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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve never heard of it. What does it contain? Maybe it goes under a different name here? Sounds intriguing.
Water, citric acid, propolis extract, essential oils, oxalic acid, saccharose and is made in Austria by Beevital.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
Hi, Rusty! Loving your site and all the info. I’d love to get your thoughts on my situation.
I, too, will be starting a beehive in a few months just for the purpose of obtaining comb honey, bee bread, propolis, and whatever other magic I can find.
Here is my dilemma: I live in Fairbanks, Alaska where bees are not known to overwinter. Lots of bees raised here, but as an “annual.”
Unfortunately, we also have mites, I guess they get brought up with the new bees every year.
If you were me, what would be the best way to ensure the best comb honey from a new crop of bees every year?
Thanks a million!
If I were raising honey bees as an annual, I would not treat for mites. Even down here in miteville, I only treat in the fall because I don’t want to contaminate my early spring comb honey with mite preparations of any type, including the essential oils.
This system has worked for me for years. Usually colonies collapse from mites in the fall when the level of mites per bee is highest, so if you are not going to overwinter, there is really no point in treating.
If later you decide to try overwintering indoors or whatever, you can always treat in the fall while they are putting away honey for themselves.
So, as an “annual crop,” would the bees be expected to make all new brood comb every year or will that part of the hive remain for the new bees in the spring? Will mites over-winter in the empty comb?
On an aside, I just watched this incredible video by a renown mushroom expert who is devising a way to strengthen bee colonies with an anti-fungal mushroom.
Definitely save the empty comb for the new bees; you will get a lot more honey if the bees don’t have to build all new comb every year. The mites cannot survive without the honey bees, so nothing to worry about there. However, you must protect your combs from predators and other insects.
Rusty – Thanks for your thoughtful answers. The bees will benefit! I’ve talked to quite a few beekeepers here in Alaska, and I’m afraid they may be doing things because ‘that’s how we’ve always done it.’ I like to look at things with fresh eyes.
Have you ever harvested bee bread? Or know if it’s even done? I see it for sale on the internet. I can’t imagine how one would pluck the tiny ‘loaves’ from the cells.
I just read an interesting paper on the biology of bee bread from Dec 2014: Hive-stored pollen of honey bees: many lines of evidence are consistent with pollen preservation, not nutrient conversion
Reading this makes me question the ingredients in Pollen Patties I’ve seen.
I haven’t read the link yet, but just to answer your question, I have never harvested tiny bee loaves and have no idea how to do that. They stick in there pretty tight, until they dry out and hardened like marbles, then they fall out.
Hi Rusty, I lost 3 of 4 hives this winter in Eugene, OR. I did one OA dribble in November. My remaining hive I didn’t treat but want to this spring. I don’t want to jeopardize my only remaining hive, small colony, but at the same time, they probably are already with varroa. No oa vaporizer, top bar hive, suggestions?
You might try ApiLife Var, which is thymol based. Part of the instructions are below, and I think you may be able to hit the temperature restrictions very soon:
“Applications of API LIFE VAR may be made in any season (spring/summer/fall/winter) in
which all applicable restrictions, precautions and directions for use can be followed.
Do not use when honey supers are in place to prevent excessive residues in marketable honey or
wax. Use when average daily temperatures are between 59oF and 69oF. Do not apply the treatment when
bees are robbing.
Colony Treatment (8 to 20 full- size Langstroth frames or equivalent)
Two treatments per year may be made. A treatment (3 tablets) consists of the following:
Take one tablet and break into four equal pieces. Place pieces on the top corners of the hive
body. Avoid placing pieces directly above the brood nest. After 7-10 days, replace with a fresh tablet
broken into pieces as above. Repeat procedure again, 7-10 days later and leave last tablet for 12 days.
After 12 days remove residuals from colony.
To prevent the bees from gnawing the tablet, either enclose each piece of tablet in an envelope of
screen wire (8 mesh/inch), or place the uncovered pieces above a sheet of metal screen that prevents bees
from contacting it.”
Or you could try HopGuard (hop beta acids) or MAQS (formic acid). I’ve been using HopGuard in rotation with OA dribble. Any of these are okay, as long as you follow the guidelines. As you know by now, November is too late to treat because the bees likely already had viruses. It’s good that one pulled through, though.
My hive died over the winter due to low numbers after a nasty hornet invasion. This month I’ll be getting a new bee package. I have 2 questions if you don’t mind.
1- I have a whole brood box full of honey from my last colony, may I leave that honey for my new bees?
2- I live in New Hampshire. A local beekeeper told me I should treat for mites by pulling 2 drones framed every 20 odd days, and freezing them or cutting them out, then returning the frames only to come back in 3 weeks and repeat. This seems like a lot of hive disruption to me. I noticed you said you only treat for mites once a year. Is the method that was recommended to me a decent method? And do you have a blog post I can read on how you manage to only treat once a year? I would love to only worry about it once a year! But I’m kind of blown away that your method works so well! Around here, people inspect their hives so frequently it’s almost silly. How can you know that the mites aren’t taking over your hive all spring and summer?
Thanks so much!
2. How often you have to treat will be different, depending on location, proximity to agriculture, nearness of other colonies, etc. All beekeeping is local. Drone trapping is part of IPM, usually used in combination with other varroa controls. It works very well in that way. The only way to know if mites are taking over or not is to do frequent counts, preferably with a sugar roll or alcohol wash.
Thank you. You mentioned you don’t like opening up a hive very often, however drone culling is monthly. Do you personally only start drone culling when a mite test reveals the mite number is high and intervention is needed? The beekeeper advising me culls drones all year (except winter) no matter what. He just does, and doesn’t bother testing for more numbers first.
I don’t cull drones any longer, for that very reason. It’s too easy for me to get behind, and then I end up raising scads of mites.
Okay thank you. I’m hoping to use oxalic acid, and have been reading your posts on it. You only do the dribble test once a year to prepare for winter? Or do you also treat during the warm months? Thank you!
The dribble is not a test, it’s a treatment. I rotate treatments so I don’t use the same one twice in a row.
How do I ask a question in this blog? I want to know if honey from a dead hive that has been treated for mites can be consumed by humans. Can you please let me know?
It depends on what the mites were treated with.
It is called Apistan Active Ingredient: Tau- fluvalinate Cas # 102851 – 06 – 9) …. 10.25%, Other Ingredients … 89.75%
That’s a strong commercial pesticide. I would not recommend eating the honey.
Ok, thank you!
What do you recommend for treating mites? Is the one we use too strong? Is it killing the bees?
Back to the mite treatment we use… would it be ok for creamed honey where you have to pasteurize it?
First of all, you don’t need to pasteurize honey to make creamed honey. If fact, pasteurization ruins honey without any benefit because is doesn’t kill botulism spores. Pasteurization won’t take poisonous chemicals out of the honey either. Pasteurization just warms up the honey and destroys taste and aroma components as well as some of the nutritional content.
I just removed a large hive [colony] out of an old building. There was a huge amount of bees and over 40 lbs of honey which I put back in a super and gave back to them. When should I treat for mites?
I would do a mite count immediately, and then schedule treatment according to the results of the count.
You answered a question above about (humans) eating the honey from mite infested hives. What about saving the comb, cleaning the (untreated) hives, and feeding honey to bees in the spring? Is there any risk in that?
Varroa mites need bees and bee brood to survive. You cannot pass on varroa mites from honeycomb that has neither.