Comb honey: when to treat for mites

Before I get down to the details of each type of comb honey super, I want to discuss Varroa mites. In Honey in the Comb, Eugene Killion does not write a single word about these irksome creatures. This was not an oversight. In fact, the book was published in 1981, six years before Varroa appeared in the New World. Believe me, life was easier without them.

I began keeping bees because I could no longer find honey in wooden boxes. Since I couldn’t buy it, I decided to produce it myself. But nowhere could I find information about controlling mites in a comb honey kind of world, so I devised a system that works for me.

Several factors are important:

  • The prettiest, whitest, and most tender comb is produced by bees in a rapidly expanding colony in the midst of a major nectar flow.
  • Although there may be several seasonal nectar flows, nectar from tree flowers is usually best for comb honey. There are exceptions, but most tree nectars are naturally high in fructose, so the honey they produce is slow to granulate.
  • Trees generally bloom early in the spring.

Taken together, these factors mean that you can produce slow-to-granulate honey in white and tender combs by building up your bees fast in early spring and getting those supers filled.

The downside is that your Varroa mites are loving spring as well.

If you are using mechanical mite control such as powdered sugar and drone frames, you can continue as usual. But many beekeepers prefer to treat for mites in spring and autumn. Although I have tried various methods, I have never been able to optimize comb honey production and treat for mites in spring. For example:

  • If you use commercial miticides (which I don’t recommend), the treatment must be completed a certain amount of time before supers are added. The amount of time varies with the product, but with some you must wait up to two weeks after the product is removed from the hive.
  • Some of the organic acid treatments require a lesser waiting time, but the treatment itself may require three to four weeks, which can pretty much demolish your spring.
  • Some of the newer organic acid treatments, including those based on hop beta acids, formic acid, or oxalic acid can be used while the honey supers are in place. Although I’ve read a lot of labels, I’ve never seen instructions that differentiate between comb honey and extracted honey, so I have to assume the recommendations are the same.

However, I would never let bees produce comb honey in a hive suffused with any of these products. As I mentioned earlier, wax quality is a major feature of comb honey. So legal or not, I would never subject my comb honey to chemicals. If nothing else, they all smell bad, so why risk infusing odors into a product that should smell like heaven?

Year after year I have managed my bees with autumn mite treatments alone. I usually remove my comb honey supers by June 30 and replace them with mediums for collection of winter stores. I use one of the organic acid treatments in autumn and call it good. Then, come spring, I’m ready to go without messing with mite treatments.

If the mite count seems high, I sometimes add drone frames in early, early spring, but I take them out before I add the comb honey supers. Once comb honey supers are in place, I don’t like to disturb the bees more than necessary. No disturbance means no drone frames and no powdered sugar, unless you have a blower for your weekly treatments and can do it without opening the hive.

Your local conditions will be different, of course, so I’m not advocating you use my system. But I am presenting it as an example and suggesting that you think long and hard about Varroa control if you intend to produce comb honey in spring. Like everything else in beekeeping, having a plan is key.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Varroa by Gilles San Martin CC
Varroa destructor on honey bee pupa. Photo by Gilles San Martin.

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Comments

ruth
Reply

Is it possible to remove the queen to a nuc for a couple of weeks to get a brood break, to help with the mite problem in spring? I’m hoping to do comb honey this spring and I’m hoping not to treat the mites with any synthetic chemicals.

Rusty
Reply

Ruth,

Yes, you can do that, but it is antithetical to getting good comb honey production. You want the highest worker population you can get right when the heavy flow begins. If you remove the queen beforehand, you will have a significant drop in workers right when you need them most.

If I were to use that method, I would wait until after the main flow. If you think you can’t wait that long, you can use powdered sugar for the weeks before the flow, and then remove the queen toward the end of it.

Sean
Reply

Do you have beevital hiveclean in America? I’ve been using it for several years with good results. I use no other mite treatments, hiveclean can be used as many times as you want, at temperatures from -5c to 25c. It’s suitable for organic beekeeping and can be used at anytime of year.

Rusty
Reply

Sean,

I’ve never heard of it. What does it contain? Maybe it goes under a different name here? Sounds intriguing.

Sean
Reply

Water, citric acid, propolis extract, essential oils, oxalic acid, saccharose and is made in Austria by Beevital.

Deborah
Reply

Hello – Is honey from mite infested bees safe for human consumption? And, is mite infested larvae from honey comb safe for chickens to eat (on a certified organic farm)?
In advance, thank you

Rusty
Reply

Deborah,

Honey from a mite-infested hive is perfectly safe to eat. Most hives are infected by mites to some degree; it is nothing unusual. As long as the bees were raised organically, the larvae can be fed to organic chickens. The mites are not an issue for chickens in any case. Chickens naturally eat all types of invertebrates.

Rui
Reply

Dear Rusty,

I am a first-year beekeeper and am planning to treat my hives in the fall, after the fall harvest, with Apilife Var. Around September/October. As I am planning to leave ample stores in the hive at that time for them to overwinter on, I am a bit concerned about the possible effects of Apilife Var on the comb or the honey, especially as I plan to harvest any remaining honey the following spring, as soon as a nectar flow starts coming in.

I would be interested in any suggestions on how to proceed as you are used to using this product. Not sure if you usually harvest in the fall though. Many thanks.

Rui

PS: The Beevital Hive Clean mentioned earlier is something that works pretty much like powdered sugar and can be administered frequently. It promotes the grooming behaviour of bees. You may find an info-sheet here: http://www.bees-online.co.uk/downloads/BEEVITAL_HIVE_CLEAN.pdf

Rusty
Reply

Rui,

Apilife Var has an extremely strong odor which persists. I think I would take off the honey supers and then treat for the three weeks. At the end of the treatment, I would remove any remaining wafers and then put the honey supers back on for the winter.

Rui
Reply

Hi Again Rusty,

Thanks for your prompt reply. I must say I am a bit concerned about taking off the honey supers and leaving them unattended for three weeks. I fear that without any bees around to keep them in check they might be a feast for wax moth.

How would you keep full supers safe for an extended period of time, off the hive?

I realize this is a bit off topic as this thread deals with varroa, not wax moth, but it comes in the sequence of your previous reply.

Thanks again Rusty!
Rui

Rusty
Reply

Rui,

You could wrap them in plastic film and then freeze them overnight. This is a lot of work, I realize. However, if the honey supers have never had brood in them, wax moths are not likely to show up. It’s a judgement call. Waxmoths are looking for cells were brood has lived and left cocoons and other debris behind. They generally do not like plain old honeycomb that has never seen brood. But, yes, occasionally some will break the rules. It is somewhat dependent on how bad your waxmoth problem is to start with.

Like all beekeeping, it’s a give and take: You can go to the effort of freezing; you can keep an eye on the frames and freeze if you see waxmoth; you can have your honey taste/smell like thymol; you can forget harvesting the honey and just save it for the bees; you can harvest it and feed it back to the bees in a feeder. You just have to make a decision.

If it were me, and if the honey supers have never had brood in them, I would just put the supers in a place away from insects (like in the house). I would check them briefly every day. If I saw no waxmoths, I would do nothing. If I saw a moth larva, I would wrap and freeze the frames. In other words, I wouldn’t do anything until I had to because I might not have to do anything.

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