Mitekeeping for everyone

Last week I was in Costco paging through a beekeeping book they had for sale. Suddenly, I got the creepy feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked up to see a young man in a green t-shirt with a panicked look about him. He was on the other side of the table.

He looked straight at me and pointed to the book in my hand. “Do you know anything about beekeeping?” he asked.

I shrugged and closed the book. “A little,” I said.

“Do you have bees?” he asked, clearly agitated.

His demeanor put me on guard. “A few,” I said.

Then he surprised me. He said, “I’m going to get a hive in the spring and I need to know how to keep them alive for a long time. I keep hearing stories. What is the most important thing I need to know?”

This is not the typical about-to-become-a beekeeper question, which is usually more about equipment or honey or getting stung.

So I gave him a not typical answer. I said, “Learn the honey bee life cycle inside and out, both the individual cycle and the colony cycle. Learn the Varroa mite life cycle inside and out. Once you understand those two things, learn how they fit together. That is the secret.”

I was still explaining what I meant when someone came by to claim him and they both left. Thinking about what I just said, I reopened the book—255 pages. I found the section on Varroa—2 paragraphs, about 1/3 of a page.

Here’s the thing: for most of us in North America, if you are going to be a beekeeper you are also going to be a mitekeeper. It’s an inescapable fact. It is nearly impossible to persist year after year if you don’t understand the dynamics of the two populations living inside your hive. Yet most books that I’ve seen mention mites only as an afterthought, a footnote.

Many new beekeepers I have met have said they hoped their bees didn’t have mites, or they hoped they would learn about mites before they became a problem, or they thought mites wouldn’t be a problem right in the beginning, or they thought the whole mite thing was an exaggeration.

Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Let me repeat: The day you become a beekeeper you also become a mitekeeper. Remember that. Say it out loud. Learn everything you can about mites and their population dynamics. Concentrate on becoming a master mitekeeper and the beekeeping part will be easy.


Pet cemetery: RIP

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    Last week I was in Costco paging through a beekeeping book they had for sale. Suddenly, I got the creepy feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked up to see a young man in a green t-shirt with a panicked look about him. He was on the other side of the table. He […]




Excellent article. I am the worst offender of keeping my mites healthy. I think I interrupt their breeding cycle twice during the summer. I just read your pdf article on different mite treatment. I was wandering if you could expand of the use of pine smoke. Most all of the smoke in my hive is from dried pine needles, am I inadvertently helping my bees by using pine smoke?



I will have to re-read the paper before I can answer . . . it’s been a while.

Tim Eisele

Yes, exactly. Of all the things listed in the books that can go wrong when keeping bees, the mites are the only ones that I ever actually see giving grief. And yet the advice given on dealing with them ranges from the overly simplified (“add this treatment and hope for the best”) to completely wrong. And hardly any of them take into account what the mite life cycle is like, and how to work with it to keep the bees alive.


Well, I HOPE you gave him your blog link. That was no time to be modest, you could be saving a beekeeper’s sanity. You saved mine, for a fact, with your post about the scutellum. And then Randy Oliver saved it with advice about sugar dusting.

The beekeeping books are mostly outdated, from before the mites got so endemic. They need to publish “pocket parts” (like lawbooks do with new case precedents) so we can keep track of the latest threat to our hives.



Great advice, which I positively had to post on Twitter!


I’m taking a British Beekeeping Association exam on Honey bee Pests, Diseases and Poisoning in March 2013 ( and am having difficulty finding many books to revise from. Standard beekeeping books really don’t go into enough depth for me to pass an exam with.

The best source of info I’ve found so far is ‘Beebase’, the information site produced by our UK government bee inspectors – I’m going to be reading their “Managing Varroa” booklet obsessively for the next few months.


Thanks for the links, Emily. I will be sure to check them out.

Tricia Lockhart

This is a definite reblog. Great advice Rusty.


You are right that mites are a reality of beekeeping except for those in Newfoundland and Australia. However, I hate the idea of constantly medicating the hive and ultimately creating a super mite that adapts to the medication. Treatments (;; are temporary fixes. The smaller apis cerana, africanized bees, and some feral bees cope with varroa as do (they say) small cell bees (although it may just be survivor stock). It has been suggested that varroa can’t penetrate the smaller segments between body parts and one day less incubation also helps. Possibly the answer lies in the inevitable northward progression of the Africanized bees (they have adapted to the colder locations at the foothills of the Andes) and their genetic infusion with a subdued aggressiveness. Attempts to stop the Africanized bees (drone flooding, requeening, killing feral hives) will only slow down their progress.

James C Bach

Amen Rusty. A very consice response to a very pertinent question by a potential beginner. Well done. There is a lot of information published relating to Varroa but it is sometimes contradictory making it necessary to know more about how the research was done, what the mite loads and colony sizes were. All queens are not equal contrary to some opinions, so research results will and do vary.


My newly installed hive is already dropping mites on the bottom board. I was surprised at how big they are in relation to the bees. It is like dogs with fleas the size of gerbils.



I was talking with some people in Oregon last week who are treating new packages for mites right from the start. If anything, the mite problem seems to be getting worse.

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