Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Enter Varroa Destructor

Despite battling against small hive beetle for some time now, I have been thankful to have avoided dealing with perhaps what can be regarded as the honeybee's most devastating pest - the Varroa mite. Properly named varroa destructor (I know, charming isn't it?) this wee beastie of a tick is responsible for some of the greatest losses in honeybee colonies, and a full-blown infestation is often cited as a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder. Gone unchecked varroa can destroy a colony in as little as three years. The rise of varroa in the US has also given rise to some of the most pervasive chemical use in commercial and even small-scale beekeeping. In an all too typical approach, we have thrown chemical and miticides at the varroa with little positive benefit. Some even fear we are establishing mites who are tolerant of the toxins and continue to flourish.
A varroa mite on a honeybee larva. From Wikipedia.
When I pulled out the monitor tray in one of my hives I was looking for small hive beetle, which I did find a few dead ones of those. But amid the pollen and wax flakes were two or three reddish-brown specks - the unmistakable remains of the varroa mite. I must admit I was somewhat crestfallen when I saw them. I had been naively thinking I might get through my first year without the mite invading my hives. But, alas, it is not to be. The mite is here and now I must deal with it.

So what next? I shall continue to monitor the mite numbers within the hives and do all I can to learn what my options are, although I am unshakably committed to a noninvasive approach as much as possible.

I started my hives with 50% foundation in my frames and 50% with only starter strips. There is a lot of discussion out there about how the factory pressed wax foundation forces the bees to build cells that are larger than those that they would naturally build themselves. This can result in higher mite counts within a hive because the mites gestate within the cells. Larger cells allows for more time for even more mites to hatch. Subsequently, there is also a lot of talk of regressing the bees back down to a smaller cell size by letting them build their own comb. I am glad that in the second hive bodies of both of my initial hives I went with 90% foundationless frames - the bees have built their own comb beautifully. But it seems that I will have to start switching out the frames built on foundation for ones that are bee-made or give them starter strips to start from scratch with. This is one of those areas that I am still trying to educate myself in.

It saddens me that a creature as remarkable and gentle as the honeybee must endure such trials as pests and pesticides, but I think it is our responsibility, and indeed, our honor, to assist them in overcoming these hardships. The honeybee is a creature of pure devotion and love, and we are their consorts.

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