Confusion is understandable here, so below is a quick guide to these similar-sounding names:
Apivar is the trade name for a Varroa mite treatment based on the chemical amitraz. Amitraz is an acaricide/insecticide that has been around since 1969. Its chemical name is N,N’-[(methylimino)dimethylidyne]di-2,4-xylidine and is considered a “hard” chemical treatment.
ApiLife Var is the tradename for a Varroa mite treatment made from 74% thymol, which is the active ingredient. It also contains eucalyptol, menthol, and camphor. It comes in the form of a soaked biscuit and is considered a “soft” chemical treatment.
Apiguard is the tradename for a Varroa mite treatment made from 25% thymol, which is the active ingredient. It comes in a gel form and is also considered a “soft” chemical treatment.
At the end of last summer when it was time to treat for Varroa mites, I decided to use ApiLife Var. I try to rotate through the “soft” treatments and not use the same one year after year, a practice designed to slow the development of resistant mites.
I had used HopGuard the previous year with disastrous results. I didn’t blame the product itself but rather the instructions, which were totally confusing and, I believe, misleading.
In any case, it wasn’t the year for HopGuard so I chose ApiLife Var, which shifted the active ingredient from hop beta acids to thymol. I had used ApiLife Var many times in the past and always had good results.
So the second week in August I removed honey supers, inserted the Varroa drawers, took off the screened inner covers, and reduced the entrances. The idea is to make the hive into a fumigation chamber, sort of like tenting a house before spraying it. It is process I hate because, right in the middle of the hottest days of the year, you lock down the bees till they can barely breathe. Still, it’s part of the process, so I did it.
I persisted with this method during the three weekly treatments required by the label. It was August 31 when I finally re-opened the hives and pulled out the Varroa drawers.
Mites playing hard to get
Much to my surprise the mite count was low. At first blush, this may sound like a good thing, but I knew something was wrong. Terribly wrong. The trays should have been thick with mites. I should have seen thousands—not mere hundreds—collected below my triple deep hives.
Why so many? Because I treat for mites only once a year and this was the end of the year. In addition, autumn was approaching so brood nests were small and shrinking. Dead vampires should have been everywhere.
I went back to the house and rummaged through trash pails until I found the ApiLife wrappers. I checked the expiration date, but that was not the problem. I re-read the instructions and double-checked the temperature parameters, but I could find nothing amiss. What was going on?
I spent a sleepless night trying to decide what to do. The bees just went through three weeks of hell in their fumigation chambers and I didn’t want to prolong it. But if I didn’t do something, I was sure mites would kill off the colonies by spring. I was confused and by morning I was even beginning to doubt my own estimate for the number of mites I should have seen.
By then it was September 1 and getting late for raising a crop of winter bees that had never been exposed to mites. It was then I remembered the partially used package of HopGuard I had tucked away in the shed. I opened it and decided there was enough to do the job. I hesitated. Poor bees. But I couldn’t shake the feeling I had to do something, so I did.
HopGuard to the rescue
I HopGuarded all hives—not according to package directions, of course—but according to what I knew the package was supposed to say . . . three treatments, three weeks in a row. I kept fretting, kept second guessing myself, but I did it anyway.
After three days of worry and suspense, I pulled a tray to have a look. OMG! There they were! Thousands of gloriously dead mites lying in heaps and piles—just like I wanted to see. It was as if the ApiLife Var had done nothing except irritate the bees. I washed the drawers and returned them to the hives. The mites continued to accumulate furiously for a few more days, then the drop tapered off. Soon afterward, we dove into the long, wet, coastal winter.
At this point, I can tell you my bees overwintered with no discernible mite problems at all. But if you asked me what happened back then, I can’t say.
Did my mites develop a resistance to ApiLife Var? Maybe. Or did I buy a bad batch of the stuff? Maybe. Did the HopGuard save my bees? Absolutely. Has the company re-written their hare-brained instruction sheet? I didn’t even look.
The takeaway message is simple: trust yourself. I don’t know why I was so convinced the mite counts were bad, but I do know that intuition and a partial bag of year-old HopGuard saved my bees.
You went into autumn with an exuberant and populous hive. You weren’t worried about them because they had a first-year queen and loads of honey and pollen. You counted your mite drop and it seemed okay—you saw a few mites but not many—so you dusted the bees with powdered sugar just to be on the safe side.
Somewhere toward early spring you decided to check the colony’s food supply, just in case. You even prepared some candy boards as an insurance policy. So on the first warmish day when you thought it was safe to open the hive, you did. But to your amazement, no one was home.
What you found was an empty hive with very few dead bees and frame after frame of untouched honey. Or maybe you found no bees and no honey either. Instead, all of the frames that had been full were now empty with ragged and torn edges. What went wrong?
The very first thing I would suspect in a situation like this is Varroa mites. Mites can take down a colony quickly, and the mites that you count on a sticky board are just the tip of the iceberg. But to be sure—or at least more sure—here is a list for your post mortem:
If there are very few dead bees in your hive, it may mean the colony worked hard at removing them until the last minute. Try to find some dead ones on the bottom board, alighting board, or even on the ground nearby. Sift through them and look for bees with deformed wings.The presence of many deformed wings is a good indicator of Varroa.
If you have a bottom board or Varroa tray in place, look for mites. If the colony died from mites, you will find mites in the debris.
Look for frames of honey. A hive with plenty of honey and no bees can be a sign of Varroa. A hive with no bees and honeycombs with jagged edges indicates a weak or dead hive that was invaded by robbers, which can also be a sign of Varroa.
Examine the brood frames. Adult bees that died while they were emerging, or just before, may have been weakened by Varroa. These bees will have their heads facing up. (Bees that starved while searching for food in the cells will have their tail ends up.)
Hold up the empty brood frames with the sun at your back so you can see inside the cells. If you find bright white deposits adhering to the inside of brood cells, you can be sure of a Varroa infestation. These white spots are patches of mite excrement that contain about 95% pure guanine, an amino acid.
If you conclude your bees died of a Varroa infestation, review your management strategy and try something different next year. Mites can be handled in many different ways, but you must be diligent. If you do nothing—or next to nothing—the mites you reared will soon spread to other colonies, both feral and managed.
Why is this year so different? Every day I get messages that say basically the same thing: “I just checked my hive and all the bees are dead. They have plenty of honey and lots of pollen. What did I do wrong?” Some say their bees died in a small cluster; some say their bees were completely gone. Sure, some of this happens every year, but this year seems worse.
I’m just thinking at the keyboard here, so keep in mind this is merely my opinion. But basically, I think two things are converging to kill our bees: healthy mites and unhealthy queens.
Varroa mites first landed in North American in 1987, which is just 26 years ago. It took a number of years before they spread over the entire continent, but during that time they evolved to match North American bees in North American climates. During that period the viruses they carried also evolved to fit the conditions in North America. This is not a stretch; most viruses—as well as many invertebrates—adapt very quickly to changing conditions. Evolution can happen super fast in organisms that have multiple generations per year.
However, some organisms do not evolve quickly and honey bees happen to be one of those. Geneticists have discovered that honey bees have few of the genes that allow for quick adaptation to change. Scientists believe that honey bees use hygienic or defensive behavior—rather than genetic adaptation—to respond to most external threats. In short, you have stodgy adapters being assaulted by a cadre of quick adapters.
The lethal combination of mites and viruses quickly killed off most of the feral colonies in North America, removing a critical part of the honey bee gene pool. No longer able to find sufficient wild bees, beekeepers were forced to import bees from elsewhere. As a result, most of our managed colonies have been raised from production queens that, by definition, have a limited supply of genes. Although beekeepers don’t like to believe it, most of the so-called feral colonies that are discovered today have escaped from managed hives in the recent past. As such, they are only a generation away from their production-queen origins as well.
So while the depth of the gene pool has decreased rapidly due to parasites and pathogens, the need for queens has increased sharply. It makes sense: as more and more hives die, the need for replacement grows. The irony is that the “solution” makes the problem worse.
To meet the demand for replacement colonies, queens are produced in large quantities in the south and shipped all over the country. Through no fault of the producer, these bees have marginal genetics. Why? Because there just aren’t that many genes to pick from anymore. As a result, the exhausted gene pool was spread from sea to shining sea.
And it gets worse. You and fifty other beekeepers in your county have bees with nearly identical genetics simply because everyone in your local bee club bought bees from the same producer. They all arrived in one truck, so in addition to having the same genes, they have the same diseases. It means the drones hanging out in your local drone congregation area have the same genes as well. So if you are trying to raise your own queens to overcome a shallow gene pool, the odds are stacked against you from the start. It’s one heck of a mess.
Now, back to the original question: why is it worse this year? In short, I think it has taken a number of years for Varroa mites and their viruses to adapt and spread across the country. It has also taken a number of years for most of the feral bees to die off and for production queens to replace local queens. What we are seeing now is a crescendo of bad outcomes—a perfect storm. In other words, I think it will get worse before it gets better.
Beekeepers are a creative lot, and I truly believe that many of those colonies were lost in spite of the best beekeeping practices we know. If we are lucky, we will make a discovery that saves the honey bee. But for now, we are stuck with what we have and we don’t know from where the answer will come. Or when. Or if.
Freezable, Gourmet, Pre-preparable, Serve at Hive Temperature
Grease patties provide minerals for your bees and may help reduce the varroa mite load.
4.4 lb granulated sugar (use plain white sugar from cane or beets)
3 fl oz corn oil
1.5 lb vegetable shortening (this should be solid at room temperature, such as crisco or coconut oil)
1 lb honey (you can also use sugar syrup)
0.5 lb mineral salt (this is usually pink or gray)
2.2 oz wintergreen oil
Grease patties provide minerals for your bees and may help reduce the number of Varroa mites in the hive. If you cannot find a source of mineral salt—or you don't want to buy a 50-pound sack of it—go to your local pet store and buy a "bunny wheel." A bunny wheel is nothing more than a mineral salt lick for rabbits and the bees don't object to this addition of rabbit food to their diet.
Large doses of wintergreen oil (methyl salicylate) can be toxic to humans. Since it can be absorbed through the skin, protective gloves are a good idea.
Pulverize the salt so it will mix evenly throughout the patties. This also prevents water droplets from forming around large salt crystals.
Mix all the ingredients thoroughly using protective gloves. Do not get wintergreen oil on your skin.
Make patties the size of small hamburgers.
Press the patties between pieces of wax paper and store in the freezer until you need them.
Before serving, cut excess wax paper from the edges of the patty, but leave the rest in place. The bees will eat from the sides of the patty while the wax paper prevents the rest from drying out.