The Ultimate Guide to Safely Treating Honey Bees for Varroa Mites

Let me begin by saying, a truly complete guide to treating for Varroa mites would probably read like a thesis. How many of us can’t wait to curl up with a good thesis? No hands. That’s what I thought.

This guide will provide you with a condensed version of Varroa mite treatment options for the hobbyist or small scale beekeeper.

We are yet to completely understand our nemesis, and scientists are doing as much as they can to creep into their secret lair and find out their secrets.

Varroa mites don’t play fair though. Their superpower is their ability to adapt to our weapons.

So let’s begin by identifying what these creatures are.

Where do Varroa Mites Come From?

varroa-mites

Short answer: the underworld where all Batman villains dwell. Well, it’s the short answer, but it’s not exactly accurate.

Mites were discovered in the U.S in the late ’80s. Since then it’s been doom and gloom in the bee kingdom.

As you may know, honey bees aren’t native to these our great states, so all the bees living here today are mostly descendants of European bees, and recently some Australian bees.

The Asian bee was found to coexist with the varroa without suffering the same fate as their cousins in the west.

It appeared that these Asian bees were varroa resistant. If this was varroa ground zero that would explain the devastating effects it has had on bees in other regions.

The bees would have had millennia to evolve resistance against the varroa, while the European bees, being late to the game, were caught defenseless when the invasion happened.

What we know now is that they have spread across the country and all beekeepers have a responsibility to do their part in fighting this menace.

There are some bees like the Saskatraz that have a higher tolerance to varroa, but that’s a story for another time.

How do Varroa Mites Spread?

Varroa Mites Spreading on Honey Bee

Just like bad news, Varroa mites spread like wildfire. These mites spread through worker bees, robbing bees, and drone bees. The main aim of the Varroa is to feed on pupating bee brood.

Spreading Through Worker Bees

Whenever Varroa are found hitching a ride on unsuspecting worker bees, that’s their ultimate destination.

Recently, they have been found to snack on adult bee fat reserves which we will go into later.

They are happy to hitch a ride wherever they find it. If they find themselves dislodged from one host on a flower, they’ll hop onto another when a worker from a different hive comes to forage.

Spreading Through Robbing Bees

They also spread through robbers. As if robbing a weaker colony of their hard earned honey wasn’t enough, these robbers bear very nasty tidings in the form of the mites that they leave behind.

Spreading Through Drone Bees

Another way that the mites get around is by riding on drones. Drones are the perfect cab. Unlike worker bees that are loyal to their colony, drones will stop by any hive as long as they’ll have them.

What do Varroa Mites do to Bees?

This hitchhiking behavior is known as phoretic behavior, but unlike many other mites that are simply looking for a lift, Varroa Mites feed on the hemolymph as well as the fat bodies found on the abdomen of adult bees, which is the equivalent of blood for the bees.

If you look up a picture of varroa mites, you’ll notice they look like ticks. And like their parasitic cousins, they weaken their hosts and even infect them with viruses such as the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV).

Bee with Deformed Wing Virus

Bees depend on their wings for survival, so when they are infected with this virus, particularly at the pupa stage, they end up flightless and weak which kills the productivity of the hive.

Hitchhiking on a bee makes it difficult to prevent mite entry into the hive.

And as you can imagine, this has a significant impact on the honey bees who will most likely die from the Varroa Mites.

The beekeeper is then left with two options; monitoring and treatment.

When to Treat Your Bees for Varroa Mites

When to Treat Bees for Varroa Mites

In order for any treatment to be truly effective, it must be able to reach the mites. For that reason, the effective treatment is timed when capped brood is minimal or absent altogether.

You also need to understand when these mites are most vulnerable. Once you do that, then you’ll time your treatments for maximum effect.

The first step is to know your enemy. To kill the mite, you must be the mite. Well, maybe not, but you do need to understand the life-cycle of the mite.

Varroa Mite Life Cycle

Just like fleas, the mites that are roaming about on adult workers are usually the minority. Most of them are hidden in capped brood cells where they remain fairly safe from most of the compounds used to kill them.

When is This?

Fortunately, this part is easy to predict once you gain some experience.

Bees are pretty economical insects and if they were people, they would have an excellent credit score.

Left to their own devices they will not raise more mouths than they have the resources to feed.

When they anticipate that there will be a source of nectar, they prepare by building up the numbers, building comb so that the queen has multiple cells to lay eggs in.

Once the nectar season has passed, she slows down her laying activities and the numbers of brood drops gradually until the bees are ready for winter during which time she probably won’t lay any eggs.

When You Should Not Treat for Varroa

Bee in Winter Snow

Treating for Varroa Mites in the winter is not recommended for two reasons.

One, if the colony was heavily infested with mites before, you could wind up with a colony heavily infected with DWV.

Since your treatment options only kill the mites, your infected bees having a weakened immune system and the colony is likely to die anyway.

Two, depending on where you live, the winter temperatures may get too low for some of the treatment options to be effective.

In the winter, bees cluster together to keep warm so the last thing they need is you ripping the roof over their heads letting the cold air in.

With that in mind, you want to treat before the onset of winter when there is little to no brood. It is also recommended that the supers have been removed to avoid contaminating your honey.

Is There Really a Best Time to Treat for Varroa Mites? 

Beekeeper Inspecting Varroa Mites

Well, that’s a subjective question. There are several schools of thought and I guarantee that each one has a strong defense from the beekeeper practicing it.

You need to find a solution that’s healthy for the bees, kills the mites and doesn’t cause you, the beekeeper much harm.

There are those who treat once a year, at the end of summer or early fall and it’s enough.

I like that idea because multiple treatments within the year just do not sound healthy for the bees or the handlers for that matter.

The treatment options that we shall explore below try and balance the health of the bees while eradicating as many mites as possible.

It’s important to note that due to irresponsible treatments, the mites we have today are immune to many commercial pesticides that have been used to treat them.

They’ve become like superbugs. Imagine if you kept self-medicating every time you got sick.

Eventually, you would breed a bacteria in you that is completely unaffected by your general antibiotics and could eventually kill you.

These super mites have made treatment rotation as essential as the treatment itself.

When dealing with organic acids, for example, you can use oxalic acid this year and then formic acid for the next treatment.

Although resistance to these compounds hasn’t been proven, their effectiveness reduces if the only one compound is used in consecutive treatment sessions.

So, it’s best to get acquainted with as many options as possible because you’ll probably need to try most if not all at one time or another!

Before we get into the treatment options, first you need to monitor your mite count which will allow you to get a better understanding of the number of mites you’re dealing with.

How to Monitor Your Mite Count (With a Screened Bottom Board and Varroa Drawers)

Monitoring your mite count involves using a screened bottom board like this one here which is a mesh that replaces the solid ‘floor’ of the hive.

This means that the mites that get dislodged from the bees fall right through the floor and out of the hive where they are at the mercy of nature and end up as a buffet option for another creature.

In order to confirm the presence of Varroa, you can add a varroa drawer under the screen. This is a sticky board that traps the varroa that gets dislodged.

Once the mites land on the board, they can’t get back to the hive because they get glued to the board. Taking out the drawers is quite simple and not invasive.

Once you look through the debris on the board and confirm the presence of the Varroa, you may need to do a mite count.

What is a Varroa Mite count? Think of it as a survey. Your aim is to come up with an idea of the mite to bee ratio.

How to Do a Varroa Mite Count

To do this, you need a jar with alcohol, a measuring cup, and some nurse bees. Nurse bees are preferable because their proximity to brood makes them the best hosts for mites.

Therefore, this only works if you get a frame of brood from the brood box and scoop up about half a cup of nurse bees.

They don’t fly away so if you shake off the bees into a container, the foragers are likely to take flight and those that remain at the bottom are likely to be nurse bees.

You then scoop up half a cup with your measuring container. Half a cup contains about 300 bees and that is used to determine the ratio.

The bees are then put in the jar of alcohol and given a good shake for a few seconds. This kills both bees and mites, but it is very effective in dislodging the mites from the bees.

You then run this mix through a sieve to separate the bees from the alcohol and mites. The mites will sink to the bottom of the liquid and you will be able to count them quite easily.

With the number of mites known and an estimation of 300 bees in the sample, you can get a percentage infestation and make a decision to treat or not.

Once again, the acceptable threshold for treatment is subjective. There are those who will do so at 2% so it is up to you.

One of the reasons why one would treat when the number seems so low is you need to consider that most mites could be safely behind the wax seal of a pupating bee.

So, you’ll want to begin treating because mites will continue to emerge as the cocooned bees break out of their cell, meaning the mite count will continue to rise.

If you decide to treat, which you should, let’s explore some ways you can treat your bees for Varroa.

How to Treat for Varroa Mites

There are two primary ways that you can treat for Varroa Mites; through using organic compounds and other control methods such as with splits and a sugar shake.

Below we discuss the best organic treatment options then we transition into discussing other control methods that you can use to treat Varroa Mites.

Organic compounds

Yes, the organic craze is with the beekeepers now and with good reason. If it’s organic, then it’s likely to be found in nature which minimizes the health risks to us and other organisms.

In the case of organic acids, there are three that are used in the treatment of Varroa, namely Formic, Oxalic and Beta acid.

Formic Acid

Formic Acid Treatment for Varroa Mites

This one is a favorite of many because, unlike the other organic acids, this one penetrates the wax that seals the pupating brood in the cell and manages to kill the varroa feasting on baby bee blood.

Honey already contains trace amounts of formic acid and is therefore unlikely to contaminate the honey in the hive. Even so, it’s always advisable to carry out treatments once you have removed your honey supers from the hive.

If you don’t have Formic Acid you can get some here.

How to Handle and Use Formic Acid for Treating Varroa Mites

Being an acid, it needs to be handled with care, and as a beekeeper, you’ll need to take some safety precautions before you begin handling this compound.

First of all, make sure you’re wearing gloves like these to prevent any contact with your skin.

Second, ensure you have a good amount of water near you just in case some of it spills or splashes on you.

Third, it may be prudent to get a gas mask because the formic acid acts by evaporation and if you’re working in a poorly ventilated room, you could find yourself spattering and coughing.

Let’s not think about what acid does to the lungs, but since I mentioned it, I’m sure you can appreciate the need to be cautious.

Formic acid is usually applied using strips that are placed on the top bars and draped across several frames.

The formic acid then evaporates in the hive and spreads. In addition to that, the bees whilst in an effort to keep a tidy home may try to dispose of the strips.

This means that they will be rubbing against the strips and getting some of that acid on their little exoskeletons, spreading it across the hive as they bump into each other.

If you choose to drape it across one frame and the strip covers part of the comb, there’s no problem. The queen will continue to lay her eggs on the cells around the strip.

The downside to formic acid is that it requires relatively warm temperatures with the ideal being around 30° Celcius which is 86°F. It is important to read the instructions before you administer this treatment.

Oxalic Acid

Oxalic Acid

This is the McGyver of the group. Oxalic acid is used as wood bleach but happens to be deadly to Varroa. It is found naturally in some flowering plants and vegetables such as spinach and rhubarb.

When administered responsibly, it does not cause any distress to the bees, though increased mortality can be seen if you use this product too often.

How to Use Oxalic Acid for Treating Varroa Mites

Oxalic Acid can be administered in two ways: vaporization and dribble. Both methods have their pros and cons.

Vaporization

Vaporization is very effective as the acid is vaporized and the crystals spread all over the hive and on the bees. It does not depend on bee-to-bee contact to spread.

The downside is you will need additional equipment in the form of a vaporizer and a proper gas mask.

Vaporized oxalic acid is extremely dangerous when inhaled so standing upwind of the vapor is not enough as a precaution.

Dribble Method

Oxalic Dribble Method for Varroa

The dribble method is simple to administer. The acid is dissolved in sugar syrup and then drizzled directly on to the bees.

The tricky bit is that the dosage per hive is quite small, and for equal distribution, you will need to measure how many milliliters you will drizzle per seam (the space between two frames). If you put too little, it will be ineffective.

If you put too much, you could harm the bees and will wind up with a very soggy hive that can bring about other complications.

That said, with a little experience you will get better at it and there are tools that can help you measure out the exact amount needed per frame.

Downfalls of using Oxalic Acid

Unfortunately, Oxalic does not penetrate cell caps and therefore the mites feeding on the pupating brood remain unscathed. This is why this treatment is best used when there is little or no brood present in the hive.

Recommendations for using Oxalic Acid

Ensure that the dose per hive is not exceeded. If you are using the dribble method, you need to make sure that the liquid lands on the bees as opposed to the top bars.

Since bees are in constant motion within the hive and always wind up rubbing against each other, the acid will spread through this contact and expose as many phoretic mites to the acid as possible.

Hop Beta Acids

Beta Hop Acid Treatment for Varroa Mites

Just when you thought beer had given all it has to offer, you get this mite killer from the main ingredient, hops. This acid is derived from the hop plant.

It’s a weak acid and it has been known to deter some sap-sucking pests like aphids. From most accounts, it’s quite easy to use albeit a little messy.

All you need is to drape soaked strips across a brood frame such that most of the strip is in direct contact with the comb.

As the bees rub against it, even chewing it to remove it from the hive, the solution spreads throughout the hive and the phoretic mites are killed.

Disadvantages of Hop Beta Acids

Unfortunately, just like the oxalic acid, it cannot affect mites nestled in the sealed brood cells.

Another disadvantage is that the strips dry out quite quickly and you may need to wet them 3 times in the same week.

Even so, it is a very effective treatment with very little effect on bee health.

Thymol

Thyme - (Premium) 100% Pure, Best Therapeutic Grade Essential Oil - 10ml

Nature comes through once again in the form of essential oils. In this particular case, our gift-giver is the herb thyme.

Of all the essential oils tested, this one has shown the greatest results in killing mites.

Thymol works by evaporation in the hive making it extremely sensitive to temperature. If it’s too cold, no vapors equal no mite deaths.

If it’s too hot, the vapors could kill the bees. That sweet spot is between 60°F and 90°F.

This would place the ideal time to treat at the end of summer or early fall. August fits the bill perfectly. By then, any supers that were full of honey would have been harvested.

Minty honey is one thing, but I’m sure you don’t want honey that tastes like mouthwash.

Other Control Methods For Treating Varroa Mites

There are other actions the beekeeper can take in addition to the treatments to keep the count low. These methods don’t kill the mites but they can interrupt their life cycle which ultimately brings down the numbers.

Splits

Splitting your colonies in the summer interrupts the bee cycle because one of the new colonies will not have brood for a few weeks.

This means that the mites cannot reproduce during this time and gives any treatment you choose a higher success rate. The same goes for requeening a colony.

Sugar Shake

Sugar Shake Treatment for Varroa Mites

This one works best with a screened bottom board. Dusting the colony triggers a grooming response. In their quest to get rid of all the unwanted sugar, they dislodge the mites that have been joy riding.

The mites then fall through the screened bottom board and out of the hive to become someone’s meal, or they get stuck on the varroa drawers.

Either way, they are no longer a threat. The treatment has to be repeated weekly to be effective because it only works on the mites feasting on adult bees.

What Treatment is Best for Fighting Varroa Mites?

Short answer: all of them. It is always best to rotate your treatments. If you treat once a year, don’t use the same treatment two years in a row.

For mites, an integrated pest management regimen is the best defense you can have.

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