The Controversial Topic of Treatment-Free Beekeeping

Varroa mites

The Controversial Topic of Treatment-Free Beekeeping

Have You Actually Got a Mite Problem?

The season has changed. We’ve moved out of the spring swarm season and are well into summer. The queen is beginning to reduce her egg laying and, as the colonies population declines as we get into fall, the ratio of mites to bees can skyrocket! When it does, there is a very good chance the mites will destroy your colonies. In the north, if you lose your colony in December, it’s almost always due to mites. So what to do?

In previous editions of this column, we touched on the sometimes controversial topic of treatment-free beekeeping. But, regardless of which path you follow, you still need to recognize when there’s a problem.

You need to know what’s going on inside your hive. But why, you ask, if I’m not going to treat? Well, in some ways it’s even more important if you’re not treating. If you have plans to increase (or are just beginning) your own breeding program you need to know which colonies are dealing well with the mites – and which are not. Remember, your best bees come from the ones you raise locally.

Let’s start with checking whether you have a mite problem. Rather than attempt to describe how to do a mite count, take a look at this video from the Oregon State University Honeybee Lab. Study it and decide which approach is best for you.

Personally I prefer the sugar shake method since it does not kill the bees. Carolyn (the woman in the video) has told me there is little statistical difference between the two methods, if each is performed properly. So either way will give you an accurate count. Be sure to put a line on your collection jar that measures one half cup so you know when you have collected enough bees.

IMPORTANT: Make sure you do not collect the queen while collecting bees for your sample. Some beekeepers will shake or brush the bees into a plastic tub first, allowing a second look for the queen before collecting them in the jar. Then they pour bees from the corner of the tub into their collection jar. If you choose the alcohol wash method you do not need to take the bees back home to your freezer as shown in the video. Simply add the alcohol while you are in the apiary.

The Formula: A half cup equals approximately 300 bees. Divide the number of mites you count by 300 and you will get the percentage of mites. For example, 23 mites divided by 300 equals 7.6 percent.

A mite count above 5 percent means your colony could be in trouble.

To Treat or Not To Treat

So, let’s say you DO find a high mites count. Whether to treat your mites is a personal decision.

I’m not here to tell you take one approach over the other. Consistent with the theme of our “Outside the Swarm” column, what I will attempt to do instead is make you aware of some of the variables to assist you in making that decision.

Realistic Expectations for a Treatment-Free Approach

Clearly, this is where the majority of beekeepers want to be and prior to the mite it was not that difficult to practice treatment free beekeeping. Today is different and you need to be aware of some things if this is the approach you choose to take.

If you are committed to being treatment free then its best to simply never treat!. That said…

If you go treatment-free, understand that a lot – and I mean a lot – of your bees are going to die.

The source of your bees has an impact on this.

  • If you have purchased bees from commercial stock, they generally do not come from solid breeding programs . They are therefore not tolerant of mites because they receive a high level of treatments and colonies are often requeened every year. Take away the antibiotics and treatments and whatever was being suppressed is going to reappear.
  • If you purchased a nuc, the chances are it is likely to die this winter because it already contained mites when you got it.
  • If you began with a package of bees you could very well get through the first winter as packages normally do not contain the same level of mites as Nucs. Do not let this lead you to believe you are home free. The majority of packages die the second winter.

What does it all boil down to? Beginning with commercially sold packages or nucs will all but guarantee failure without treatment.

If you were lucky enough to start out with a wild swarm then congratulations. A truly wild swarm obtained from bees already surviving on their own is the best way to begin. However, most people are not that fortunate and must buy their bees to get started. In that case your best chance for success is to find bees raised in a treatment-free breeding program. In other words, their breeding program is built entirely from bees that survive without treatment. There aren’t many, but if you can find one it’s a better way to buy bees.

But I Don’t Want My Bees to Die Every Year – Isn’t There Another Way?

Varroa Mite
Varroa Mite

Yes, there is another way.

Just as with the no treatment approach, there are some things you must accept as part of this take on beekeeping. While I will rarely outright tell you what to do, in this case I make an exception.

Do not use the synthetic chemicals commonly available for treating mites.

Remember, as much as 80 percent of the mites in a hive are inside of capped brood. To be effective, these treatments must be left in the hive until all the mites have emerged and have been exposed. Consequently the chemicals must remain in the hive for an extended period of time. This is harmful to your queen (they produce less and die younger) and it’s also been shown that drones reproductive organs are damaged when exposed to these treatments.

These hard chemicals also accumulate in the wax and your bees (including the young larva and your queen) are continually exposed to them. This does not lead to a healthy colony of bees even if it does kill a majority of the mites.

The remaining options are the organics. These occur naturally and are already found in the hive, so you are not adding anything that is not already there. They do not build up in the wax and are often viewed as a “soft” treatment. But let’s keep it real folks, these are still poisons in the form they are used.

There are three organics currently available. One is made up of formic acid. Think stinging nettles and it also occurs naturally in the atmosphere as a forest respiration product. This compound is used in Mite Away Quick Strips. Another organic is Oxalic acid which is common in the plant kingdom – such as rhubarb and spinach. The third is thymol which is a natural antiseptic extracted from the Thyme plant. Thymol is often found in hand sanitizers.

Now let’s take a closer look at each product and how it’s used.

Organic Treatments

Formic Acid

First up are Mite Away Quick Strips, which use Formic Acid as the acaricide. One of the attractions of this product is that it only needs to be in the hive for 7 days. It is a gel based product that evaporates after being placed in the hive and kills both phoretic (mites outside the cell, usually riding on bees) and mites inside capped brood. It leaves no residue and you can leave honey supers on when using it. (though personally I wouldn’t)

The product is very effective but can harm queens and brood (and probably drones) if used when the temperatures are too warm. You should not use it when temperatures will be above 85 degrees. You must also pay attention to the safety warnings and use gloves and a mask when applying it.

I have used this product just a few times with temperatures about 80 degrees and have had excellent results.

Oxalic Acid

This is a new product approved for use in the last year or two, though it’s been used in Europe for quite some time. The product was originally used in a liquid form and poured over frames, but I would never suggest pouring anything wet over your bees for a number of reasons.

Today the product comes in a powder form and you must purchase a vaporizer to use it. The vaporizer is slid into the bottom of the hive, attached to a battery and the powder is vaporized inside the hive. This is very effective and this may be the only thing you ever need to do.

Please note that this product will kill brood. The time to apply (depending on your location) would be Nov/Dec, on a day when it’s not freezing. At this time the queen is not laying so there is no brood to harm and all the mites are exposed. It’s the closest thing you will get to a complete kill of the mites. Remember though thata complete kill is not possible and your realistic goal is simply to control numbers, not try to eliminate the mite.

I tried this for the first time last December. Since then I’ve coupled this treatment with a brood break, which was done in May and my mite counts as of mid July were 0,1 and 1. Very low!

Thymol

The active ingredient comes from the Thyme plant. Thymol is a natural antibacterial and is commonly found in hand sanitizers. For use in bee colonies it is sold in a product called Api Life Var Thymol Strips.

The product claims a high rate of efficacy, up to 95 percent and can be used at temperatures up to 95 degrees. At least that’s what the literature says!

The product comes in wafer form and they are placed inside the hive. The main difference between this product and the other two is that three applications are necessary at 7 to 10 day intervals, whereas the other two are one time treatments.

I personally have no experience with this product so I must rely on the opinion of friends who have tried it – and frankly it’s those opinions that have kept me from using it. Most of them will tell you it’s a bit of a pain to use and making three trips inside each hive being treated gets very time consuming.

What Makes These Mite Treatment Products Different?

All three of these products are based on naturally occurring substances, whereas the synthetics are manmade chemicals. The synthetics are imbedded on a plastic strip the bees walk over and hence pick up a small amount of chemical. This is toxic to both the bee and the mite, but is present at such a level it can kill a bug on a bug.

The three organic products all operate on the basis of a vapor and are corrosive, not toxic. That’s a big difference.

  • Toxic requires a sustained period of exposure until the poison can build up enough to kill. Think of lead or mercury poisoning. The extended time period of exposure to the chemical required to kill the mites is why they can build up resistance.
  • Corrosive would be like spilling battery acid on yourself. The effect is immediate and this is what happens to the mites.

In summary, the organics are certainly a better approach, but let’s always remember we are putting a poison inside the beehive. With the synthetics a toxic pool of chemicals can build up in the wax and is certainly not good for the bees. On the other hand, the organics may not build up in the wax.

But keep in mind that your favorite queen (and all the others, of course) on which you are planning on building your beekeeping empire has an exoskeleton! That exoskeleton is subject to the corrosive nature of these organic vapors. It’s my understanding the exoskeleton will stand up to only two treatments before it begins to break down and the queen can be harmed.

The point..

You must always take a sensible approach when using these compounds and only apply them when needed.

Speaking plainly, don’t get lazy, forgo the mite count and apply the miticide “just in case”. You never know, you may have just harmed a queen that is producing bees with a high level of mite tolerance.

Winter Bees

“Your bees are fat!”

“Well thank you very much”.

canstockphoto17785368One of the factors contributing to the winter survival of your hives is the health of the bees that raise the winter bees. But “what is a winter bee?”

Winter bees are the ones that live for months instead of weeks. They are the bees that will keep the colony warm throughout those freezing winter days and nights. If these bees are not healthy due to mite load or disease, the chances of your colony surviving the winter are greatly reduced.

In my part of the world the nectar flow normally just gets us to August. The bees reared after the flow are the ones who will raise the Winter Bees. If the bees raising the Winter Bees are not healthy due to mites (or disease) your Winter Bees are not going to be healthy either.

If your mite count revealed a high level of mites there will also be an associated exposure to and risk of disease. It’s just one more thing to consider when deciding whether to treat or not.

  • If you are committed to being treating-free, then it’s still good to know if the mite level was high. If your bees survive the winter after experiencing a high mite count, you will know you have a tough little bunch of girls!
  • If you are considering using treatments, you now know that a high level of mites will ultimately have a negative impact on the health of the bees expected to see the colony through the winter.

Another thing to consider is feeding your bees pollen if your location experiences a late season dearth. Pollen is fed to larva on the fourth and fifth day and callow bees (bees that just emerged) consume pollen almost immediately upon climbing out from the cell.

Recent studies are showing just how much a healthy balance of pollen can improve the health of a colony. For example, I know of a couple of commercial operations that stopped feeding the antibiotic fumagillin (long used by commercial beekeepers as an annual spring treatment for nosema) and began feeding pollen (real pollen not substitutes) instead. Studies showed that the incidence of nosema was not reduced but that the bees, made healthier by the pollen, were better able to tolerate it.

By feeding pollen, the bees that raise your winter bees will be healthier and therefore your winter bees will as well (DO NOT feed pollen substitutes or supplements).

You will need to find a clean source of pollen (mine comes from the Yukon) and then you must grind it. Bees cannot consume the pollen pellets that are normally sold for human consumption. To protect the pollen from weather, place the ground pollen in the bee yard in a soda bottle that has had one end cut off of it. You will be amazed at how fast the bees consume it!

And what makes those winter bees so different? They have lower levels of hormones, a greater make up of fat bodies, enlarged food glands and their blood has a higher level of sugars and fats. Summer bees are just about the opposite, with higher levels of hormones and lower levels of fat and sugar in their blood. Summer bees live four to six weeks and winter bees live four to six months or longer.

Something to Consider

After discovering a high mite count in one or more of your hives, some of you are probably trying to decide if you should treat or not. While I stand by my original statement that if you want to be treatment-free its best to never start, a lot of you folks are probably new at this and find yourself struggling with what to do.

So let me suggest something.

If you’re a beginner, it’s very difficult to learn the skills necessary to keep bees if they die every year and each spring you find yourself right back where you started. You can repeat that cycle as many times as you want but it will only take your understanding of beekeeping so far.

Treatment free beekeeping has many attractions, but look at this pragmatically. So if this is just your first or second year, you might consider treating mites with the goal being that of furthering your own understanding and education first. Later on you can always make splits, capture wild swarms and even purchase bees with the goal of leaving them to make it on their own without treatment.

It all depends on your goals and only you can decide which is most important to you at this point in time.

If you have questions I’d be very interested in seeing them so please feel free to leave a comment.

About Ron Lane

Ron Lane is a beekeeper in the beautiful state of Oregon. He has many years of experience, regularly teaches beekeeping classes and has an "Outside the Swarm" mentality to life, as well as beekeeping.

11 thoughts on “The Controversial Topic of Treatment-Free Beekeeping

  1. What about using a sprig of thyme put into the opening of the hive. Been also reading about some organic oils that can be used for mites in side the hives. Any opinions on this. Thanks

    • Good questions Dennis and glad to answer. The use of essential oils to control mites has been debated back and forth for some time, so I have doubt you have found some very positive articles regarding their use.

      There has been a lot of homemade “kitchen” formulas put out there on the web that were supposedly successful. Of course you never hear of the ones that killed their colonies. Just be careful with whatever you might be tempted to try, keeping in mind the margin of safety between killing mites and killing both mites and bees is very narrow.

      There are many variables involved in the use of essential oils including how they are applied, evaporation rate, temperature and how bees react to how the oils are applied.

      Based on my own experimentation and research I have read I can only conclude the jury is still out on essential oils though the research continues. Personal experience tells me that essential oils as a stand alone treatment may help but they are not capable of consistently reducing mite numbers to a level that will ensure the survival of your colonies.

      The above comments are targeted towards the homemade recipes you have likely read about. There are two commercial products on the market, Apiguard and Api Life Var, that are thymol based (a component of thyme oil) that are reasonably effective against mites. Keep in mind they are subject to some of the same variables other essential oil recipes face. Essential oils evaporation rate is dependent on air temperature and the amount of vapor in the air at any one time affects the products efficacy. At high temperatures these products can also cause harm to the queen.

      And to answer your first question last, a sprig of thyme placed at the opening to the hive will likely have no effect. It requires a large amount of plant material to extract just a tiny amount of oil that is potent enough to be effective. There simply would not be enough oil in a single sprig from the plant to be effective.

      A treatment you may want to look into is oxalic acid. Its naturally occurring in rhubarb and spinach for example. It will kill brood so you should only apply it during broodless periods in the winter. Additionally it will not penetrate capped brood and therefore will not kill mites in capped cells. Mites are exposed to this treatment when there is no brood and therefore oxalic acid treatments tend to be quite effective.

      Best of luck with your bees in 2017!

  2. This has been one of the most well balanced and informative articles on the decision to go treatment free or not. Great job. As a successful treatment free beekeeper of 4 years, you can’t go wrong with wild swarms.

  3. Hi Ron,
    you stated that oxalic acid kills brood, where did you hear that? All treatments have the potential to kill brood, bees and queens if the label directions are not followed and the treatments are misapplied.

    • Hello Marcin,

      I agree with your statement that all treatments have the potential to kill brood and harm the queen if used improperly. The reason for focusing on oxalic acid is two fold.

      1) Its a relatively new treatment in the U.S. and the literature regarding its use can be confusing. Some web sites (and providers of the product) say it does not harm brood and can be applied any time of the season. This is misleading and is the reason I brought it up.

      Oxalic acid vapor will destroy eggs, kill larva and capped brood. I have witnessed this personally. But the bees tend to clean things up so fast few people notice and therefore end up telling people it does not harm them. The only time to apply oxalic acid vapor is during a broodless period which is late fall or winter.

      I have not used the “dribble” method because I live in a cold climate and dousing the bees with a cold liquid in cold weather (broodless period) is just not something I am going to do. So I cannot speak to the dribble method from a personal experience point of view, however, it is still the same compound and I have little doubt the liquid will destroy eggs and brood as well.

      2) The other item I would like to make note of is that oxalic acid will etch the chitin in the exoskeleton of the queen. More than a couple treatments, even when applied properly, can harm the queen. I know a commercial beekeeper that was so pleased with the results of using oxalic acid when it first became available that she made multiple applications. The result was a loss of numerous queens.

      So lets sum things up a bit. All treatments have the potential to be detrimental to the bees, especially if used improperly. Treatments should not be used as a “just in case” approach to beekeeping, but the beekeeper needs to be responsible enough to know his/her mite counts. Only then can the correct treatment be used at the proper time.

      With regards to oxalic acid, even when used as directed, it will kill larva and brood and should only be used when the colony is broodless. There has been confusion about this because the product is new. If you wish to test this statement you should try it out for yourself.

      Inspect a colony and make note of the location of eggs, larva and brood. (Make specific notes about the pattern – eggs to larva to brood.) Treat with oxalic acid and return in two or three days. You will find that the eggs, larva and much of the capped brood is gone and in its place will be freshly laid eggs where the queen has returned to lay after the dead were cleaned from the cells. If you take good notes you will see that there is no longer a systematic progression through all ages – from eggs to capped brood – as there was prior to treatment. I know this from personal experience.

      I hope this has been helpful and wish you the best during the coming bee season.

      Ron

  4. I have an apiary that I want to make sure that I take care of. I’ve been having some issues with mites, and I don’t know what to do. It makes sense that trying something like oxalic acid would be a good idea! I’ll have to see if I can do that.

    • Braden, I applaud you for going the extra mile to take care of your bees. Lazy beekeepers (the ones who just put a hive out back and call it treatment free or hands off beekeeping) are doing a lot of harm to bees. The mite bombs they create kill off a lot of other colonies.

      So here’s treatment options to consider. Oxalic vapor is an excellent treatment, but you need to apply it when your colony is brood free – in other words winter, as it will kill brood.

      Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS) work very well, but don’t use them in temps above the low 80’s and a hive should be well ventilated when you do. MAQS use an organic acid to kill mites.

      Another organic acid is Thymol, from the Thyme plant. Its more flexible on temperature but must be applied every 7-10 days for three applications.

      Tracking the mite level in each hive is just as important. No reason to treat if the mite count is low. I usually check my hives once a month during spring and summer.

      Best of luck to you and your bees this season Braden.

  5. Excellent review of the various methods of mite control.. It is difficult to kill a bug on another bug without affecting both bugs. Not all things natural are good for the environment, mercury, lead, arsenic are all natural. Another recommended source for organic beekeeping is Michael Bush (Nebraska) and Dee Lusby (Arizona). Mr Bush has an extensive website, does traveling seminars about organic beekeeping, small cell beekeeping, and “non treatment” and will be in Smithfield, NC on Oct. 14, 2017. Contact info4beti@earthlink.net. Check http://www.bushfarms.com for a local seminar.

  6. Mr. Bush is a great resource and while we each take our own approach to things we cannot make educated decisions without first gaining a good understanding of the issue. Another excellent resource is Randy Oliver’s Scientific Beekeeping. Link below.

    I also agree with your statement that not all things natural area good. Context is the key word here. Literally millions of bees are killed every year and hundreds (if not thousands) of colonies lost because beekeepers are negligent about taking care of the mite problem. A single colony infested with mites and becoming a mite bomb that destroys numerous colonies around it is destructive and unproductive. In the wild bees colonies are at least a half mile apart, thereby reducing the impact of a single colony that is heavily infested with mites. In town where we artificially pack them together (kind of like a feed lot) pests and disease can become a serious problem. The context is this – if your out in the country like Mr. Bush and are not impacting other owners and their bees, going treatment free is certainly the way to go. But if you are keeping bees in town and teaching new beekeepers they can be treatment free with bees purchased from commercial outfits that have been treating their bees, they will not only lose their bees but destroy many other colonies in the process. Most purchased bees come from sources that were treating and when treatment is stopped, what was being suppressed returns. To go treatment free one must begin with wild swarms to be successful.

    So its all about where you are at and being a responsible beekeeper. If a person is in town they should seriously consider the fact that their actions are going to either positively or negatively impact the colonies around them.

    Here is the link to Randy’s site.

    http://scientificbeekeeping.com/varroa-management/treatments-for-varroa/

    Thanks for your comments and perspective.

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