varroa mites

Absconding bees or death by Varroa?

Absconding-colony-1 hanging from hive stand

This past fall, I received many reports and questions about absconding bees, perhaps fifty in all. Every year I get these and I must admit that I’ve always taken the beekeepers’ word for it when they said their bees absconded.

But this year I realized the sheer number of reports was off-kilter somehow. Yes, honey bees abscond on occasion, but it is rare, and it is usually the result of untenable conditions in the hive.

Absconding due to thymol

Only twice have I seen absconding myself. The first time was in the middle of a treatment with thymol (Apilife var) for Varroa mites. I found the cluster, along with their marked queen, in a nearby cedar tree where I was able to capture them. With a bit of research, I discovered other beekeepers who had similar experiences with thymol, especially when daytime temperatures spiked above the recommended treatment threshold.

Absconding due to scavengers

The second time one of my colonies absconded, I received a call from the landowner where I kept an outyard. She said yellowjackets were going in and out of one of my hives. By the time I got there, the bees were pouring out of the hive and clustering below the hive stand, queen and all. I was able to drop the cluster in an empty hive where it stayed. When I opened the original hive, I found it teeming with yellowjackets, bee bits, and ripped and dripping combs.

Other beekeepers have reported absconding after severe infestations with wax moths and small hive beetles. But in all three of these cases, the proximate cause was a scavenger, which means the colony was weak to start with. A healthy, vibrant colony is generally able to control attacks of yellowjackets, beetles, and wax moths. A weakened or hungry colony, however, may decide it is losing the battle and opt to leave. At least, this is how it appears.

Not absconding bees, but something else

The vast majority of the reports I heard this fall appeared not to be the result of mite treatments or scavengers. Instead, the stories, nearly identical in all cases, claimed the following:

  • The colony that “absconded” was the largest in the apiary, or one of the largest.
  • The incident occurred in September, October, or November.
  • The colony seemed normal during a recent inspection, usually between one and four weeks prior, and then suddenly disappeared.
  • The beekeeper did not see the bees leave or find them later.
  • Honey was left in the hive or it had clearly been robbed (as evidenced by ripped cells).
  • Sometimes, a small amount of brood remained in the hive.
  • A small number of listless bees lingered on the combs, but the rest were gone.
  • The queen is often missing but sometimes she remains by herself or with a small amount of brood.

At first, I wondered if an influx of Africanized genes into the larger population was causing an increase in absconding, but I could find no evidence for that theory in recent literature. So I spent considerable time re-reading the reports (at least those I could find) and concluded that nothing about them suggested absconding. Instead, the observations listed are classic signs of collapse due to Varroa mites.

A plethora of non-treatments

Where I could, I went back and asked those beekeepers how they treated for mites and when. The answers were a hodgepodge, but some examples are listed below:

  • I didn’t see any mites so I didn’t treat
  • I dusted with powdered sugar in the spring and fall
  • I used Honey-B-Healthy
  • I used wintergreen patties
  • I bought a local queen
  • I have a screened bottom board

While there is nothing wrong with doing these things, none of them—even in combination—will handle a mite problem. Many different philosophies have evolved for raising bees in the world of Varroa, but learning to recognize an infestation seems like a logical first step.

Often, when I suggest a colony disappeared due to Varroa mites instead of absconding, I am roundly trounced. “No, they were fine last week.” “It’s not possible because it was my strongest colony.” “The colony was new this year, so it couldn’t have mites.” I find it intimidating to say anything.

What we know about Varroa collapse

Based on observations going back many years, beekeepers collectively know a lot about collapse due to Varroa. Some key points:

  • The number of mites in a colony increases as the bee population increases. But when the bee population begins to decrease in the fall, you are faced with more mites per bee. Likewise, when drone production stops, the mites move into the worker brood. This is the reason colony death from mites skyrockets in September, October, and November.
  • Large colonies support huge numbers of mites. When these colonies contract in preparation for winter, the number of mites in the hive is astronomical. Large colonies—even those that appear healthy—are often the first to fail due to the sheer number of mites.
  • Not only do the large ones fail, but they fail fast. Some say that a large colony can collapse within a week. This “here today, gone tomorrow” aspect is what leads beekeepers to think their hive absconded.
  • Oddly enough, sometimes smaller colonies do better against mites. Their smallness may have been caused by swarming, queen supersedure, or splitting, all of which produces a brood break sometime in the season, which means less brood was raised and fewer mites were produced.
  • Colonies that have collapsed from mites often leave behind honey, sometimes large amounts. This is especially obvious when the colonies collapse during cold months when predators are less likely to clean out the combs.
  • Colonies that collapsed from mites often leave behind some brood. This occurs because life in the hive was preceding normally until a large influx of mites took them down. Because it happens so fast, it can easily occur within the 21-day brood cycle. The result is a patch of brood in an otherwise empty hive.
  • You may find the dead queen or not. The queen may be missing for a number of reasons. She may have been infected with viruses and died, or she may have starved, or she may have died of exposure because her work force is gone. Her body may have been removed from the hive or she could have fallen into the hive debris. A dead and shriveled queen is hard to spot in a pile of bee bodies.

Where the bees go has always puzzled me, but there have been many observations:

  • In the beginning, the live bees drag out as many bodies as possible. This is more obvious in poor weather when they leave them just outside the door. During warmer or drier days, they will fly them further away so the dead go unnoticed.
  • Sick bees will often fly out and die for the good of the colony. Many people have observed this behavior. On cursory inspection, the dying bees look fine, but they are not.
  • When the hive is sufficiently weakened, predators and scavengers may move in. This can give the appearance that they are the cause of the problem when, if fact, they are the result of it.
  • Sometimes bees have been seen to “abscond” but not in a coordinated way. Instead, individuals may flee from the colony and take up residence in a nearby hive. This drifting spreads mites to other colonies.

I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites. If I suggest any other cause of death, they are likely to accept it—or at least consider it. But mention mites, and the answer is usually a resounding “No way!” A stigma associated with mites suggests that you are somehow lacking in ability as a beekeeper if you lose a battle with Varroa mites.

Another common misconception is that mites are easily visible by the beekeeper. In fact, mites make a point of hiding from view. They spend a lot of time beneath capped brood cells and are rarely seen on adult bees. Even if phoretic mites are present on the adults, they can can remain partially concealed between segments.

Whatever the reason for dismissing the mite problem, it’s sad because by denying the evidence we preclude an opportunity to learn and improve. Like most conundrums, the more you know, the more successful you will be.

What to look for

I would prefer you didn’t take my word for it, but do a postmortem on the hive that you suspected of absconding. The first clues to death by Varroa are listed above, that is, a suddenly empty hive that still contains honey and a patch of brood. But if you want more evidence, here are some other things to look for:

  • Look for guanine deposits inside the brood cells. These are white, crystalline patches that adhere to the top of the cell. Randy Oliver at Scientific Beekeeping has a nice description.
  • If there is capped brood, open the cells, pull out the pupae and look for varroa mites.
  • Sift through the debris on the bottom board and search for dead mites.

While honey bees will abscond on occasion, it is rare, especially in races of the European honey bee such as Apis mellifera ligustica and A.m.carnica. Before chalking up your lost colony to something that rarely happens, do a thorough postmortem on your empty hive and keep an open mind.


A cluster of absconding bees hanging beneath a hive stand.

This colony left the hive (above) that was full of yellowjackets. The cluster is small because many had been killed by the wasps. © Rusty Burlew.

A colony of absconding bees gathering underneath a hive stand along with their queen.

Once I relocated the colony into a new hive, I found that the queen was with them. No living bees remained in the hive, only parts of dead ones and ravaged combs. © Rusty Burlew.



  • Really good and important article for me, a first time beekeeper that lost my “strongest hive” in November. We have had an abnormal wet and cold winter here in Southern California, and I was just assuming this hive starved due to my lack of preparation. (Although they left a nearly full super of honey!) In reading this, my colony fits nearly every criteria. A much smaller colony right next to this one is doing just fine, and that’s the one I’ve been so worried about. I would have argued the same, no mites. Not a trace of mites or wing damage—all the things I was told to look for. I am eager to go out and inspect the brood frames that were left, as well as the clump of dead bees on the bottom of the hive. I was devastated. I will replace them, and be all the wiser next year. 🙂

  • Thanks for this great explanation of the possibilities. I have not experienced absconding bees, but have been convinced that my varroa control efforts have not been effective. I have not been vigilant enough. The most helpful part was to visit the Scientific Beekeeping site and see his photos of the evidence of varroa around the cells. I believe I have seen this in one of my deadout hives and thought it was mold. So, now I am vowing to make certain I get on top of this beginning this spring. And do it right – or as right as I can.

  • Fascinating. I lost my biggest, most active colony this October in exactly the manner you describe. Of course I attributed it to absconding because there wasn’t a large number of dead bees around, and no sign of chunks of wax like you see in a robbing situation. Lost two others over the last two seasons, both of them were smaller, but the pattern was the same. Thank you for a very informative post!

  • I would offer that one of the Darwinian adaptations that honey bees have probably made for the 70 million years of their evolution is the ability to pick up and go off to new digs to escape pathogen pressures. The robust feral stock that a lot of treatment free beeks are using have gone through this process already. They show this most obviously by their ability to persist without our “help”. The weaker colonies have died, and the strong ones are the ones we keep. We mess up that process when we keep propping up stock that depends on the chemicals and develops pathogens and pests increasingly resistant to the treatment regimens. Apis cerana, the original host for varroa, had to go through this, and now lives with the mite as a background stressor that it manages well.

  • Thank you so much for the valuable information you take the time to share. As with many of your posts, none of these fact were presented at my local 6 week ‘bee school’ nor at any of the club meetings to date. I have no idea why. This is my first year and the learning curve is unbelievably steep.
    We are having a warm winter in Maine and my 3 hives are still alive so far…

    • Hi! New beekeeper here, and this article was very informative. Yesterday we watched first hand as our hive swarmed up to a 30 foot tree. We had planned to treat for mites in 3 days (local beekeepers told us the whole county is “trying” to get everyone to treat on Aug 1) my question is this: now that I presumably have a new queen and a weak hive, should I wait a few weeks before treating?

      • Holly,

        If it was a normal reproductive swarm, I see no reason to wait on treatment. I wouldn’t consider a colony that just swarmed “weak,” it’s just low on foragers at the moment. If it would make you feel better, you can wait until the new queen is laying.

      • I think it’s irresponsible for them to suggest the whole county treats on the same day. That’s also disrespecting any beekeeper who tests their colonies and treats as needed.

  • I had two hives abscond a week after I treated with Miteaway strips. A swarm left the hive three days after I fed with sugar water and Honey-B-Healthy.

  • That’s a pretty nice looking hive stand (at least the part that is visible in the photos). Care to share more?!

    • Funny. This stand is one my husband threw together in about 15 minutes when I said, “Quick! I need another hive stand.” I’ll see if I have more pics. I liked it so well, I had him make 3 more. They are about 8 years old now, and holding up well.

  • Is there a plan to build a good base for beehives that also keeps ants to a minimum. Or is there a natural way to make ants leave beehives alone, plants or other deterrent that keep ants at bay while not hurting bees?

    • I have a wooden stand that I built with 4 x 4 legs. About 8 inches off of the ground I wrapped the legs in decorative duct tape and then covered the tape with Vaseline mixed with a little bit of Wintergreen essential oil. The ants won’t try to get over the sticky barrier and so far the bees haven’t gotten into it so it has worked well all around. I also spread a very thin layer of diatomaceous earth on the ground under the stand then covered that with a thin layer of mulch. Not only does it discourage ants, but small hive beetle larva as well.

  • I agree with your theory. Two yrs ago both of our really strong hives were gone in the early spring. Lots of honey and mold, very few bees, all dead. I thought they must have froze but had second thoughts the more I read about Varroa. The new bees we got the next year were treated in the fall. Both hives survived the winter and did excellent all this summer. We decided to treat again as there were some Varroa (not near as bad as last yr). We managed to put apistan strips in only one of the hives. One of our hives are not friendly in the least and we finally gave up. It will be interesting to see how they survive the winter this year. We also have our newbee hive that we have been nursing and protecting from robbing all late summer and fall, they did not get treated either. I really hope they survive as they are a sweet bunch of bees. Our swarm that we caught last summer did not survive the late summer either, we made the mistake of opening it up during the really bad dearth late summer and the robbers were ferocious. It was gone in a day. After reading your post I maybe feel a little bit better with the hope they may have moved on to a better home.

  • I have no problem placing blame on varroa if that is the cause. However, the obsession with the insect needs to stop. Bees are supposed to be the obsession. Varroa can not drown out all other conversations. Beekeepers dismiss being told it’s varroa because they are told it’s varroa nearly every time they bring up a loss. A continued conversation becomes a broken record. Club presentations and discussions are infested with this myopic view.

    One of the 8 hives I wintered last year didn’t make it. The hive was a spring swarm that had reasonable stores but had a huge population going into winter. I went on a 2 month business trip and came back to one empty box. While discussing that I was pleased to have only one lost hive, I was told it must have been varroa. I theorized that poor hive resource utilization killed the hive. If I listened to that unfounded, but possible conclusion, I would be loosing one of my 11 hives this winter.

    Most of my winter losses early on were from moisture issues. This site and a few other places talk about it but, to me, it was an important and overlooked topic.

    Beginners usually don’t start with healthy hives. They are small hives made from miss-matched bees thrown into a new location with unfamiliar weather conditions. They are stressed and nearly always behind. So pests of all sorts including beetles, varroa, and well meaning humans can cause havoc.

    • Bryan,

      I agree that mites are an overwhelming portion of the honey bee conversation, but since they are the major reason for colony loss, perhaps the attention is called for. I still think beekeepers (on average) don’t pay enough attention.

      One thing I’d like to mention, if I may. You say, “However, the obsession with the insect needs to stop.” In fact, the varroa mite is not an insect and is in an entirely different class of animals, the Arachnida. Arachnids (spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks) have eight legs, two body segments, and go through incomplete metamorphosis.

      Maybe one more discussion about mites wouldn’t be a bad thing?

  • That´s why in Brazil the bee is officially “resistant” (against all bactaria, virus, and plagues). But professional beekeepers treat the hives against varroa and even a university study revealed the scut isn´t resistant. But people don´t observe correct. If you meet the bees only to “rob” the honey, you don´t know them. Scut leaves the hive for any reason, another point why beekeepers can´t see the difference. We have in beekeeping a lot of “what can´t be, isn´t” and sect thinking. We are fighting for years to open the minds of the local beekeepers and start treating the bees, but they don´t believe us. It´s always CCD, the agrotoxics, but never varroa or scut behaviour.

  • Interesting.

    Firstly thanks so much for all your wonderful tips and ideas, explanations and especially the pictures. Fantastic that such a site is available to help and enthrall so many of us.

    Now Absconding bees. Luckily we do not, as yet have Varroa here in Australia. I say yet as I feel it to be an inevitable outcome. But of my hives, I too lost 2 early in the spring with no logical explanation. And a third a couple of weeks later.

    At the time I had overwintered 18 hives and the two in question were 2 box 8 frame set-ups, they had been regularly checked and fed and one had been equipped with a heater, as I wanted to ensure a good lead into the new season, and had it in a slightly more exposed location.
    The hives are south of Melbourne, and while away on a trip to Cairns, far north Queensland for 2 weeks in mid September, they simply left.

    I inspected all hives before my trip then again on my return. The empty hives, situated some 2 miles apart, had no trace of bees at all, dead, dying or otherwise. Some un-hatched brood, but not much, with no obvious disease present, the unhatched brood just dying of cold I presume. Also no honey, but wax debris leading me to think that when un-guarded the hive was robbed. But possibly by the hives own bees.

    On discovery of the loss I did the “search” as you do, expecting to find a trace nearby, but nothing.

    At the same time another hive in its second season, unexpectedly threw a swarm, plenty of space, plenty to forage, good stores of honey, water nearby, all good. It lost about 40% of its population, never to be seen again as I arrived too late to pursue it. And a week later the rest of the bees left. Again leaving with no obvious signs of cause.

    I have since replaced this hive with an established 3 box setup which seems to be very happy needing a fourth any day now. Also I have 5 other hives close to that site all growing without incident.

    Finally it is worth noting that all my own hives (not the ones I manage for others), are re-queened with locally sourced Ligurian queens.

    I am as confused as your other owners, but can assure you in my case it is not Varroa, and as all hive components, timber, frames, wax sheets and paint etc. Are all the same across all of my hives, I am completely at a loss to explain it.

    My wife says I will just have to face it. Some of them just don’t like me.

  • The bigger of my two hives is dead/gone. I discovered it in December when I went to treat with oxalic. I had treated with formic over the summer (AND powdered sugar AND screened bottom board), but was never able to get ahead of the varroa. I assumed it was the varroa that took it down — at least I hoped it wasn’t something else I’m unable to see/diagnose. My smaller hive (which I created from the big one) seems great. Last time I checked them for varroa, they had ZERO. I was shocked. I still treated them with oxalic in December.

  • Hi! This is my first time leaving a comment. Only my second year beekeeping. This is exactly what happened to my hive in November. I know mine had a mite infestation. I was dusting with sugar and monitoring the numbers on the sticky board. Hundreds were falling. I didn’t see dead bees at all, and one day they were just gone. Two weeks after an inspection. The evidence sure points to mine just taking off, but why do mites make them leave? It’s not like the bees can just start fresh and get rid of the mites, like a beetle or wasp. They carry the mites with them. Just wondering why they leave. Thank you, I really enjoy your blog!

    • Amber,

      Bees with mites are most likely suffering from the diseases the mites carry. And the mites are large in comparison to the bee. So if one is on an adult bee, it would be like have a leech the size of a dinner plate sucking your blood. You could compare bees leaving the hive to people who jump out of burning buildings—neither is a good choice, but in desperation, they make a choice.

  • I have only been keeping bees for 2 years. Each year I have lost my entire apiary (1-2 hives) to mites. It appears that the hive has absconded. I didn’t expect mites my first year but when the same thing happened the second year I suspected those darn varroa mites. Since I’m new at this I still have a lot to learn, and I’m not afraid to admit that I lost these hives to mites.

    In each of the cases there was a very small amount of bees left in the hive. I suspect that most of the hive left in the fall. In each of the cases there appeared to be a large amount of mites on the plastic beneath the screened bottom board.

  • This makes perfect sense! I have not been keeping bees but for only four years and came up with a conclusion similar to this: the strongest hives will fall to mites before the weakest. Let me explain.

    The previous year I treated for mites using Hopguard. My timing was a little late and it got cold before I could treat the second time as indicated by the directions. I thought, ‘at least I treated’. In the early spring my most robust fall hive died while the weaker ones lived; even one I thought wouldn’t make it through the winter because there was only a fist-sized cluster.

    My conclusion: the strong hive died due to mite infestation whereas the weaker ones survived because the mite levels were low enough to begin with that one treatment of Hopguard was enough to suppress the mites enough for survival. The strong colony would have had a large amount of mites due to the size of the colony and the ‘one’ treatment would not have killed enough to make enough of a difference.

    This was my novice conclusion, I was proud of it, and even though I was not able to look in the hive to follow what was going on, I did a postmortem to arrive at this conclusion. Had I treated with something else and gotten same results (due to too late of treatment) I would have probably come to a differing conclusion. Maybe wondering how they could abscond in the cold winter. But no, I learned an interesting lesson about mites and treating on time that you have cemented in to my mind with this post. Thanks for proving this point to me; now I will be able to share this with more conviction (though I shared these findings with others this past year with the warning to treat early).

    Quite a few people have had instances this past fall, late summer, and even one in mid summer, who claimed their strongest colonies of bees disappeared, absconded! I honestly thought this was due to mites, though not to the fullest sense. I had figured that they actually packed up and moved out and maybe some did, but most likely they weakened quickly, some left to die, etc. Now I have a fuller understanding of this and will urge other to treat early.

    One hive established by a nuc did this. Bees from California should probably be treated when you get them to prevent mites from overrunning the colony. This was another conclusion I reached. These bees have been active for quite some time so mites can get a real hold on them.
    I learned a lot last year as well as the year before from both my experiences and that of others.

    I hope this all makes sense, it can be a little confusing. Again, your post really made it more clear to me and I hope I can explain this to others.


  • With Mite-Away Quick Strips being available there should be no reason why a beekeeper should lose a hive to mites. I have used them for a few years and they work great. Naturally occurring formic acid. Follow directions.

  • Thanks, everybody! I love reading these comments. To contribute one last comment in this string – we are in northeast Georgia and now experiencing the worst rainy season I can remember up this way – two weeks solid rain in December with no break. We have also had unusually warm weather for November and December interspersed with a few frigid days. I’ve been checking and feeding when I can and they have all been clustered in the top and happy to see me. It’s 53 degrees, sunny with a bit of wind today and my bees are out and both my hives seem ok, but last year, I lost one hive in December while I was away for two weeks during bitter cold. I treated for varroa in the fall, but did not have a chance to treat last spring. So, I am holding my breath to see what happens over the next 60 days as we head into March. And I am definitely treating for varroa this spring!

  • Rusty,

    I read your every post. Thanks for the good information.

    Question: Do you see hive deaths due to mites where the dead bees just keep loading up on the bottom board, instead of “disappearing”????

    One of my most populous hive has had huge deaths like that from Oct through… now.

    (I have been treating with MAQ for 5 years, and had very healthy hives but this last year either just got one strip in—not 2, and I think missed a few hives due to personal matters and weather, getting in the way).

    Thank you.

    • Amy,

      Yes, I’ve seen the dead bees just accummlate on the bottom board. But the same diagnostic procedures apply: you can look for guanine deposits in the brood frames and you can look for varroa in the debris. If it’s not varroa, it could be something else. Nosema, for example.

  • Rusty, thank you for this article, it is very helpful for beginners and also for many experienced beekeepers. I am successfully fighting with Varroa for over 25 years and I have learned, that this is the most important thing we should do for the health of our bees (except lucky Australila:-)). Many beekeepers forget about it…

    I like this sentence: “I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites.” It also surprise me a lot! And I can`t agree with Bryan, we are not obsessed with Varroa. Evidently, it seems that we need to hear about our No. 1 enemy as often as possible. It could save many colonies…

  • Can you comment on the presence of insecticides found in pollen, and the impact on honeybees in hive, as well as potential harm from consumption of the honey and/or pollen from the hive?

  • Rusty,

    You said “I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites.” I tried to provide a common reason. The default answer for problems is mites. Though it is a problem, I don`t like seeing it portrayed as THE problem.

  • As usual Rusty, a beautifully constructed article and I doubt there are many who would or could disagree with your conclusions in terms of the cause of what appears to be absconding in some or even many cases actually being colony collapse from Varroa and yes, you’re definitely right about the stigma of Varroa and the difficulty in beekeepers admitting it as the cause, but I worry much more about the bit you avoid saying at the end.

    Many new and established keepers reading and agreeing with your conclusions will think that you promote treatment. Well, you do, reluctantly and carefully, but you do. But take even a cursory glance at the association forums around the world and you will see that 2016 will be the ‘Year of the Oxalic’ and that is a far bigger concern.

    We have all seen the flow of advice from associations and the vast majority of the great and good across the planet over the last decade on this subject, especially in the last five years.

    In no particular order, there has rave support for sugar and Beerite and Honeysmart and Safebee and Beeguard and Mitebegone, teatree oils, lemontart essence, Naturalharmlessoneplanet….well whatever they were all called, they were basically a method for hurting both mite and bee, but hopefully mite more, with varying degree of success.

    Your thymol story is certainly not an isolated one, or surprising and each time we read that the latest thing is naturally occurring so can’t be harmful, that essential oils are all lovely and harmless and formic acid is what ants use and is naturally occurring and is found in tree sap (or whatever) so is entirely natural to spray all over the bees…and each time, the keepers grab hold of it and use it with less guilt and more hope than science.

    But none of these treatments have captured the beekeepers’ imagination around the globe so forcefully as oxalic acid.

    Firstly, it again is ‘naturally occurring, it’s in rhubarb for goodness sake and we eat that, so really it’s like sprinkling lettuce on them and is completely without guilt and it works! Only it isn’t harmless. It’s an acid that can melt a visor and whether it’s drizzled onto the bees or fumigated using a battery powered vaporiser, it’s still acid and it’s not naturally occurring in a beehive, ever.

    That doesn’t mean it’s bad of course. It just means we have to be cautious. Especially so, because everyone on Facebook and social media is on the edge of their seats with anticipation and longing for The Answer and reacts so quickly to jump on the band wagon.

    If we look at the empirical evidence for human intervention on pretty much any area, we’re notoriously poor at being patient and allowing nature to find its way, or waiting for small scientific samples to be properly tested before thinking “oh come on. I need this now. I’m sure it’s fine. Bob next door used it and his bees are fine. My bees are infected. This works. Why wait? In fact, I’m being irresponsible if I wait, because they can infect others. Everyone else is doing it. The associations say it’s ok and recommend it. I’d have to be one of those airy-fairy organic vegan types who haven’t a clue about the real world to decide not to use it….right?

    Well…actually no.

    Susan Rudniki (above) offers a quietly spoken thought. A minority of equally quietly spoken but sensible people also offer a thought. You have offered it too. But it is scary. It isn’t popular. Anyone mentioning it is shouted down. But just maybe natural selection, giving strong colonies a chance to adapt to Varroa, by managing everything else as well as we can…rather than have them rely on us spraying, gassing, sprinkling and wafting these things at them…is it possible that the answer lies there?

    Neonicotinoids – ask a cotton farmer. A nice and responsible farmer who values the environment but has a commercial crop to protect. Yes or no? It’s understandable that he says yes, surely? But it’s not likely to be a good idea long term is it?

    So, whilst I totally agree with your theory, I worry about your caution in not following it up with what to do about it and what all these readers will conclude for themselves.

    • As a third year beekeeper I have less qualification to speak to the varroa issue than most. Certainly Rusty and many others who keep bees. Having said that I must agree with both Richard and Susan.

      As beekeepers we are often astute observers and students of nature, and if we are to learn anything from nature it is this. The natural world is far more qualified at solving its problems then humans are. Humans want quick answers, nature wants balance.

      When I took up this endeavor I knew I would soon enough be dealing with varroa. I made the decision to take the “natural selection” route that Richard so diplomatically mentions. Even though this practice has been scorned by conventional beekeepers I chose to be treatment free (there, I said it) and let the chips fall where they may. Patience, something our species is in short supply of, will either supply the answer or show us the path.

      My faith in nature far outweighs my faith in the “treatment du jour” seen on the social media sites. Certainly more faith than I have in the EPA and USDA as Rusty concludes in her thesis concerning the effects of pesticide-contaminated pollen on larval development.

      As a side note, Rusty’s thesis is very well written, informative, and would be worth the time spent reading it. Nice job, Rusty. Thanks!

      • Dave,

        My post is about learning to diagnose a problem—Do I see absconding or varroa?—not a prescription on how you should keep bees. As I’ve said hundreds of times on this site, I believe the ultimate decision of “how” is up to the individual beekeeper. I can point out alternatives and that is all. A true treatment-free beekeeper is extremely aware of mite levels in his hives, and he uses that information to improve his stock. Ignoring mites is not how they get good at what they do.

        You say, “let the chips fall where they may.” That is exactly what so enrages the commercial beekeepers. Those chips (varroa mites, in this case) fall into the hives of other beekeepers on the backs of absconding individuals, drifting drones, and robbers. So by not caring for varroa mites in some way, you infringe on the colonies of others. I’m not saying “how” to treat—perhaps you use mechanical means, such as drone trapping, twice-weekly powdered sugar, brood breaks, or queen sequestration—but you have to do something. Like any endeavor worth pursuing, becoming a true treatment-free beekeepers is work.

        You also point out that, “The natural world is far more qualified at solving its problems then humans are.” This is absolutely true with no qualifications, as long as you can find some “natural world” left. In the natural world honey bees did not exist in North America. Pesticide residues have been found in every single human even in remote tribes, because we have polluted our oceans, soils, and atmosphere. We have buildings, roads, cities, and impermeable surfaces everywhere you look. We have destroyed or at least altered every single ecosystem on earth, and now we are cooking the whole thing as a unit. Natural world? Where???

        So we have an introduced species living in an altered landscape eating foods it didn’t in the past and living with parasites which it didn’t evolve with. Sure, through 100 million years of natural selection honey bees (and all bees) have been able to evolve to fit their environment. But change is happening faster than ever, way too fast. The patience you mention is indeed important because it may be another 100 million years before things straighten themselves out.

        Another thing I always say, “We have to start from where we are, not from where we should be.” I support treatment-free and natural beekeeping as long as it is done in a responsible way. Responsible means keeping your own varroa mites in check by whatever means you chose while you are in the process of developing and raising your own mite-resistant bees. That’s a win for you, the honey bees, other beekeepers, and the planet.

        • Rusty,

          Thank you for responding to my comment. It was quite unexpected and my intention was not to take your post in a direction you didn’t intend. I understand your post was about learning to diagnose a problem not about how to keep bees. I always find your posts to be thorough and informative. As I said, I’m a third year beekeeper and as such would not presume to know everything there is to know about beekeeping.

          I’m keenly aware of the mite loads in our hives and have seen little evidence of mites until a warm day recently when I saw some on the corrugated sheet under the screened bottom board, which I monitor regularly. Come spring I’ll deal with them appropriately, and yes, I anticipate it will be work.

          I’ll stand by my “natural world” position and will agree with you on the distribution of pesticides throughout the world and there is not much natural world left. You say, “We have to start from where we are, not where we should be.” and I wholly agree. However, we (collectively) also need to agree on where we should be, and there’s the issue.

          We are starting from a position of too many pesticides/chemicals and their pervasiveness in our world. Your thesis points that out brilliantly. So I believe we need to start looking in the other direction…less pesticide/chemical use as our starting point to a different end. Loading the world up with more and “better” pesticides and chemicals only worsens the problem.

          We are seeing weeds become resistant to herbicides and fungicides in short generational time spans. Is there a reason to believe varroa won’t react in the same way? Maybe nature is kicking evolution into high gear in response.

          The conventional solution to pests is to use a “bigger bat” so to speak, which starts the cycle anew. The lesson is clear if we care to listen. Someone once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Without much argument we live in an insane world.

          In the end I have chosen to be treatment free…responsibly, without chemical treatments and that is what I meant by let the chips fall where they may. Certainly not a purist position. However, those who treat also infringe on my colonies. Where that conversation leads deserves a whole different forum.

          Rusty, I sincerely and deeply apologize to you if my comment took your post of topic. It was not my intention and the last thing I want to do is politicize your excellent resource.

          Thank you.

  • Rusty,

    Would you explain some different kinds of varroa mite medication to us newbe bee –wanna bees members//times and applications. Lost my hive early in Nov. Did not use any varroa mite product. Brand new to this bee thing??? Want to start over this spring and would like to do it right this time if possible. Am trying to learn. Thanks for all your advice———————Terry

  • Great article with a sensible logical process.

    I’m also in Australia, probably best described as pre-Varroa, and I’d have to say my fellow Aussie’s experience above is an anomaly. We (my daughter and I) have notched up 96 swarm collections or colony removals this season along with running 10 of our own hives and rehabilitating upwards of 20 colonies and absconding just isn’t an issue we have to deal with.

    As it would be such a strange occurrence, we would expect to hear about it amongst our local Association membership (250+), especially at monthly meetings of up to 100. We do not have people discussing this at all.

  • We have lost one hive so far. The large unfriendly hive that we did not treat this past year. I opened it up today to examine and there were only about 2roa mites, dead I believe but very visible.

    My other large hive that was treated and the newbee hive are still buzzing away, I can hear them thru the box and they peek out at me occasionally to say Hi.

  • Excellent article. I just want to add one other thing that happens: Too much feeding. This sounds weird, but one thing that I’ve seen is that new hives get abundant sources of feed, and not enough protein. When you supply sugar water for the bees, the bees will load up. However in a natural situation, you’ll have bees going out for nectar and getting pollen at the same time. So, there may be plenty of honey (or thickened sugar water) in the hive, but little bee bread. The hive won’t necessarily abscond, but can dwindle to nothing, and that can be confusing for a beekeeper that doesn’t know how to conduct a thorough post mortem.

    • Rob – I hear your point but must point out that some nectars are not so great for over wintering. Nectar from Aster is a particular problem here abouts (Maine) because it has a high content of Ash – something that the bees don’t digest. If the bees aren’t able to go on cleansing flights, the ash “poop” becomes dysentery. Dysentery CAN be a symptom of Nosmea, but isn’t always.

      I haven’t made up my mind about the practice but it is not uncommon to feed sugar syrup during the August dearth and then place honey supers for the fall flow. That way the Aster honey goes to the beekeeper and the bees don’t need to keep their legs crossed all winter!

  • Thanks for your article on varroa. I am sure it reminded many beekeepers that we need to be more vigilant in managing mites. In December I lost my spring nuc to varroa. The smaller nuc is weak but carries on. The last two years have been frustrating but I will not quit. This spring I will hopefully have more knowledge. When my new package arrives I will do an alcohol wash so I know where my mite level is at. Green drone frames will also put in. If the drone frames are foundation they should be pulled every 28 days and every 21 or 22 days if drawn out. Is this correct? Thanks! Your site has been a real help to new beekeepers like myself.

    • Chris,

      The brood cycle for drones is 24 days, but the workers need a few days to clean used cells and the queen needs a few days to lay the eggs. Some folks say once every 30 days is enough, but I think 28 days is about right, which is exactly four weeks and easy to remember.

  • a snip…

    ‘At first, I wondered if an influx of Africanized genes into the larger population was causing an increase in absconding, but I could find no evidence for that theory in recent literature.’

    my comments…

    likely there is no published account but there was a wave of ‘absconding disease’ (back in the 60’s I think) and africanized genetics was pointed to as a possible cause. for folks information africanized semen was distributed across the country by a well know bee expert of the day and it was rumored that some africanized stock escaped from the Baton Rouge station. 50 + years later this rumor was repeated but only after a USDA researcher had retired.

    It should be mentioned here that very populated hives also will consume more feed resources than a smaller hive.

    None of the above should be considered as disputing the value of the above article which is directly on target and every novice beekeeper should read and digest. Imho…. even if you do not treat folks need to monitor their varroa infestation.

  • Which gives better results in the fall for checking varroa counts – powdered sugar shake or dust – or the one I can’t bring myself to do – alcohol shake?
    Every other day I am out there checking the varroa boards, spring thru late fall. On some hives I next to never see a mite. On others I see a couple and take whatever step I think is necessary to help slow the problem. I try a bit of everything but chemicals.
    So all of this leaves me wondering if what I am doing is good enough. I lost now three hives since the first of the year. The first one to go was my largest and strongest. Then two others followed a few weeks behind……
    i have not really had real problems with Varroa – but with more hives comes more issues I guess.
    My biggest effort this year is adding more fragrant herbs to the garden and around the hives – plants that naturally are high in essential oils. I am working on the theory of a constant proactive approach verses a sledge hammer reactive state. But I cycle back around – is what I am doing enough? I don’t want to be part of a larger problem – I just to mind my own beezwax.

    • The truth is everything is a chemical, including essential oil, powdered sugar, etc. Many chemical treatment options that are out there are perfectly natural and already found in hives and are organic. It’s not reactionary to follow the evidence.

  • Hi Rusty,
    So the concern I have is when I am checking for the varroa, is correct counts, I truly never know if what I am seeing is correct. So is there a in yard way to make sure that a person is getting the most correct counts?
    I personally use the powdered sugar and mite boards. I think the powdered sugar shakes give me the most accurate counts, but when u see one mite after a shake it always makes me wonder if I did it the wrong time of day, if I should have shook them differently or if I am super lucky.
    I know people out there use a alcohol shake – for me that is too much. I would rather use a gentler, less dead method

  • Rusty,

    We had a very mild fall and the bees were still foraging in December (asters mostly) so I was quite surprised to find a dead out in early April. They were a first year colony, but had had a great year, even producing a small amount of surplus honey.

    When I did my post-mortem, everything pointed to Varroa, except that there were LOTS of dead bees in the bottom of the hive. There was lots of honey left, some spotty capped and uncapped brood, and some (not a lot) guanine crystals visible. Is the presence of all of those bee corpses an indication that my die off may have been due to something other than Varroa?

    In any event, I installed a new package and will be far more vigilant in dealing with this destructive critter going forward.

    • Barry,

      Sounds like mites. If the hive was still going in December, it may have been too cold for the remaining bees to carry out the corpses. Usually when the colony dies earlier, like in October or November, you don’t see many dead bodies.

  • Dear Rusty et. al.

    I’m a new beekeeper who just received a local 4 frame nuc 5 days ago from a seller who is chemical-free who i know does not use treatments of any kind, but does drone trapping, makes herbal teas.

    yesterday, we found 7 young bees on the ground near the hive either dead or unable to fly. upon closer inspection, they appear to all have traits of DWV (small misshaped or missing wings). we are assuming that they failed in their orientation flight. just now, i found 3 more lying on the ground with the same traits.

    i’ve been reading about various mite treatments, bee and mite life cycle, etc. but have found little or no information about how to deal with a brand new nuc that may have a varroa problem. i do understand that timing is critical, depending upon what stage the hive is in.

    i have not gone in the hive since the day after installation, as i found the queen lying on the ground about 20 feet away from the hive the morning after installation after being almost absolutely positive that we spotted the queen the day before and she placed into the hive (i spotted her almost immediately when picking up the nuc). so i was a bit concerned and did not want to disturb them, as i read that finding a queen outside the hive was extremely rare.

    i put some fresh nettles in front of the entrance, just to give them a tiny boost of formic acid while i determine a plan of action.

    if you have any suggestions or sources that i can read about this situation, i would greatly appreciate it. i have no problems of figuring out how to do a sugar roll test or applying one of the various mite control methods, but i’d thought i’d ask before digging into a new hive and disturbing them until i know exactly how to handle.

    thank you very much.

    • Sebastian,

      Based on your description, I’d say this colony has serious issues and it will die of DWV if not treated for mites quickly. It may already be too late. Finding the queen outside the hive is also a bad sign. I would open the hive and see if the queen is there, see if she is laying, and see if brood are being raised. In the meantime just pick a mite treatment that works for you. Many are based on frames of bees. So count the frames of bees you have and read the directions. If you have five frames, treat for that many. The directions are straight forward.

      When you buy treatment-free bees they should also be healthy bees. Buying a box of treatment-free disease-ridden bees is not the idea. I’d ask for a refund.

      • thanks for taking the time to respond Rusty.

        i found the queen this morning, unfortunately she was laying dead on the ground about 5 feet away from the hive. bees are dropping by the dozen, many of them young ones. i’m collecting what i can to see if i can have someone to do a post-mortem on them.

        have called a couple local beekeeps to get their advice and am getting stern lectures on the necessity of toxic chemicals (beyond that of what you discuss here). am pretty darn frustrated at this point.

        thanks for sharing all your knowledge and experience.

    • Dan the BIP person here seems to think oxalic dribble is the best option for treating nuclei. Evidently some of the commercially available strips may in fact create the situation for absconding.

  • I confirm all points listed, because, in october 2016 y personly assist to three absconded in the more largest colony in the apiary, that have produce about 40 kgs of honey, and died, after absconded, in a week, cause varroa.

    The incident occurred in September, October, or November.
    The colony seemed normal during a recent inspection, usually between one and four weeks prior, and then suddenly disappeared.
    The beekeeper did not see the bees leave or find them later.
    Honey was left in the hive or it had clearly been robbed (as evidenced by ripped cells).
    A small amount of brood remained in the hive.
    A small number of listless bees lingered on the combs, but the rest were gone.
    The queen was missing.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Should I treat an empty hive for varroa in the spring? My bees are gone, sadly. Just as you described above. Last seen active in December – noticed gone early February (in MA). Only found one varroa on the few dozen remaining bodies. Some evidence of comb destruction, 60+ pounds of honey left, several small fields of honey comb uncapped (not ravaged) and dripping. A mystery, but now I wonder if there are no bees can I repopulate that hive without treating for varroa or do I need to treat it? Also, your opinion on leaving the comb for the new package.

    • Elizabeth,

      Since varroa cannot long survive without honey bees, there is no need to treat the empty boxes. I would leave everything for the new colony, including the honey and the combs.

  • Interesting read …. formic will kill your queens if she comes in contact with it .. just for the record. They never put this part on the labeling ! One must be extremely careful when putting these products into the hive. Everything we treat with has it’s consequences. Tread carefully ! Choose your poison and try your best is pretty much all we can do now. And as for farmers, they are the scourge of the earth, polluting the air, water, and land. What bee actually has a chance? Corn dust is deadly to bees. All the chemicals like formic, etc., that are ‘natural’ in the hive is bunk, they are not in the hive in the levels beekeepers use. The treatments are overwhelming for the bees, thus they leave the hive in droves. We all must treat with responsibility, considering the effects on the bees first and foremost.

    • Debbie,

      As a farmer myself, I find your remarks offensive. A quick search of my comments section shows that since 1-28-16 I have answered 22 of your questions, some in considerable detail. For this, I am called, “the scourge of the earth.” Thanks.

    • While I think formic can be dangerous, the levels of formic acid in the hives after treatment are in fact similar to the levels that are naturally occuring in it.

  • So do I Rusty. I am an agrian first and secondly a beekeeper. I don’t see any value in pitting farmers against beekeepers. Both parties have too much in common and it is in neither groups interest to allow anyone to pit one group against the other. Since I maintain a good number of hives (about 200) I do depend on farmers and ranchers to allow me access to their property to maintain my own stock (on about 15 sites). I respect what they do and the decision they make and I suspect they respect my own efforts in rearing bees… not only in what and how I keep bees but in the work I do with students at the Texas A&M Bee Lab. I am not home grown (ie not born in Texas and no I did not get here as quick as I could) but we do have a large number of folks who support all Aggies and especially the students and staff at Texas A&M. All new beekeepers need some method to monitor for varroa (as a probability it is the most likely cause in terms of a hive’s declining health) and to at least consider some ‘treatment’ that does not offend your sensibilities. We have a lot more options to treat than we did when varroa first showed up so the tool box of possibilities is now greatly expanded. I myself choose not to treat but then I have a lot more hives that can perish and a lot more years of experience in how to deal with health problems of the honeybee. I should emphasis that not all the problems of a hive are ALL ABOUT VARROA so no one should put on blinders and think this is the only problem out there and as the article clearly states a through analysis should be taken whenever a hive dies. This information can only add value to what you know about a hive of honeybees.

    • Gene,

      I have degrees in both agronomy and environmental science, which some folks think is a strange combination. But taken together, they both have made me a better beekeeper. Many of the growers I’ve worked with are extremely aware and sensitive to bee problems. They want solutions as much as beekeepers do, but they, like all of us, are caught in a shifting, changing world. Farmers feed the world and they depend on beekeepers to help them do it. Many of the “solutions” we have—both farmers and beekeepers—are not ideal, but as I always say, to make things better we have to start from where we are, not from where we should be. Name calling will serve no one and only widens the rift.

      As for mites, I never tell beekeepers which treatment to use. Instead, I try to cover the options available and let the individual choose how to handle their bees. Education is key to understanding your choices. As you say, you choose a method that does not offend your sensibilities, and work from there.

      Anyway, thank you for speaking up. I read your comments almost daily on Bee-L and know you have a lot to offer the beekeeping world.

  • That is a very interesting article Just had some beautiful hives disappear. Thanks. Was really screwed what happened. Just finished last pull, over 300 lbs. Week later, bees gone clean empty, but a white powder shade on the inside frames. New honey in frames. Weird. Never before.

  • Rusty,

    We just had the larger of our two hives collapse. It was a 3 lb package in April, was doing quite well…. based on your description could possibly be because of mites despite treating in early August with rounds of oxalic vapor, then another round again in late September.

    We still have a queen actively laying. She is unmarked…so I don’t know if she is replacement or the same before the population dropped. What capped brood is left is really spotty. I did see about a dozen or so larvae and couple dozen or so of eggs.

    With cold weather on the horizon in SW Ohio we don’t think they will be able to over winter.

    If it was due to mites….. should we combine what is left with the hive that is still there? Reduce the space way down and cross fingers they over winter? They were 5 boxes of 10 frame mediums. (1 80% full super, 1 20% super, 3 brood)

    • Kevin,

      It’s very scary, and I keep hearing the same story over and over: colonies are collapsing due to varroa even after multiple mite treatments. You are not alone.

      I would not combine the two. Any mite that gets moved over to your good colony can start her own little family so the total mite population will increase even faster.

  • Thanks Rusty.

    I suppose we can reduce the boxes down to something the laying queen and what’s left of the colony could manage… the size of maybe a grapefruit.

  • Just lost 2 hives. One big one smaller. As a new beekeeper I am quite depressed. At least your article explained what happened and gave me some peace. Funny thing, the smaller hive still had the queen and about 5 bees.

    My question is: what to do with the equipment/frames now? Please advice, Eric.

    • Eric,

      Store them somewhere safe from mice and insect predators. Then in spring, just use them. Used equipment is very attractive to honey bees.

  • Rusty,

    I think this is what happened to my hive, however the queen and a few, maybe 50, are still in the hive. How can I get those few through the winter or is it a lost cause.

  • Just lost the fourth colony. This has to be the worst case of mites yet? I treated last fall but not in spring. I treated late summer. Two parent colonies overwintered and two splits from these colonies all with survivor queens. Found the dead marked queen. And yes two weeks ago they were feeding and looked good. My neighbor has 4 warre hives ans his look great they are only 50yds from my dead colonies. I have one more at a different location and they seem fine. I can tell you this is a demoralizing blow since I have never lost colonies tbis early. Some died in late August. So, trying not to give it up but it gets spendy. Been doing this since 1994 and this is the worst yet. Hope to recover order a couple packages for spring.

    • Alan,

      I’m having trouble following the timeline here—not sure which spring, summer, and fall you’re talking about. In any case, yes the mite problem seems to be getting worse and requires more frequent treatment. From studies, it seems it’s the viruses load that is quickly escalating, even when you have the same number of mites you used to.

      • Hi Rusty:

        Sorry about that. Actually I am speaking of this year 2017 between August and yesterday. My first losses occurred in late August early September. Lost three colonies. Two overwintered colonies and a split from one of them headed up by new survivor queen from Old Sol in Medford OR. The last one was also a division again headed up with a marked Old Sol queen. Found a bunch of syrup under screened board and a lot of honey in combs. Hardly any bees. I did find the dead queen on the screened bottom board. I treated these gals with HopGuard and indeed the strips were still in the colony. I had a gridded mite count board in there for a while and really never observed any mites on it? So, one colony left at a different location. I am also taking care of three spring package colonies at this site too. Will check them in spring if they survive winter with an alcohol roll. It is really hard to see your colonies destroyed like this…I hope science can use genetic profiles of mites to engineer a way out of this thing.

        • Varroa is tough, no question about it. Instead of taking a strict IPM approach where there was testing to determine if treatment was needed, I’ll treat all hives coming out of winter and at the end of July, and use my testing to see if additional treatments are needed.

          The results from samples collected for the BIP Sentinel Apiary project caught me by surprise on two occasions this year: in the most dramatic, I had a booming colony from one of last year’s swarms that went from 0 to 5 per One hundred bees (100) between June and July. Looks like someone got robbed!

          The weather has been much drier and warmer than I’m accustomed to, and the usual first frost was two weeks late this year. I may plan a course of OAV for after supers come off in mid September for everyone. Now if the powers that be will decide on the number of applications… I’m anticipating a label change there.

          As a gardener, giving up on strict IPM is a big deal.

          Something has to give – it may be they way we (hobbyists) keep bees. If I can identify the right location, I’ll give Dr. Seeley’s audacious ideas a try,

          • Andrew I am interested in Seeley’s approach, can you expand on them? I am in Eastern South Dakota.

  • Sometimes I think we do not focus on the basics enough when it comes to teaching beekeeping skills. I constantly run up against this basic problem with the students at the Texas A&M (Rangel) Lab when all those bright young minds work overtime often coming up with idea that are contrary to basic bee behavior. I take all that on as a failure of my own and hope to find a remedy to this systematic problem. This long thread is a good example in that all this talk about varroa and treating and only one or two folks even mention monitoring for mites. IMHO the proper protocol should be test first and then decide if you should treat and with what and after that test again. As I suggest previously there are a lot of options but some are less effective and some are now known to show resistance from varroa (apivar). Most all of the remedies are temperature and time sensitive…. meaning when you use them is of extreme importance Warning… there is a large error term no matter what method you use to test for mites but minimizing this error will only be remedied by experience. Like most all things in beekeeping you will only become a better beekeeper with practice. Why is testing first important…. no matter what option you use how would you ever know that this or that varroa treatment option was effective unless you have some number before and after treatment to really know? Lastly there is a hazard in killing queens and hives with some treatments… so treating with no numbers can result in the beekeeper killing a perfectly healthy hive.

    • Gene,

      I agree and I always advise testing before treating. Testing after treating is something I should emphasize more, especially now that so many treatments don’t work. Thanks.

  • I will add here that besides the 200+ untreated hives I maintain for myself I also look after about 50 to 60 hives at the Texas A&M (Rangel) Lab that are treated. The students do a good deal of work trying to figure out the synergy between commercial available varroa treatments and a number of common ag chemical. At this point in time I choose oxalic as a means to treat these and on occasions do minor experiment to test for the net effect of oxalic (depending on how the oxalic is delivered). Besides this ‘acid wash’ not offending me or polluting the wax or breeding a badder varroa, oxalic is my choice since as a compound it falls outside the variable the students normally consider. For the hobby folks (who have limited numbers of hives) I try to discourage them from treating all hive in a prophylactic fashion. And finally hives have been dying long before I was a beekeeper (now going on +55 years) and long before varroa ever arrived here in the US so everyone should learn to read the signs of varroa and varroa collapse and not jump to the conclusion that every hive that dies is cause by varroa. At this point in time some well informed beekeepers/academics think the virus associated with varroa may be a larger problem than varroa by itself.

  • I just had a hive [colony] die to varroa mites over the winter. Few quick questions, Is the honey that was left over still good for human consumption? and what do i do with the equipment to get it ready for new bees?

    • Tris,

      Whether the honey is edible will depend on what, if any, mite treatments were used on the colony before it died. You don’t have to do anything to the equipment, although it’s a good idea to avoid adding new bees for 30 days to give most of the viruses time to die.

      • So if no treatments were used would you say the honey is safe for consumption or is it the other way around? My bees left a very small amount of honey and it was my fist and only hive so I would like to be able to get just a little bit of honey from it but I don’t want to get sick by doing so.

        Your article and comments have been extremely helpful thank you so much for this incredible resource!

        • Sophie,

          The thing you don’t want to eat is stuff made by humans, including pesticides. What the bees made is fine to eat.

  • I haven’t used any treatments on them. I’m a beginner bee keeper and just lost this hive for the first time. It is a good learning lesson and now I think I know better how to look for and keep the problem from arising.

  • I have been perplexed by my hives over the 4 yrs I have attempted to become a beekeeper. I attended beekeeping school, read several well known reference books and tried to follow the protocols for varroa mites. I have two hives and would love to understand why my hives keep dying:

    Year 1: A_hive – Italian, B_hive – Carnolian. Installed 3lbs packages+queens in spring. Both hives were robust through summer and fall. Examined and treated for mites with Apivar – don’t trust myself to determine if mites are present or not and everyone says they 100% will be so just treat.

    Both hives survived harsh CT well and came into spring strong. Fed and monitored hives through to summer and took honey that second summer. Treated for mites and all was well into October when I realized that hornets were ravaging the Italian hive which had a lot of dead bees. Carnolian hive was just essentially gone – no dead bees but empty hive. Waited over winter to order new packs.

    Year 3: Ordered two 3 lbs packs from Maine that were so-called “mutt” bees that were combinations of russian, carnolian, italian genes. Monitored both hives and treated with Apivar – nonethless both hives died before winter, I believe due to mites. Complete mystery but a disaster of a year in terms of time and money.

    Year 4: Ordered two 3 lbs packs – A_hive Saskatraz (supposed to be cold hardy), B_hive – Carnolian again. Monitored and fed both hives which were robust to summer. Treated both for mites and continued to monitor and feed. Saskatraz not as robust as Carnolians and continued to decline into fall. Hive just died a couple weeks ago even though feeding with winter sugar+protein board. Carnolians appear hardy and feeding on sugar+protein board. Keeping close tabs on remaining hive and hoping it will survive our harsh, humid freezing winter.

    I feel lost in this process as 5/6 hives have either absconded or died which is a pretty poor result on my part. I felt I have been diligent in feeding, observing, treating yet my results are poor by any measure.

    Any thoughts, criticism, guidance would be well received as I am clearly blundering along….

    • Charles,

      I don’t really know. One thing is that in many regions Apivar is pretty much useless due to resistance by the mites. Here, it worked great until a few years ago, now it’s almost useless. One important reason for doing mite counts before and after treatment is so you can see whether or not it worked. Also, just a few years ago people could treat for mites once a year, but now it’s not unusual to see people treating three or four times a year. Also related is timing of treatments. You should always treat before the end of August so that your winter bees start the cold season virtually mite free.

  • Pardon me for jumping in. Find yourself a local to you mentor who can examine your hives with you throughout the year. Don’t believe everything you read – the Saskatraz being one example. You could not purchase entirely pure and bred Saskatraz as those are not sold in the US. My understanding from looking at the original breeder’s website is that the Saskatraz is an essentially Russian bee selected so as to be even more mite resistant. Unfortunately, while your queen is pure Saskatraz, her offspring are not, as she was bred in California to non-Saskatraz drones. Practice doing mite counts until you are confident in the results.

    I hope this helps. Losing bees is no fun.

  • Hey Rusty, thanks for all the info on this site.

    I’m a new beekeeper and wanted to see what you thought about what happened to one of my hives. I set up two nucs and both seemed to be doing fine. One day on checking the hives I noticed the outer cover to one of the hives had been blown off (inner cover still on), I checked it out and everything seemed ok, bees still there and did not seem to be agitated. I should have put a block on the hive but thought maybe I didn’t set the cover properly from the previous inspection and that’s why it fell off.

    I go back a couple weeks later and find that the outer cover had fallen off again, and during those two weeks we had a heavy rain for about 40 minutes. This time when I put the outer cover back on, the bees were giving off a noticeable buzzing. Two weeks later on August 31st the hive was empty. I was unable to check the hive during that time so it could have happened anywhere in those two weeks.

    My initial thoughts were that during the storm either something happened to the queen, or with the outer cover being off for a while and with the rain the bees felt uncomfortable and absconded even though I put the cover back on. When I took apart the hive there was one wax moth larvae inside and ants had found there way in too. Not a lot but some dead bees were inside and outside of the hive. Also there was some capped brood. Only had a screen on the bottom since temps were in the 90-100s so didn’t check for mites.

    I stored and wanted to use the comb from that hive to see about catching a swarm or two this summer. Was going to freeze the frame and boxes just in case, but wanted to see what you thought happened to my hive. My biggest fear is that it somehow got infected with AFB or EFB and if I were to catch a swarm using those frames it would just die.


    • Matthew,

      First thing, go down and buy a tie-down that you can wrap around the hive from top to bottom. I always use tie-downs, as they are inexpensive and work perfectly. Just be sure to get one long enough; they come in various lengths.

      You don’t say where you are, which limits the accuracy of my answer. Anyway, it doesn’t sound like a brood disease, but you will have to look. If the brood area remaining looks normal, doesn’t smell like death, and the adjacent brood cells don’t contain collapsed and dried larvae, it is unlikely AFB or even EFB.

      Next you don’t say whether you ever treated for mites. If you did not monitor and did not treat, it was probably a varroa collapse. Remember regular absconding is very rare and is unlikely late in the year. Absconding due to varroa is often a case of the bees leaving individually until they are all gone. Certainly the timing is right (if you are in the Northern Hemisphere). In August mite populations explode and bee populations drop in preparation for winter, so you end up with many mites per bee. In hopes of a better live, they begin to leave if they can. Otherwise, they die.

      All of that said, the colony could have absconded in the tradition sense, especially with the roof disappearing periodically. Would you want to stay in a home without a roof? In the rain?

      My advice is look at the brood areas carefully, or have someone else look at them. But to me, it doesn’t sound like brood disease, it sounds like varroa mites.

      • Thanks for the reply Rusty, and sorry for my double post!

        I am in south Texas. We got the nucs in June and the apiary we got them from said they treated for mites in May. I’ll check out the brood area and see what’s what, but I think you are correct on the mites.

        After freezing would you think the frames would be ok to use as bait hives for swarms?

        Thanks again and I appreciate all the info and help!

  • Tried posting yesterday but never saw my post so am going to try again with the short version.

    I got two nucs and installed them and all was going well when I went to do an inspection and the outer cover of one of the hives had blown off. Put it back on and bees seemed ok. Next time I went for an inspection the outer cover had blown off again and bees seemed agitated with a noticeable buzzing coming from the hive when I put the outer cover back on. Also we had a downpour of rain for about 40 minutes inbetween these two inspections so I suspect water got in the hive.

    About two weeks later for my next inspection hive was gone. This was at the end of August. Not a lot but some dead bees inside and outside the hive. Some capped brood was present as well as at least one wax moth larvae and some ants. At first I thought the hive absconded because the outer cover kept coming off and probably water got in the hive. But after reading this am suspecting mites. Wanted to see what you thought.

    I wanted to use the frames with comb to try and catch a swarm this year. My main concern is that it wasn’t mites or an abscond but either AFB or EFB. I don’t think it was, but I wanted to see what you thought before I set them out. The other hive I have is doing fine and I got both nucs from the same place. Thanks.

  • I just noticed three of my hives did not survive so far this winter- sad yes, but I will focus my energy into the others. One of the them was due to mites. The mites weakened the hive and yellow jackets took over…they could have absconded or they could have collapsed. There were no dead bees near the hive. Either way there is no denying that mites were a factor.

    However one of my hives is a bit of a mystery to me. Piles of bees are dead outside the hive and the bottom board is covered with dead bees. My last mite count of the season was low and not worrisome. They had plenty of stores. The only other time I’ve seen anything like this was when a hive of mine got into some insecticide from a neighbor using it on his garden. Think thats possible or could it be something else? Does varroa ever cause a hive to look that way?

    • Rebecca,

      It’s unlikely your bees got into pesticide because pesticides are seldom sprayed this time of year and the bees are seldom flying. You seem certain that one colony died due to mites, right? So why couldn’t the others have mite problems? The collapsing colony probably sent heavily-infested bees into your other colonies, which is typical.

      Dead bees are a fact of life in winter and they occur for many reasons. They could result from mites, or they could just be from workers clearing out the daily dead. It’s hard to say without a careful examination of the colony itself.

  • Rusty, absolutely love your articles. Very informative. I’ve been following for several years but have never written in before. I just discovered my hive empty. They were thriving all year. This would have been the 4th winter they went through. Never a problem before. Treated in September for mites. (MAQS) Count was low to start, but still treated. Checked on them (I’m a tapper) weekly after setting them up for winter. Checked on them after New Years. Had some 50 degree days. They were out and about. Had some unusual 65-70 degree days this past weekend and saw no activity. Opened the hive and found it empty. Full med left with capped honey as well as several full frames in deep. Small amount of brood, some with emerging bees sticking out. Comb is in good shape. A few dead bees on frames. Dead bees on bottom board and on ground in front of hive, but not any more than I usually see after winter. Any ideas?

    • Marilyn,

      Wow, I dread stories like this. I dread them because it is so hard to say what went wrong. On the surface it sounds like varroa because of the speed of disappearance, the presence of lots of honey, a small amount of brood with emerging bees, and an unremarkable amount of dead. But all that said, a September MAQS treatment should have reduced the mites sufficiently early to get a good crop of winter bees.

      However, the times they are achanging. Not long ago, I could treat for mites once a year. In fact, I did that for decades. Then it went to twice, and three times, and now lots of people are treating four or more times per year. In addition, the rule of thumb used to be fall treatments should be completed during September, then August 30, and now August 15 seems better. Although the mites themselves probably haven’t changed much, the viruses seem to have become more virulent such that it doesn’t take much infection to make a big difference.

      So, if I had to bet, I would lean toward mites. It would probably be best to do a postmortem. See if you can find the dead queen, look for holes in the remaining brood cappings, look for deformed wings on any dead bees you can find, and look for white deposits on the upper inside surface of empty brood cells. Any of these findings would give even more weight to the varroa theory.

      I really feel bad, but I don’t know how else to help.

  • Marilyn I would be interested to know what mite treatment you used?

    Frass (varroa poop) which will appear as small white treads is what I primarily look for… if there are dead bees on the bottom board then I look for varroa or signs of varroa on the dead bees.

    Gene in Central Texas…

  • Marilyn…
    After rereading I see you did specify MAQs… what was the weather like when you applied this treatment? Did you feed anything during the fall (ie after varroa treatment)? General location?

    Gene in Central Texas..

  • Thanks Rusty. I’m leaning more to the varroa explanation myself. Will try to examine some of the dead more thoroughly for some more clues. Temps in August were mostly in the 90s which is why I waited till September to treat. Thought the high temps would make it more of a detriment than a help. Had a solid week of dry, lower 80, days. I did not feed after treatment because they had 2 mediums and a deep full of honey at that time. I took off one medium in October and left rest for them for winter.

    Thanks again. Guess I’ll be starting over next spring.

    • Marilyn,

      It helps to keep an alternative varroa treatment on hand, just in case it gets hot. I like HopGuard II for that reason. I don’t think it’s as thorough, but you can kill most of the mites earlier in the year (August) with HopGuard, and then apply the MAQS once the temperature drops.

  • We had a situation very similar to what you describe. We are feeling fairly sure about the bees leaving, however, because we had inspected the evening before. It was our first hive, it was a bit week, and I feel pretty sure there were mites, but I think tracheal, rather than varroa. The evening we inspected, we saw the queen, there were a lot of bees (not as much as we might want, but a considerable number). From our pics, the state bee person believes we were dealing with a virus in addition to mites. The next morning, we saw a few dozen bees walking around on the ground and none flying in and out of the hive. The hive was empty of the queen with only a dozen or so weak bees left inside. There were no dead bees on the bottom board. It seemed to us that the queen had left with the bulk of the bees. We are in a forested area and did search around, but did not find the bees anywhere. How could the healthiest of the bees and the queen disappear between evening and late morning of the next day unless they had absconded?

    Cicada Dennis

    • Cicada,

      Why do you think tracheal mites? Why that conclusion? They are almost non-existent now that everyone treats for varroa mites. Also, viral diseases go hand-in-hand with varroa mites, not tracheal mites.

  • The reason I was thinking tracheal mites instead of Varroa mites is that I did not see any Varroa mites on any of the bees. I had previously seen a few weak bees walking around on the ground outside of the hive, and now after the bees absconded, there were quite a large number of bees doing that. I had read that bees being unable to fly could be a symptom of tracheal mites, because the bees cannot breathe well enough to fly.

    • Cicada,

      First of all, you’re not going to see varroa mites on the bees because they hide beneath the sternites. Not seeing varroa means nothing. Second, bees being unable to fly may be the result of tracheal mites or dozens of other things. If you seriously think you have tracheal mites, send bees in for testing. If you just jump to conclusions, you won’t have any better luck next time around.

  • I would suggest that folks not totally discount tracheal mites. Some folks here might want to tag into Bee-L (I think Rusty mentions she does), do a search for tracheal mites and there are several links and descriptions for field testing for tracheal mites. An interesting bit of information for me is they seem to be more of a problem in the colder climates and in places with high moisture or humidity problems. Another potential problem is nosema whereby bees will fly at suboptimal temperature and perish before they can fly back to the hive. There is also a field test for nosema. As I have suggested before do not think all problems associated with honeybees are related to varroa. If you are not looking for another problem, most likely you will not recognize it when it occurs.

    • Gene,

      Yes, I have been following the discussion on BEE-L regarding the possible re-emergence of tracheal mites. One of the reasons I never pay much attention to them is about 8-10 years ago, some of the extension offices stopped testing for them. And then my master beekeeping class just glossed over them with nothing more than a 10-minute mention.

      Lately, though, I’ve been hearing more about them as the folks on BEE-L noticed as well. I don’t know if the extension offices are testing again or not. However, if any of my readers are convinced they have tracheal mites, I will test if they send properly prepared samples to me.

      Anyway, Gene, thanks for the timely reminder.

  • I just had my hive leave and I’m not sure whether or not it was varroa mites. It seems they took all the honey or at least most of it but I never saw them leave all at once and there are still some bees hanging around. A bunch of ants did begin to swarm the hive which I thought was weird and I noticed a lot more beeswax bits on the observation board. I actually bought the bees from someone and I’m pretty sure they had treated them for varroa mites but I’m not sure how effective that usually is and I never checked my bees for mites. I’m not sure why on earth it never occurred to me as something I needed to be doing but here we are. Any help or opinions or things I should do would be greatly appreciated.

    • Sophie,

      It sure sounds like varroa. I’m sure you know by now mite control is a constant and ongoing battle.

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