September 2010

Well, the honey crops should all have been removed by now and treatment of the bees for Varroa – the parasitic mite that can kill bees in 2 to 3 years if left unattended – should have been applied. I don’t like using chemicals in the hive because of the deleterious effect on the bees – as well as on the honey and wax – so I adopt a more sustainable (and more time-consuming) approach to beekeeping. I use a combination of several methods; something that in the animal husbandry world is called “Integrated Pest Management”. It means using a variety of treatments so that what you are treating doesn’t build up a resistance in the bee to any one method.

Firstly I use open-mesh floors. This allows parasitic Varroa mites that are groomed off individual bees by their sisters, or that fall naturally through losing their grip, to fall from the bees and through the floor to the open air – where they will die! Then, to address those mites that are not groomed off, I dust the bee colony with icing sugar. This clogs the mite’s feet pores, lessening their “sticky” effect, so the mites lose their grip and fall to, and through the floor. The icing sugar, meanwhile, hasn’t contaminated the hive or the bees in any way – in fact, it’s eaten by the bees and supplements their nectar intake.

Thirdly, I use what is termed “drone brood culling”. This stems from the fact that the Varroamite exists symbiotically with its natural host, the Eastern honeybee, because the latter has a shorter breeding cycle than our own native bee. This means the Varroa mite cannot multiply fast enough to become a problem on its natural host. This is typical of a parasite/host relationship. However, we clever humans thought it would be beneficial to cross-breed the two races to improve honey yields, not realising when we returned with our native bees to the UK that we were also bringing this deadly mite. Now the breeding cycle of our honeybee (the Western honeybee) is longer than that of the Eastern honeybee, so the Varroa mites have a longer time to reproduce and can multiply many hundred-fold during a season as a result. This is why varroa can result in the death of a colony within those 2 to 3 years if untreated.

However, the beekeeper can capitalise on this fact since the development cycle for the male bees (the drones) is 3 days longer than that for the female bees (the workers). As a consequence, the Varroa mite prefers to enter drone brood cells and hide through the longer development period, producing up to 5 new female mites in each cell. So, if we encourage the building of drone comb in the hive, we can remove this surplus comb just before the drone bees hatch and feed it to our chickens (or put it on the compost heap). This removes a goodly number of Varroa mites from the colony before they have chance to leave the cells and start reproducing or predating on adult bees.

Finally, I will use a thymol application in the autumn to help ensure the development of healthy bees to see the colony through the winter. None of these treatments is 100% effective, as indeed even the chemical treatments aren’t, because we’re dealing with an insect (the varroa mite) which associates with an insect (the honeybee). Therefore we must be very careful with dosages of chemical treatments, thymol, nicotine, etc because if we overdose to try to get a total mite “kill”, we could end up killing the very creatures we’re trying to save – the bees.

Beekeeping? Not what it once was, but perhaps one of the reasons I find it so fascinating, absorbing and stimulating. The beekeeper has to be on their toes at all times and has to learn to think like the bees in order to provide them with the environment that will persuade them to stay in our hives. We are not really beekeepers, at the end of the day, we are bee carers!

Colin Rees colinbeeman@aol.com 01872 501313

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