varroa mites

Once you understand mitekeeping, beekeeping is stupid simple

Varroa mites have many ways of moving from one colony of honey bees to another.

Beekeeping is not hard unless you have varroa mites. But the two are helplessly entwined, so managing mites is a vital part of managing honey bees.

Note: I have mitekeeping on my mind this week, so I decided to resurrect this post. This story is about a beekeeping book, newly published, that summed up the varroa mite problem in two paragraphs. I was reminded of it recently when a new beekeeper told me that neither her mentor nor her bee club ever mentioned mites. She wanted to know if they were still important.

It’s my impression that mite discussions are frequently avoided because they are too controversial. The mention of mites often results in arguments about treatment-free vs conventional beekeeping or which treatments are best for the bees. Since these discussions can be heated and uncomfortable, lots of people avoid them altogether.

This is a sad state of affairs because mites are here to stay, and managing varroa mites has to be a priority for every beekeeper. Yes, I believe there are various approaches that work, but ignoring the mites is not one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitekeeping is inevitable for beekeepers

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

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

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

Honey Bee Suite

Mitekeeping is a normal part of beekeeping.
Mitekeeping is a normal part of beekeeping. Pet cemetery: RIP

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

    • Robert,

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

  • This is my second year as a beekeeper. Sadly, I am pretty sure one of my 3 hives has died from varroa mites. I had a high count in the fall and did the powdered sugar shake and then made the grease patties with tea tree oil. I think I waited too long before using the grease patties. Is the honey o.k. for us to eat (would the TT oil effect the honey) and how is the best way to store the honey in frames until spring so that I can feed the other hives, if necessary. Thank you.

    • Stephanie,

      Grease patties alone will not control a mite infestation. If the mite count is already low, grease patties can possibly assist in keeping it down for a while. But if you have a mite infestation, you have to treat with something stronger. Powdered sugar can be effective if all frames are treated once or twice every week.

      Tea tree oil from the grease patties will not adversely affect the honey. To store frames, I like to wrap them in plastic, freeze them a day or two, and then store them (still wrapped) in place safe from mice and other creatures.

  • Mites. Well, they were here before us they will be here after us.

    I like to point the community to the research of Doctor Samuel Ramsey which, for his PHD at the University of Maryland, against all preconceived ideas, he looked somewhere else and found it much to everyone dismay, for decades we have been told the mites feed on the “blood” not true, once and for all he point out how these mites feed , contrary to common belief they feed on the fat of the bee , which explain the winter’s death of the beehives , I attended his presentation , there He had photos after photo {micro photos} of the mites deeply into the plates under the abdomen of the bee , the exact same place the hornet cut the bees to feed on their fat {don’t tell me you never seen a bee without abdomen , it is not an abnormal bee it is a bee which has been cut by a hornet } , when you see a mite on the top they are not feeding they are on for a ride , once the fat is depleted they move to the next one , which also explain why there are twice more mites in the drone cell than regular cells , drones are very fat. Please if you have a chance to attend one of His lecture do so , He also has a great sense of Humor , His ground breaking discovery will lead to an entire new treatment protocol . Best to all .

    • Joel,

      Since the fat bodies are bathed in hemolymph, some loss of hemolymph is inevitable when the mites feed on fat bodies. Regardless of that, what actually kills the bees is primarily the viruses they carry.

  • May we be ever vigilant also in regards to our locale. Here in the humid and temperate south, fall lingers later, spring arrives earlier, and mites enjoy a longer season for us to fight.

    How often should I be changing control methods (OA – to strips for example)?