I posted this last year and, with the start of our season coming soon, I can’t help but repost. I few years ago I assessed my colonies preseason and found they needed a mite cleaning. The difference in their appearance and performance was notable. They were the prettiest bees that spring – vigorous and prolific. Since then I make a point of getting my bees off to a good start early in the spring buildup. Enjoy.
To a carpenter with a hammer everything is a nail. And so it is with me. Registered Nurse with close to 30 years of inpatient hospital unit management, a few graduate level Public Health courses, and 60 years of observation. And so everything looks like a health care management problem (well not everything). Anyway, I thought I’d preface the following comments with a warning that this is just my perspective.
There is a beekeeping saying, “Take your losses in the Fall.” That doesn’t necessarily mean let them die. It typically means combine hives as needed. The economist in us tries to take the least hit possible and combine all of the weaker hives thus at least salvaging one hive out of the mess. My limited experience has been that combining 2 or even 3 weak colonies in the fall still results in a loss. Better to add each of them to a strong hive and take the hive numbers hit right then in the fall. But from a public health or infectious disease standpoint how can we do this safely? If the queen is simply weak that’s one thing, but if an infectious agent or Varroa is the issue you may be causing yourself more anguish by combining an infected hive with a good strong colony. For example, if you were in a hospital room how would you like it if the person in the next bed was being admitted because he/she was weak with a highly infectious disease? Hey, anyone want to share a room with a TB patient? Back to beekeeping… My beekeeping answer is to treat first, pinch the queen, then combine them and even then only if I suspected they were not sick. If they appeared to have succumbed to an infection and are in steep decline then I wouldn’t add those sick bees to another hive, period.
I got to the point of cringing with every Varroa lecture at conferences. But somewhere along the way after looking at the evidence left in my own combs, hives, and other symptoms, I became convinced of a few things. Varroa explains most of the unexplainable. I think successful beekeepers treat early and often. Nowadays, if a hive crashes, I suspect Varroa first. Yeah, maybe they absconded but it was probably secondary to Varroa infestation. Maybe they were robbed but it was probably after they became weak and crashed due to Varroa. I believe Varroa to be the primary cause in most cases. The other events are secondary but that’s what we can see so that’s what we believe happened. We humans are visually oriented to a fault.
But how does it happen so fast you may ask? Ever worked on a hospital ward or lived in a dormitory type housing situation where a flu outbreak occurred? How many sick individuals did you see prior to the epidemic putting everyone in the bed with symptoms? Probably just a few. That’s how it happens. A few sick individuals carrying a potent virus and BAM! Overnight everyone is vomiting with fever and diarrhea. The viri take over and, in the case of bees, a seemingly healthy colony crashes suddenly and we find ourselves perplexed. But why are we perplexed, have we not seen the flu virus in humans close schools? Or cruise ships turn around to return to port after a sudden virus puts all of the occupants in their cabins too sick to continue. Have we been too long without a world plague to have forgotten the infectious disease process?
If you’ve ever read a death certificate it states cause of death. It also allows the physician to state medical factors affecting death. So, cause of death may say “esophageal hemorrhage” but the medical factors might state, “chronic alcoholism.” And so it is with Varroa. Cause of death is “robbing” or “abscond” while the chronic illness would be listed as “Parasitic Mite Syndrome with high virus loading.”
Moving on, so when a colony crashes and robbers come in to clean up the honey guess who takes home something they didn’t ask for? Your other colonies, that’s who. Once the robbing starts the Varroa get distributed among the other hives.
First, in my opinion, you may not want to get into beekeeping if you’re not willing to treat for Varroa and use IPM methods – it’s just too difficult. But then, that’s me. I also take my kids to the doctor when they are sick and don’t let my dogs walk around with ticks in the hope they build a resistance. If you want to be treatment free at least give the bees a chance and buy property 5 miles away from the next closest beekeeper, get clean survivor bees to start, aggressively utilize IPM methods such as screen bottom boards, splits, queen caging, small cell, sugar shakes, and artificial swarms. You’ll be extremely busy but I do believe it can work for some people. For others it becomes an exercise in frustration and disappointment.
Me? I’m going to treat them early and often after a preseason mite level assessment to establish a baseline. I also monitor mite counts post treatment to ensure the treatment was effective. As a primary offense to prevent outbreaks, I treat every spring before honey supers go on the hives. Then, typically, I do a series of 3 weekly OA treatments in June after pulling supers. During the long hot summer, if a colony starts to weaken I treat that single hive after assessment. If a hive collapses and gets robbed everyone gets a treatment. During December broodlessness everyone gets a single vaporization or dribble. I primarily use OA but I may replace one of the seasonal treatments above with a different method. That’s the two pronged plan of 1) Primary preventative treatment and 2) Aggressive Secondary post infection treatments. That’s what you do when you visit your health care provider – expect preventative measures first, and predictable, effective treatment when you get sick.
Hey, look at your hands right now. How many bacteria and viri do you see? Count them. You can’t but if you get sick you may have wished you had washed your hands a little more frequently. Prevention first, but if you get sick take your medicine!
It’s viri spread by Varroa killing our bees. You don’t see the viri, rarely see the mites that spread the viri, and frequently don’t see the symptoms until it’s too late. Good luck managing your bees’ health.