Comb honey: when to treat for mites
Before I get down to the details of each type of comb honey super, I want to discuss Varroa mites. In Honey in the Comb, Eugene Killion does not write a single word about these irksome creatures. This was not an oversight. In fact, the book was published in 1981, six years before Varroa appeared in the New World. Believe me, life was easier without them.
I began keeping bees because I could no longer find honey in wooden boxes. Since I couldn’t buy it, I decided to produce it myself. But nowhere could I find information about controlling mites in a comb honey kind of world, so I devised a system that works for me.
Several factors are important:
- The prettiest, whitest, and most tender comb is produced by bees in a rapidly expanding colony in the midst of a major nectar flow.
- Although there may be several seasonal nectar flows, nectar from tree flowers is usually best for comb honey. There are exceptions, but most tree nectars are naturally high in fructose, so the honey they produce is slow to granulate.
- Trees generally bloom early in the spring.
Taken together, these factors mean that you can produce slow-to-granulate honey in white and tender combs by building up your bees fast in early spring and getting those supers filled.
The downside is that your Varroa mites are loving spring as well.
If you are using mechanical mite control such as powdered sugar and drone frames, you can continue as usual. But many beekeepers prefer to treat for mites in spring and autumn. Although I have tried various methods, I have never been able to optimize comb honey production and treat for mites in spring. For example:
- If you use commercial miticides (which I don’t recommend), the treatment must be completed a certain amount of time before supers are added. The amount of time varies with the product, but with some you must wait up to two weeks after the product is removed from the hive.
- Some of the organic acid treatments require a lesser waiting time, but the treatment itself may require three to four weeks, which can pretty much demolish your spring.
- Some of the newer organic acid treatments, including those based on hop beta acids, formic acid, or oxalic acid can be used while the honey supers are in place. Although I’ve read a lot of labels, I’ve never seen instructions that differentiate between comb honey and extracted honey, so I have to assume the recommendations are the same.
However, I would never let bees produce comb honey in a hive suffused with any of these products. As I mentioned earlier, wax quality is a major feature of comb honey. So legal or not, I would never subject my comb honey to chemicals. If nothing else, they all smell bad, so why risk infusing odors into a product that should smell like heaven?
Year after year I have managed my bees with autumn mite treatments alone. I usually remove my comb honey supers by June 30 and replace them with mediums for collection of winter stores. I use one of the organic acid treatments in autumn and call it good. Then, come spring, I’m ready to go without messing with mite treatments.
If the mite count seems high, I sometimes add drone frames in early, early spring, but I take them out before I add the comb honey supers. Once comb honey supers are in place, I don’t like to disturb the bees more than necessary. No disturbance means no drone frames and no powdered sugar, unless you have a blower for your weekly treatments and can do it without opening the hive.
Your local conditions will be different, of course, so I’m not advocating you use my system. But I am presenting it as an example and suggesting that you think long and hard about Varroa control if you intend to produce comb honey in spring. Like everything else in beekeeping, having a plan is key.