varroa mites

Outwitting the mites

At the end of last summer when it was time to treat for Varroa mites, I decided to use ApiLife Var. I try to rotate through the “soft” treatments and not use the same one year after year, a practice designed to slow the development of resistant mites.

I had used HopGuard the previous year with disastrous results. I didn’t blame the product itself but rather the instructions, which were totally confusing and, I believe, misleading.

In any case, it wasn’t the year for HopGuard so I chose ApiLife Var, which shifted the active ingredient from hop beta acids to thymol. I had used ApiLife Var many times in the past and always had good results.

So the second week in August I removed honey supers, inserted the Varroa drawers, took off the screened inner covers, and reduced the entrances. The idea is to make the hive into a fumigation chamber, sort of like tenting a house before spraying it. It is process I hate because, right in the middle of the hottest days of the year, you lock down the bees till they can barely breathe. Still, it’s part of the process, so I did it.

I persisted with this method during the three weekly treatments required by the label. It was August 31 when I finally re-opened the hives and pulled out the Varroa drawers.

Mites playing hard to get

Much to my surprise the mite count was low. At first blush, this may sound like a good thing, but I knew something was wrong. Terribly wrong. The trays should have been thick with mites. I should have seen thousands—not mere hundreds—collected below my triple deep hives.

Why so many? Because I treat for mites only once a year and this was the end of the year. In addition, autumn was approaching so brood nests were small and shrinking. Dead vampires should have been everywhere.

I went back to the house and rummaged through trash pails until I found the ApiLife wrappers. I checked the expiration date, but that was not the problem. I re-read the instructions and double-checked the temperature parameters, but I could find nothing amiss. What was going on?

I spent a sleepless night trying to decide what to do. The bees just went through three weeks of hell in their fumigation chambers and I didn’t want to prolong it. But if I didn’t do something, I was sure mites would kill off the colonies by spring. I was confused and by morning I was even beginning to doubt my own estimate for the number of mites I should have seen.

By then it was September 1 and getting late for raising a crop of winter bees that had never been exposed to mites. It was then I remembered the partially used package of HopGuard I had tucked away in the shed. I opened it and decided there was enough to do the job. I hesitated. Poor bees. But I couldn’t shake the feeling I had to do something, so I did.

HopGuard to the rescue

I HopGuarded all hives—not according to package directions, of course—but according to what I knew the package was supposed to say . . . three treatments, three weeks in a row. I kept fretting, kept second guessing myself, but I did it anyway.

After three days of worry and suspense, I pulled a tray to have a look. OMG! There they were! Thousands of gloriously dead mites lying in heaps and piles—just like I wanted to see. It was as if the ApiLife Var had done nothing except irritate the bees. I washed the drawers and returned them to the hives. The mites continued to accumulate furiously for a few more days, then the drop tapered off. Soon afterward, we dove into the long, wet, coastal winter.

At this point, I can tell you my bees overwintered with no discernible mite problems at all. But if you asked me what happened back then, I can’t say.

Did my mites develop a resistance to ApiLife Var? Maybe. Or did I buy a bad batch of the stuff? Maybe. Did the HopGuard save my bees? Absolutely. Has the company re-written their hare-brained instruction sheet? I didn’t even look.

The takeaway message is simple: trust yourself. I don’t know why I was so convinced the mite counts were bad, but I do know that intuition and a partial bag of year-old HopGuard saved my bees.



Varroa mites. USDA photo by Scott Bauer.


  • Good intuition, Rusty! I would have simply jumped up and down and thought I had beaten them. So this is very good information!

    One question. You said….”getting late for raising a crop of winter bees that had never been exposed to mites.” Can you please explain this? Thanks!

    • Cindi,

      I have a post in the works that answers your question. My goal it to post it tomorrow. I edit and re-edit and re-edit . . .

  • I had a similar experience with thymol last year – Apiguard worked wonders in two hives but not at all in two others. Ended up treating with oxalic acid in December, which nicely finished off the mites. Five out of five overwintered.

  • Hi Rusty,

    Can you please explain how much and how you used the Api Life Var Rusty.

    In New Zealand, We use one biscuit (each packet has two) in each hive, every week for three weeks.
    I must admit we didn’t shut up the meshboards, but I can see the benefit of that. Mind you we used oxalic acid on the hives with meshboards.

    We have had good luck with Api Life Var, I wonder as you say the packet hadn’t expired, perhaps the packet wasn’t air tight?

    Be keen to see how other people use this product as it seems to differ from country to country.

    Thanks for your blog, we love it…Gary

    • Gary,

      Our instructions are the same: 1 biscuit (1/2 package) broken into four pieces is put on the top bars around the perimeter of the brood nest. We do this once per week for three weeks with the hive closed up as much as possible.

  • Hi Rusty,

    We overwintered 5 of 7. One deadout looked queenless>> chilled brood, but the other was populous with plenty of accessible honey. Didn’t find any deformed wings, but there were fully developed workers dead in sealed cells. So I have to consider mites. There were a dozen or so on the white board.

    How soon should I treat the other hives? I had wintergreen grease patties on all winter, but the bees ignored them. Weather is just now settling warm and I’ll be reversing, or not, next week. Thanks!


    • Nan,

      You have to decide how you are going to treat. If you are using a commercial product, you need to read the temperature restrictions on the package. Some have maximum daily temps, some have minimum daily temps. About the only thing you can use with honey supers in place is HopGuard, and I don’t know if it’s registered in your state. Unless you have a serious mite problem, I probably would wait at least until after the main flow.

  • Hi Rusty,
    This is my second season as a beekeeper. I spent the summer taking out as many drones as I could (drone frames, cutting them off of other frames) then 3 weeks of dusting with powdered sugar (saw a good number of mites on the tray after one dusting but then not much after that), so when I did the sugar shake method – twice – ( to test for mite population in my hives I was very happy to see that there were only 4 or 5 mites, a really low count. As much as I wanted to believe the results I was still skeptical. After revisiting your blog and reading this post it confirmed that I should follow up with one more method of mite control. I know it’s a little on the late side but I installed hopguard yesterday. I just did a quick check today and the number of mites on the trays tells me I do need to continue treating with hopguard for another 2 weeks. All of this is a long way to say thank you for your blog and the expertise you share.

  • Rusty, I just determined today that I DO have mites in my hive…and I know I’m completely behind schedule here for any treatments. I didn’t do a precise count–but as I was installing the mouse guard, I saw lots of little brown specks…which on closer inspection I realized were mites. UGH! What can I do at this late date to effectively treat? I’d rather not use strong chemicals if possible…I’ve been frantically researching today…is hopguard the way to go since it’s mid-October? or should I do everything I can to boost the hive with things like Honey B Healthy an essential oils in heavy syrup and then treat vigorously in the spring?

    • Miriam,

      It sounds like you might not make it till spring without intervention. I’ve never used MAQS, but that might be your best bet at this late date. More information is available here.

  • I have several mason bee hotels which occasionally have some cells infested with mites when the bees emerge. Has anyone had experience treating mason bee hotels with powdered sugar or hopguard?

    • Brett,

      The best thing to do is line your nesting tubes with paper so the liners can be replaced every year or use new tubes every year. Don’t let the mason bees nest in tubes that are over two years old or that are obviously infected.

  • What did you do that was different from the instructions? Was it the length of treatment? I’m thinking about getting hop guard this year for my first year of mite treatment before winter. I have 8 frame mediums for my brood and haven’t figure out if I should still use 2 strips per box or not since they recommend 2 strips per 10 frame and I’m assuming deeps.

      • Ah yes, I did read that post after commenting on this one. I didn’t realize it was for HopGuard I though. My mentor indicated that with Hop Guard II it uses 2 consecutive treatments 10-12 days apart. I’ve decided to go with MAQS’s for my first treatment. Weird that Brushy Mountain doesn’t carry HopGuard. Maybe I’ll use it next year.

  • The summer of 2016 turned into nothing short of a nightmare. Without going into the details of it all, the last time I looked at my hives was in July, it is now October. I remember reading somewhere, maybe even here, that it is better to treat for mites late than not treat at all. Since the weather is still in the mid-50s to lower 60s, sometimes low 70s, I decided to go forward. I used HopGuard after reading all of these blog posts and comments. I have three hives. The first hive is a swarm that moved in early summer and their numbers were consistently small. One brood box. I treated this hive no problem. The 2nd hive, I call it Bertha’s Big House, is a really robust hive. 2 brood boxes and one medium. I never harvest honey so they can use all this space as they need to. This hive, as stated is robust and heavy. As Rusty noted, she weighs around 115lbs and to pick this stuff up is impossible. I did what she suggested, take the hive apart to get the strips down into the brood chamber. Technically, I probably should have used 6 strips, but only got 4 in there. These bees were getting irate, so I decided not to press it. The last hive had a terrible reaction to HopGuard. I had to take their hive apart as well and they were nothing short of furious. It was actually kind of scary. I managed to get 4 strips on them, should have been six and then decided to call it as I couldn’t see tearing that hive (or Bertha’s) any further apart given their reaction and time of year. The other two hives calmed down quickly, and things returned to normal after I got done messing around in there. The third hive remained agitated. Extremely so, actually. After the strips were placed in the hive, a large number of bees exited the hive and were hanging around outside like a huge beard. They were flying at me so I decided it was time to just leave them alone. The next morning I replaced their syrup, or tried to. I use a boardman feeder bc too many of them drown in other styles. This is usually an easy affair. As soon as I removed the empty jar, bees came pouring out of the hive and they were ticked off. Since this has been so easy in the past, I was wearing only a veil, not full suit. I needed to leave or I was going to get it, but here the hive was essentially standing open. Suited up, went back out and managed to close the feeder by stuffing it with paper towels, couldn’t get the feeder in as those bees were too angry. I left. Went back 2 days later and managed to get the feeder in, but I think only bc it was cold outside and they weren’t active yet, Decided to check the mite board on all hives. The first small hive showed mite drop and hive residue. Same with Bertha’s. The last hive, had all kinds of interesting stuff. Mites for sure, but also lots of dead larvae and small black insects (Hive Beetle? If so, this is a first for me.) In fact, the day after I put the strips in, there were lots of dead bees and larvae on the landing board. Not so with the other hives. For some reason this hive had a very strong negative reaction to HopGuard. Or me. Or both. Anyway, following Rusty’s suggestion, I am due to putting the 2nd treatment on these hives in a couple of days. I am not feeling good about it at all given what just happened. I feel pretty lucky to have escaped a serious altercation with those bees given the levels of agitation. Has anyone else had an experience like this? Would like to hear from you if you did. Sorry for the length of this post. SK

  • As new beekeepers, we were behind the curve this year and when it was time to treat we didn’t have the supplies on hand yet. Mite counts were very high (20+ for each of the 2 hives) before we started the ApiLifeVar and now, after all three treatments the counts were…exactly as high as before we started?! I don’t know what went wrong but it seems clear that we need to act fast to knock the load down.

    We just pulled the ApiLifeVar remnants on Sunday. We have MAQS on hand (we used them on our other apiary to good effect, though one of those 3 hives is undergoing a second round for also being over threshold after treatment) and I think that’s our best option. Should we wait at all before putting them in? I hate that we’ll have to pull the feeder again, there’s just nothing out there for them to forage. (Western WA)

    • Jillian,

      It sounds like you don’t have much of a choice but to treat as soon as possible. I’m not sure I understand about the feeder. Why can’t you leave it on during treatment?

      • I thought the MAQS instructions say not to feed internally while they’re in. At least we can do the two-strip treatment and be done in a week.

        Have you further developed any theories about why the ApiLife Var failed, and have you ever seen that happen again? (Do you even use it any more?)

        • Jillian,

          You are correct about not feeding during the treatment period with MAQS. I just downloaded the label and re-read it. Sorry about that.

          I’ve had ApiLife Var work really well, and I’ve had it fail. And honestly, I don’t know why. I used to use it often, but once it failed, I never went back to it. I was afraid that resistance might be building up, but I haven’t read anything about it. In contrast, I had HopGuard fail once and then work. The whole thing seems hit or miss so I think more factors are involved than what we know.

  • HopGuard. Beta Tech has introduced the next new version, HopGuard 3. I decided to try it and noted there is a difference in that you can treat up to 4 times a year (HopGuard 2 was 3), and according to BT you can treat one time, 4 times a year, or you can treat consecutively every one to two weeks, 4 treatments. How do you determine if it is one week, 10 days or two weeks apart? Then they said treat in September or October. I don’t get it. I was under the impression that mite treatments need to be concluded by the end of August. THEN, BT says that you should follow up with a different mite treatment late fall before you button the girls up for the winter. Why? Does HopGuard 3 not really do the job? And if a different treatment is needed late fall, which one would be the best fit with HG3? All that said, I treated my hives 7 days apart with HG3, the 3rd treatment was today. Since BT says you can treat up to 4 times with this stuff I guess I was thinking I would wait the full two weeks this time and then treat again in September, then follow up with a different product? Arghhhhh. I thought I knew what I was doing, but maybe not.

    On a different but related note: Dogs, at least mine, think HG tastes good. It might, but it is also toxic. Long story on how this little stinker got into it, no time for that here. If you have a dog make sure they cannot get near this stuff. I ended up in a 3-hour consult with my DVM and Animal Poison Control. Thankfully, she did not have a lot of exposure so we treated more as a just in case. HopGuard is corrosive, so the problem will be chemical burns in the GI (don’t induce vomiting in animals or people). Wipe out their mouth with water and call the vet. If you find yourself in this place get the package insert bc DVM and PC will want the EPA numbers. Best idea: crate the dog while treating bees. Lesson learned.

    • Sharon,

      I’ve been using HopGuard III for the past two years (pre-release samples) and I applied it three times per year, whenever the mite counts began to rise. I didn’t lose any colonies during that time and the mites numbers are low. The EPA recommends all mite treatments be rotated with others to keep the mites from developing resistance to any particular product. These products are effective, and by rotating, they hope to keep them that way. I use Apiguard one time for every two or three times I use HopGuard and that is working for me.

      Thanks for the update on your dog. It’s too bad it happened, but it’s good of you to give us a warning.

      • I once found a dried out “unopen” pack of HopGuard with mysterious cat-sized tooth holes in the mylar. I guess it didn’t taste good enough to give the perp (WHOEVER she was!) any trouble.

          • Well, that same cat (RIP–NOT from toxic ingestions–she was very old) used to chew on any duct tape left lying around. I’m sure mylar and duct tape are basic cat nutrients?

            Also, your husband is very rude and I am now virtually kicking his ankles for you, while I equally rudely laugh at the remark.

      • Could you clarify for me what you mean by 3 times per year? Also confused by the instructions. Do you mean three single applications or 3 series of applications 2 weeks apart. Assume 3 single applications but if there is brood wouldn’t you want to use weeks apart to take care of mites in hatching brood?

        Thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful insights.

        • Sharon,

          The schedule for using miticides on honey bees will vary with the product. In each case, you must read the instructions and, if necessary, request clarification from the company or the EPA listing for that product. I wish I could recite a rule for you, but there is too much variation. Do you have a specific product that you’re concerned about?

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