I have always believed in data-based bee management: Gather whatever information you can find and then make decisions based on what you learned. For varroa mites, this means taking samples, counting mites, and deciding on a strategy.
Perhaps this is an old-fashioned idea, dating back ten years when some mite counts actually came out low—low enough not to treat. Granted, that seldom happens anymore, but I still believe in knowing where you stand before you start tossing chemicals into your hives.
New beekeeper reluctance
On the other side of the coin, my friend and master beekeeper Janet Wilson has come up with some compelling arguments for schedule-based rather than data-based treatment. She posits that new beekeepers are often so overwhelmed by uncertainty and inexperience that the thought of sampling bees is off-putting in the extreme. Janet writes:
“We have in our club found that most new beekeepers are not comfortable doing regular mite counts. Very often they reach out for help as winter approaches and share that they did not really know how to do one so they just put it off. I think that first year or two you are just getting used to opening that bustling, growing colony of stinging insects and the idea of doing a capture and count is overwhelming. And most refuse to do alcohol washes as they are understandably reluctant to kill any bees at all.”
I concede that her statement is true. I’ve heard of many newish beekeepers being so intimidated by the sampling process that they procrastinate a day or two—and then 60 or 90—until it is way too late. Only when the colony dies, do they realize they should have done something long ago.
A feasible alternative
In light of this predicament, Janet and her club have come up with a protocol to help new beekeepers through this period of initiation and uncertainty. She explains:
“Given [new beekeeper reluctance], and most particularly for those who live in areas of high bee density, we give [new beekeepers] the option of treating by the calendar. Which in our area sort of translates into “when you get them, right after honey harvest, right before winter wrap-up, and midwinter.”
To me, this sounds reasonable. It is a regimen not dictated “by the calendar” but by the event—a more sensible benchmark. The events—especially attaining bees, harvest, and winter wrap-up—will vary depending on your location. That variation, by itself, will customize the schedule for individual beekeepers in different climates and conditions.
Although I still strongly recommend data-based decisions, I can see Janet’s protocol as both viable and doable for beginners. Technically, it should control most of the mites most of the time in most locations. For a new beekeeper who is stuck, intimidated by testing, or unsure about treating, this is likely a good place to start.
My worry is that such a schedule could become a habit that forestalls learning how to diagnose mite problems until another day. But when will that day come?
All forms of animal husbandry encompass jobs we don’t like to do. Everything from cleaning the goldfish bowl to picking hooves can be delayed, often to the detriment of the animal. But learning to do all the parts is necessary to learn the craft, regardless of the animal you’re keeping.
By treating mites on a schedule without testing, the beekeeper loses heaps of information. For example, if you don’t count the mites before and after treatment, how do you know the treatment worked? Perhaps you’re living within a pocket of resistance to a drug like Apivar. You might not know that without proper counts. Or perhaps you accidentally used an expired product. You might not realize your mistake without good counts.
When testing helps the inexperienced
I see counting as being especially important for new beekeepers who are inexperienced at using drip protocols or OA vapor or even something like ApiLife-Var that requires reducing all openings to the very minimum. How do you know whether you did it right without testing?
A lack of information can be detrimental in the future as well. If a certain product shows resistance, wouldn’t you like to avoid buying or using it again? If mite counts were excessively high before you treated, might you want to adjust treatment times next year?
An excellent temporary solution
All that said, I think Janet’s idea might be the perfect solution for a beginner. But it should be a temporary solution, used only while the beekeeper is learning the ropes.
In truth, I don’t like testing either, but I loath data darkness even more. Testing has saved my bees more than once, and I keep that in mind when I feel like stalling. Just a few years ago I used a product that is not supposed to engender resistance. The product was fresh. I followed directions. Everything seemed fine until my follow-up counts showed no change in mite load.
What happened? I still don’t know, and I’ve used the same product occasionally since then with good results. But if I hadn’t recounted—and then retreated—I would have lost most of my colonies. In fact, I can’t think of a single time when testing did more harm than good.
A special thanks to Janet for sharing her system. If you would like to read the rest of her information-packed post, you can find it here.
Honey Bee Suite
Keeping our honey bees free of varroa mites is a full-time job. Image by David Hablützel on Pixaby.