As we plan for the new season of beekeeping, there are two primary pests to be concerned about. The small hive beetle and the varroa mite. Both of these pests can weaken a colony if allowed to infiltrate. It is imperative to contain these early in the establishment of a new hive. Varroa mites seem to be the biggest problem.
There are several chemical treatments on the market that have been deemed safe for use with honey bees. It is hard to think about using a chemical given the prevalence of Colony Collapse Disorder and the concerns about pesticides. Although something must be done to control the mites, we prefer to use natural methods whenever possible. Since we are a hobby level beekeeping operation, these methods are an easier option than if we were attempting to run a commercial apiary.
To this end three techniques will be used in combination: powdered sugar dusting, screen bottom boards and drone comb.
Dust a half cup or so of regular powdered sugar over the bees. A simple fine mesh sieve is the only tool required. Yes, powdered sugar contains a small amount of cornstarch but it is not enough to harm the bees. This dusting addresses the mites in two ways. It encourages the bees to clean themselves, essentially grooming off the mites as they do. Think lice comb. Honeybees have a natural hygienic behavior and encouraging the grooming exploits this tendency. In addition the powdered sugar coats the mites and they are unable to hold on to the bees. This method obviously does not work for the mites that are in sealed brood but we'll get to that in the drone comb section.
Replace the solid bottom board of the hive with a screened version. When mites are dislodged from the bees, they fall through the floor of the hive. Varroa mites are not good climbers. They are unable to climb back up through the hive to find another host.
Drone comb is exactly what it sounds like. Honeycomb that is sized for drones. When a queen approaches an empty cell she first measures the cell with her front legs. The depth of the cell signals her to lay the type of egg needed. The deeper drone cells prompt her to lay an unfertilized egg. Varroa mites are attracted to drone cells because their eggs take longer to incubate and the mite can lay more eggs.
Once the drone cells are capped, the beekeeper pulls out the drone frames, freezes for 24 hours to kill the larvae and mites, then scratches open the cells. Opened cells are replaced in the hives where the bees will clean them out and start the cycle over again. This also serves to interrupt the life cycle of the mite. Using the drone comb works with the natural cycles of both bees and mites.
Drone comb is typically green in color so easy to find in the hive. Most beekeepers who use this technique place a frame of drone comb in the outer positions in the brood boxes. This placement encourages the mites to gather away from the worker bee cells in addition to providing a system to remove them.
These methods are not perfect and will not rid your hives entirely of varroa mites. But with a bit of due diligence, you can keep the mite population at a level that a strong colony of honeybees can manage. In my opinion, for a small scale hobby beekeeper, these methods are a reasonable alternative to chemical treatments.
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