Treating your hive isn’t difficult, but it will require some patience and diligence on your part. Before I tell you how you can cure your hive of these troublesome pests, it might help to learn more about them.
What Are Varroa Mites?
Varroa mites are arachnid parasites that are known for externally feeding off of honeybees. They’re reddish-brown and minuscule—not even a tenth of an inch in size.
Varroa mites cannot live apart from honeybees for more than a few days. Their prevalence largely depends on how much brood is available, though they also have a preference for drone brood cells. If left untreated, a Varroa mite infestation will multiply at an alarming rate, potentially putting the hive at risk of a complete takeover.
These pests originated in Asia, but spread to western honeybee colonies and are now found globally. Some populations of Varroa mites have become resistant to chemical treatment, much like how bacteria can grow to resist antibiotics.
How Varroa Mites Affect Honeybees
For one, their entire life cycle depends on—and is destructive to—honeybees. They attach themselves to adult honeybees and feed on their blood. This drains the bees of their bodily fluids and also damages their tissues.
Varroa mites invade brood cells before they’re capped. They then lay their eggs inside it. Once the eggs hatch, the mites feed on the brood too. This can cause deformations in growing bees, which can weaken the entire colony.
Varroa mites also spread disease. This is enough of a problem on its own, but the mites can spread disease through to entirely different hives.
Since they weaken the colony as a whole, it leaves the bees vulnerable to invasion by stronger (or healthier) bees from other hives. The invader bees might rob their honey stores, which could be infected by diseases spread by the mites. Even worse—they could pick up the mites themselves and carry them back to their own hives.
This, of course, opens an entirely new can of worms. Not only will the diseases spread to otherwise healthy colonies, the mites now have new hives to multiply in.
The situation might seem grim, but managing Varroa mites is not difficult to do. So long as you pick up on an infestation before it’s too late, you won’t have too much to worry about.
How to Treat a Varroa Mite Infestation
Even if you have a Varroa mite infestation you might not have to take action. A small population of mites doesn’t pose a grave threat to a colony, and the bees will be able to fight it without help from you. It’s only when the Varroa mite infestation grows beyond what the bees can control that you will have to intervene.
It’s recommended that you monitor the Varroa mite population in your hive at least once a month. Keep in mind that toward the end of summer or early in fall, there is more of a risk of mites. You might want to check for them more frequently at this time.
There are two ways to determine whether or not you have a Varroa mite problem. The first is when they’re so visible you can’t miss them, especially if you can see them in the brood. This requires immediate action.
The second is to count them. There are a number of ways to do this, but keep in mind that some methods—like alcohol washing or drone uncapping—will kill your bees in the process.
The most popular (and safest) way to count the mites in your hive is to do something we call a sugar shake. Your bees might come out of it a little bit worse for wear, but they’ll recover easily.
To do a sugar shake, you will need:
- A marked mason jar with a mesh lid
- Powdered sugar
- A container you will count the mites on—it needs to be clean and white (or light) for this
- A container to pour your bees into
- A spoon
- Some water
Once you have everything prepared, you can begin the test.
- Remove a frame or two from your brood nest (make sure you don’t include the queen in this).
- Gently shake the frames over your bucket or container, then pour your bees into your jar so that they fill at least half of it. Close the lid. You should have a good amount of bees in the jar now. Return any remaining bees to the hive
- Pour some powdered sugar through the lid and then shake the jar so that the bees become completely coated in it. Don’t be shy with the sugar, and don’t be afraid to give the jar a good shake.
- Once the bees are covered, turn the jar upside down over the container you will use to count the mites. The sugar makes it so that the mites can’t stick to the bees. They’ll easily fall out of the jar.
- Once you no longer have mites or sugar falling from your jar you can stop shaking. Add some water to your container to wash the sugar off of the mites which will make them easier to spot. When you can see all of them, count them.
It’s difficult to calculate whether or not you have a problem based on the number of mites you can count. It will depend on how many bees you have in your hive. Most beekeepers use a standard threshold of three mites per 100 bees (or three percent) to determine if you need to intervene.
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The easiest way to treat Varroa mites is to use fluvalinate strips. The only effort you have to put in is to place them inside your colony and remove them once they work their magic. The easiest way to purchase them would be online.
All you have to do is place two strips between your brood frames. Place them two frames apart. You can hang them up with a thumbtack, or even a nail to keep them in place. Just make sure that they hang freely. The strips will disrupt existing mites, and won’t negatively affect your bees. Leave them in your hive for six to eight weeks. Once they’ve run their course, remove them and dispose of them.
There are some precautions you should keep in mind. The strips can contaminate your honey supply, so remove your supers before you insert them. Also make sure to wear your gloves, as they could cause irritation on your skin.
Varroa mites seem like a terrible problem in honeybee hives. If you don’t control them, they could end up destroying your entire colony. Honeybees will manage a small mite problem without your help, but if it grows beyond their ability to fight it you will have to step in.
Managing Varroa mites is effortless is you have the right tools. What’s more important is preventing a problem before it spreads. Varroa mites are highly destructive, and they can move from colony to colony. It’s better to stop them in their tracks.