling, and about control methods.