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Absconding bees or death by Varroa?

This past fall, I received many reports and questions about absconding bees, perhaps fifty in all. Every year I get these and I must admit that I’ve always taken the beekeepers’ word for it when they said their bees absconded.

But this year I realized the sheer number of reports was off-kilter somehow. Yes, honey bees abscond on occasion, but it is rare, and it is usually the result of untenable conditions in the hive.

Absconding due to thymol

Only twice have I seen absconding myself. The first time was in the middle of a treatment with thymol (Apilife var) for Varroa mites. I found the cluster, along with their marked queen, in a nearby cedar tree where I was able to capture them. With a bit of research, I discovered other beekeepers who had similar experiences with thymol, especially when daytime temperatures spiked above the recommended treatment threshold.

Absconding due to scavengers

The second time one of my colonies absconded, I received a call from the landowner where I kept an outyard. She said yellowjackets were going in and out of one of my hives. By the time I got there, the bees were pouring out of the hive and clustering below the hive stand, queen and all. I was able to drop the cluster in an empty hive where it stayed. When I opened the original hive, I found it teeming with yellowjackets, bee bits, and ripped and dripping combs.

Other beekeepers have reported absconding after severe infestations with wax moths and small hive beetles. But in all three of these cases, the proximate cause was a scavenger, which means the colony was weak to start with. A healthy, vibrant colony is generally able to control attacks of yellowjackets, beetles, and wax moths. A weakened or hungry colony, however, may decide it is losing the battle and opt to leave. At least, this is how it appears.

Not absconding, but something else

The vast majority of the reports I heard this fall appeared not to be the result of mite treatments or scavengers. Instead, the stories, nearly identical in all cases, claimed the following:

  • The colony that “absconded” was the largest in the apiary, or one of the largest.
  • The incident occurred in September, October, or November.
  • The colony seemed normal during a recent inspection, usually between one and four weeks prior, and then suddenly disappeared.
  • The beekeeper did not see the bees leave or find them later.
  • Honey was left in the hive or it had clearly been robbed (as evidenced by ripped cells).
  • A small amount of brood remained in the hive.
  • A small number of listless bees lingered on the combs, but the rest were gone.
  • The queen was missing.

At first, I wondered if an influx of Africanized genes into the larger population was causing an increase in absconding, but I could find no evidence for that theory in recent literature. So I spent considerable time re-reading the reports (at least those I could find) and concluded that nothing about them suggested absconding. Instead, the observations listed are classic signs of collapse due to Varroa mites.

A plethora of non-treatments

Where I could, I went back and asked those beekeepers how they treated for mites and when. The answers were a hodgepodge, but some examples are listed below:

  • I didn’t see any mites so I didn’t treat
  • I dusted with powdered sugar in the spring and fall
  • I used Honey-B-Healthy
  • I used wintergreen patties
  • I bought a local queen
  • I have a screened bottom board

While there is nothing wrong with doing these things, none of them—even in combination—will handle a mite problem. Many different philosophies have evolved for raising bees in the world of Varroa, but learning to recognize an infestation seems like a logical first step.

Often, when I suggest a colony disappeared due to Varroa mites instead of absconding, I am roundly trounced. “No, they were fine last week.” “It’s not possible because it was my strongest colony.” “The colony was new this year, so it couldn’t have mites.” I find it intimidating to say anything.

What we know about Varroa collapse

Based on observations going back many years, beekeepers collectively know a lot about collapse due to Varroa. Some key points:

  • The number of mites in a colony increases as the bee population increases. But when the bee population begins to decrease in the fall, you are faced with more mites per bee. Likewise, when drone production stops, the mites move into the worker brood. This is the reason colony death from mites skyrockets in September, October, and November.
  • Large colonies support huge numbers of mites. When these colonies contract in preparation for winter, the number of mites in the hive is astronomical. Large colonies—even those that appear healthy—are often the first to fail due to the sheer number of mites.
  • Not only do the large ones fail, but they fail fast. Some say that a large colony can collapse within a week. This “here today, gone tomorrow” aspect is what leads beekeepers to think their hive absconded.
  • Oddly enough, sometimes smaller colonies do better against mites. Their smallness may have been caused by swarming, queen supersedure, or splitting, all of which produces a brood break sometime in the season, which means less brood was raised and fewer mites were produced.
  • Colonies that have collapsed from mites often leave behind honey, sometimes large amounts. This is especially obvious when the colonies collapse during cold months when predators are less likely to clean out the combs.
  • Colonies that collapsed from mites often leave behind some brood. This occurs because life in the hive was preceding normally until a large influx of mites took them down. Because it happens so fast, it can easily occur within the 21-day brood cycle. The result is a patch of brood in an otherwise empty hive.
  • The queen may be missing for a number of reasons. She may have been infected with viruses and died, or she may have starved, or she may have died of exposure because her work force is gone. Her body may have been removed from the hive or she could have fallen into the hive debris. A dead and shriveled queen is hard to spot in a pile of bee bodies.

Where the bees go has always puzzled me, but there have been many observations:

  • In the beginning, the live bees drag out as many bodies as possible. This is more obvious in poor weather when they leave them just outside the door. During warmer or drier days, they will fly them further away so the dead go unnoticed.
  • Sick bees will often fly out and die for the good of the colony. Many people have observed this behavior. On cursory inspection, the dying bees look fine, but they are not.
  • When the hive is sufficiently weakened, predators and scavengers may move in. This can give the appearance that they are the cause of the problem when, if fact, they are the result of it.
  • Sometimes bees have been seen to “abscond” but not in a coordinated way. Instead, individuals may flee from the colony and take up residence in a nearby hive. This drifting spreads mites to other colonies.

I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites. If I suggest any other cause of death, they are likely to accept it—or at least consider it. But mention mites, and the answer is usually a resounding “No way!” A stigma associated with mites suggests that you are somehow lacking in ability as a beekeeper if you lose a battle with Varroa mites.

Another common misconception is that mites are easily visible by the beekeeper. In fact, mites make a point of hiding from view. They spend a lot of time beneath capped brood cells and are rarely seen on adult bees. Even if phoretic mites are present on the adults, they can can remain partially concealed between segments.

Whatever the reason for dismissing the mite problem, it’s sad because by denying the evidence we preclude an opportunity to learn and improve. Like most conundrums, the more you know, the more successful you will be.

What to look for

I would prefer you didn’t take my word for it, but do a postmortem on the hive that you suspected of absconding. The first clues to death by Varroa are listed above, that is, a suddenly empty hive that still contains honey and a patch of brood. But if you want more evidence, here are some other things to look for:

  • Look for guanine deposits inside the brood cells. These are white, crystalline patches that adhere to the top of the cell. Randy Oliver at Scientific Beekeeping has a nice description.
  • If there is capped brood, open the cells, pull out the pupae and look for varroa mites.
  • Sift through the debris on the bottom board and search for dead mites.

While honey bees will abscond on occasion, it is rare, especially in races of the European honey bee such as Apis mellifera ligustica and A.m.carnica. Before chalking up your lost colony to something that rarely happens, do a thorough postmortem on your empty hive and keep an open mind.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Asconding-colony-2 under hive stand
This colony left the hive (above) that was full of yellowjackets. The cluster is small because many had been killed by the wasps. © Rusty Burlew.
Absconding-colony-1 hanging from hive stand
Once I relocated the colony into a new hive, I found that the queen was with them. No living bees remained in the hive, only parts of dead ones and ravaged combs. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Beckie
Reply

Really good and important article for me, a first time beekeeper that lost my “strongest hive” in November. We have had an abnormal wet and cold winter here in Southern California, and I was just assuming this hive starved due to my lack of preparation. (Although they left a nearly full super of honey!) In reading this, my colony fits nearly every criteria. A much smaller colony right next to this one is doing just fine, and that’s the one I’ve been so worried about. I would have argued the same, no mites. Not a trace of mites or wing damage—all the things I was told to look for. I am eager to go out and inspect the brood frames that were left, as well as the clump of dead bees on the bottom of the hive. I was devastated. I will replace them, and be all the wiser next year. 🙂

sandra carnet
Reply

Thanks for this great explanation of the possibilities. I have not experienced absconding bees, but have been convinced that my varroa control efforts have not been effective. I have not been vigilant enough. The most helpful part was to visit the Scientific Beekeeping site and see his photos of the evidence of varroa around the cells. I believe I have seen this in one of my deadout hives and thought it was mold. So, now I am vowing to make certain I get on top of this beginning this spring. And do it right – or as right as I can.

Ken M
Reply

Fascinating. I lost my biggest, most active colony this October in exactly the manner you describe. Of course I attributed it to absconding because there wasn’t a large number of dead bees around, and no sign of chunks of wax like you see in a robbing situation. Lost two others over the last two seasons, both of them were smaller, but the pattern was the same. Thank you for a very informative post!

susan rudnicki
Reply

I would offer that one of the Darwinian adaptations that honey bees have probably made for the 70 million years of their evolution is the ability to pick up and go off to new digs to escape pathogen pressures. The robust feral stock that a lot of treatment free beeks are using have gone through this process already. They show this most obviously by their ability to persist without our “help”. The weaker colonies have died, and the strong ones are the ones we keep. We mess up that process when we keep propping up stock that depends on the chemicals and develops pathogens and pests increasingly resistant to the treatment regimens. Apis cerana, the original host for varroa, had to go through this, and now lives with the mite as a background stressor that it manages well.

Leecia Price
Reply

Thank you so much for the valuable information you take the time to share. As with many of your posts, none of these fact were presented at my local 6 week ‘bee school’ nor at any of the club meetings to date. I have no idea why. This is my first year and the learning curve is unbelievably steep.
We are having a warm winter in Maine and my 3 hives are still alive so far…

terry
Reply

That was really great info about mites.

christina
Reply

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, you are a treasure!

Gary
Reply

I had two hives abscond a week after I treated with Miteaway strips. A swarm left the hive three days after I fed with sugar water and Honey-B-Healthy.

IslandLife
Reply

That’s a pretty nice looking hive stand (at least the part that is visible in the photos). Care to share more?!

Rusty
Reply

Funny. This stand is one my husband threw together in about 15 minutes when I said, “Quick! I need another hive stand.” I’ll see if I have more pics. I liked it so well, I had him make 3 more. They are about 8 years old now, and holding up well.

Jeff Diegel
Reply

Is there a plan to build a good base for beehives that also keeps ants to a minimum. Or is there a natural way to make ants leave beehives alone, plants or other deterrent that keep ants at bay while not hurting bees?

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

For ant problems and suggestions, see “Bad-ant advice.”

Jan
Reply

I have a wooden stand that I built with 4 x 4 legs. About 8 inches off of the ground I wrapped the legs in decorative duct tape and then covered the tape with Vaseline mixed with a little bit of Wintergreen essential oil. The ants won’t try to get over the sticky barrier and so far the bees haven’t gotten into it so it has worked well all around. I also spread a very thin layer of diatomaceous earth on the ground under the stand then covered that with a thin layer of mulch. Not only does it discourage ants, but small hive beetle larva as well.

Bonnie Mogstad
Reply

I agree with your theory. Two yrs ago both of our really strong hives were gone in the early spring. Lots of honey and mold, very few bees, all dead. I thought they must have froze but had second thoughts the more I read about Varroa. The new bees we got the next year were treated in the fall. Both hives survived the winter and did excellent all this summer. We decided to treat again as there were some Varroa (not near as bad as last yr). We managed to put apistan strips in only one of the hives. One of our hives are not friendly in the least and we finally gave up. It will be interesting to see how they survive the winter this year. We also have our newbee hive that we have been nursing and protecting from robbing all late summer and fall, they did not get treated either. I really hope they survive as they are a sweet bunch of bees. Our swarm that we caught last summer did not survive the late summer either, we made the mistake of opening it up during the really bad dearth late summer and the robbers were ferocious. It was gone in a day. After reading your post I maybe feel a little bit better with the hope they may have moved on to a better home.

Bryan
Reply

I have no problem placing blame on varroa if that is the cause. However, the obsession with the insect needs to stop. Bees are supposed to be the obsession. Varroa can not drown out all other conversations. Beekeepers dismiss being told it’s varroa because they are told it’s varroa nearly every time they bring up a loss. A continued conversation becomes a broken record. Club presentations and discussions are infested with this myopic view.

One of the 8 hives I wintered last year didn’t make it. The hive was a spring swarm that had reasonable stores but had a huge population going into winter. I went on a 2 month business trip and came back to one empty box. While discussing that I was pleased to have only one lost hive, I was told it must have been varroa. I theorized that poor hive resource utilization killed the hive. If I listened to that unfounded, but possible conclusion, I would be loosing one of my 11 hives this winter.

Most of my winter losses early on were from moisture issues. This site and a few other places talk about it but, to me, it was an important and overlooked topic.

Beginners usually don’t start with healthy hives. They are small hives made from miss-matched bees thrown into a new location with unfamiliar weather conditions. They are stressed and nearly always behind. So pests of all sorts including beetles, varroa, and well meaning humans can cause havoc.

Rusty
Reply

Bryan,

I agree that mites are an overwhelming portion of the honey bee conversation, but since they are the major reason for colony loss, perhaps the attention is called for. I still think beekeepers (on average) don’t pay enough attention.

One thing I’d like to mention, if I may. You say, “However, the obsession with the insect needs to stop.” In fact, the varroa mite is not an insect and is in an entirely different class of animals, the Arachnida. Arachnids (spiders, scorpions, mites, ticks) have eight legs, two body segments, and go through incomplete metamorphosis.

Maybe one more discussion about mites wouldn’t be a bad thing?

Oliver
Reply

That´s why in Brazil the bee is officially “resistant” (against all bactaria, virus, and plagues). But professional beekeepers treat the hives against varroa and even a university study revealed the scut isn´t resistant. But people don´t observe correct. If you meet the bees only to “rob” the honey, you don´t know them. Scut leaves the hive for any reason, another point why beekeepers can´t see the difference. We have in beekeeping a lot of “what can´t be, isn´t” and sect thinking. We are fighting for years to open the minds of the local beekeepers and start treating the bees, but they don´t believe us. It´s always CCD, the agrotoxics, but never varroa or scut behaviour.

colin priestley
Reply

Interesting.

Firstly thanks so much for all your wonderful tips and ideas, explanations and especially the pictures. Fantastic that such a site is available to help and enthrall so many of us.

Now Absconding bees. Luckily we do not, as yet have Varroa here in Australia. I say yet as I feel it to be an inevitable outcome. But of my hives, I too lost 2 early in the spring with no logical explanation. And a third a couple of weeks later.

At the time I had overwintered 18 hives and the two in question were 2 box 8 frame set-ups, they had been regularly checked and fed and one had been equipped with a heater, as I wanted to ensure a good lead into the new season, and had it in a slightly more exposed location.
The hives are south of Melbourne, and while away on a trip to Cairns, far north Queensland for 2 weeks in mid September, they simply left.

I inspected all hives before my trip then again on my return. The empty hives, situated some 2 miles apart, had no trace of bees at all, dead, dying or otherwise. Some un-hatched brood, but not much, with no obvious disease present, the unhatched brood just dying of cold I presume. Also no honey, but wax debris leading me to think that when un-guarded the hive was robbed. But possibly by the hives own bees.

On discovery of the loss I did the “search” as you do, expecting to find a trace nearby, but nothing.

At the same time another hive in its second season, unexpectedly threw a swarm, plenty of space, plenty to forage, good stores of honey, water nearby, all good. It lost about 40% of its population, never to be seen again as I arrived too late to pursue it. And a week later the rest of the bees left. Again leaving with no obvious signs of cause.

I have since replaced this hive with an established 3 box setup which seems to be very happy needing a fourth any day now. Also I have 5 other hives close to that site all growing without incident.

Finally it is worth noting that all my own hives (not the ones I manage for others), are re-queened with locally sourced Ligurian queens.

I am as confused as your other owners, but can assure you in my case it is not Varroa, and as all hive components, timber, frames, wax sheets and paint etc. Are all the same across all of my hives, I am completely at a loss to explain it.

My wife says I will just have to face it. Some of them just don’t like me.

Rusty
Reply

Colin,

Interesting circumstances; there is so much we still don’t know. I’d like to know if it happens again.

Christina
Reply

I think they missed you while you were away, and went looking for you. ; )

Peter Cauwenberghs
Reply

An excellent article!

Amanda
Reply

The bigger of my two hives is dead/gone. I discovered it in December when I went to treat with oxalic. I had treated with formic over the summer (AND powdered sugar AND screened bottom board), but was never able to get ahead of the varroa. I assumed it was the varroa that took it down — at least I hoped it wasn’t something else I’m unable to see/diagnose. My smaller hive (which I created from the big one) seems great. Last time I checked them for varroa, they had ZERO. I was shocked. I still treated them with oxalic in December.

Amber H.
Reply

Hi! This is my first time leaving a comment. Only my second year beekeeping. This is exactly what happened to my hive in November. I know mine had a mite infestation. I was dusting with sugar and monitoring the numbers on the sticky board. Hundreds were falling. I didn’t see dead bees at all, and one day they were just gone. Two weeks after an inspection. The evidence sure points to mine just taking off, but why do mites make them leave? It’s not like the bees can just start fresh and get rid of the mites, like a beetle or wasp. They carry the mites with them. Just wondering why they leave. Thank you, I really enjoy your blog!

Rusty
Reply

Amber,

Bees with mites are most likely suffering from the diseases the mites carry. And the mites are large in comparison to the bee. So if one is on an adult bee, it would be like have a leech the size of a dinner plate sucking your blood. You could compare bees leaving the hive to people who jump out of burning buildings—neither is a good choice, but in desperation, they make a choice.

Robert
Reply

I have only been keeping bees for 2 years. Each year I have lost my entire apiary (1-2 hives) to mites. It appears that the hive has absconded. I didn’t expect mites my first year but when the same thing happened the second year I suspected those darn varroa mites. Since I’m new at this I still have a lot to learn, and I’m not afraid to admit that I lost these hives to mites.

In each of the cases there was a very small amount of bees left in the hive. I suspect that most of the hive left in the fall. In each of the cases there appeared to be a large amount of mites on the plastic beneath the screened bottom board.

willowcreekhoney
Reply

This makes perfect sense! I have not been keeping bees but for only four years and came up with a conclusion similar to this: the strongest hives will fall to mites before the weakest. Let me explain.

The previous year I treated for mites using Hopguard. My timing was a little late and it got cold before I could treat the second time as indicated by the directions. I thought, ‘at least I treated’. In the early spring my most robust fall hive died while the weaker ones lived; even one I thought wouldn’t make it through the winter because there was only a fist-sized cluster.

My conclusion: the strong hive died due to mite infestation whereas the weaker ones survived because the mite levels were low enough to begin with that one treatment of Hopguard was enough to suppress the mites enough for survival. The strong colony would have had a large amount of mites due to the size of the colony and the ‘one’ treatment would not have killed enough to make enough of a difference.

This was my novice conclusion, I was proud of it, and even though I was not able to look in the hive to follow what was going on, I did a postmortem to arrive at this conclusion. Had I treated with something else and gotten same results (due to too late of treatment) I would have probably come to a differing conclusion. Maybe wondering how they could abscond in the cold winter. But no, I learned an interesting lesson about mites and treating on time that you have cemented in to my mind with this post. Thanks for proving this point to me; now I will be able to share this with more conviction (though I shared these findings with others this past year with the warning to treat early).

Quite a few people have had instances this past fall, late summer, and even one in mid summer, who claimed their strongest colonies of bees disappeared, absconded! I honestly thought this was due to mites, though not to the fullest sense. I had figured that they actually packed up and moved out and maybe some did, but most likely they weakened quickly, some left to die, etc. Now I have a fuller understanding of this and will urge other to treat early.

One hive established by a nuc did this. Bees from California should probably be treated when you get them to prevent mites from overrunning the colony. This was another conclusion I reached. These bees have been active for quite some time so mites can get a real hold on them.
I learned a lot last year as well as the year before from both my experiences and that of others.

I hope this all makes sense, it can be a little confusing. Again, your post really made it more clear to me and I hope I can explain this to others.

Ken

Peter, Castleton Vt.
Reply

With Mite-Away Quick Strips being available there should be no reason why a beekeeper should lose a hive to mites. I have used them for a few years and they work great. Naturally occurring formic acid. Follow directions.

Jim
Reply

Nice article

sandra carnet
Reply

Thanks, everybody! I love reading these comments. To contribute one last comment in this string – we are in northeast Georgia and now experiencing the worst rainy season I can remember up this way – two weeks solid rain in December with no break. We have also had unusually warm weather for November and December interspersed with a few frigid days. I’ve been checking and feeding when I can and they have all been clustered in the top and happy to see me. It’s 53 degrees, sunny with a bit of wind today and my bees are out and both my hives seem ok, but last year, I lost one hive in December while I was away for two weeks during bitter cold. I treated for varroa in the fall, but did not have a chance to treat last spring. So, I am holding my breath to see what happens over the next 60 days as we head into March. And I am definitely treating for varroa this spring!

Amy B
Reply

Rusty,

I read your every post. Thanks for the good information.

Question: Do you see hive deaths due to mites where the dead bees just keep loading up on the bottom board, instead of “disappearing”????

One of my most populous hive has had huge deaths like that from Oct through… now.

(I have been treating with MAQ for 5 years, and had very healthy hives but this last year either just got one strip in—not 2, and I think missed a few hives due to personal matters and weather, getting in the way).

Thank you.

Rusty
Reply

Amy,

Yes, I’ve seen the dead bees just accummlate on the bottom board. But the same diagnostic procedures apply: you can look for guanine deposits in the brood frames and you can look for varroa in the debris. If it’s not varroa, it could be something else. Nosema, for example.

Roman Linhart
Reply

Rusty, thank you for this article, it is very helpful for beginners and also for many experienced beekeepers. I am successfully fighting with Varroa for over 25 years and I have learned, that this is the most important thing we should do for the health of our bees (except lucky Australila:-)). Many beekeepers forget about it…

I like this sentence: “I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites.” It also surprise me a lot! And I can`t agree with Bryan, we are not obsessed with Varroa. Evidently, it seems that we need to hear about our No. 1 enemy as often as possible. It could save many colonies…

Andy Kingman
Reply

Hi Rusty

What are your views on FGMO fogging for varroa control.

Kind regards

Andy

Rusty
Reply

Andy,

I’ve never tried it, but there’s a guest post about it here that is interesting.

Mary
Reply

Can you comment on the presence of insecticides found in pollen, and the impact on honeybees in hive, as well as potential harm from consumption of the honey and/or pollen from the hive?

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

I’ve said all I can about contaminated pollen since it was the subject of my master’s thesis. But you can read it if you want.

Mary
Reply

Where can I find that, is it on your website? thank you

Rusty
Reply

Mary,

I gave it to you before, but here it is again.

Bryan
Reply

Rusty,

You said “I don’t know why beekeepers are unwilling to believe or admit their bees died of mites.” I tried to provide a common reason. The default answer for problems is mites. Though it is a problem, I don`t like seeing it portrayed as THE problem.

Richard
Reply

As usual Rusty, a beautifully constructed article and I doubt there are many who would or could disagree with your conclusions in terms of the cause of what appears to be absconding in some or even many cases actually being colony collapse from Varroa and yes, you’re definitely right about the stigma of Varroa and the difficulty in beekeepers admitting it as the cause, but I worry much more about the bit you avoid saying at the end.

Many new and established keepers reading and agreeing with your conclusions will think that you promote treatment. Well, you do, reluctantly and carefully, but you do. But take even a cursory glance at the association forums around the world and you will see that 2016 will be the ‘Year of the Oxalic’ and that is a far bigger concern.

We have all seen the flow of advice from associations and the vast majority of the great and good across the planet over the last decade on this subject, especially in the last five years.

In no particular order, there has rave support for sugar and Beerite and Honeysmart and Safebee and Beeguard and Mitebegone, teatree oils, lemontart essence, Naturalharmlessoneplanet….well whatever they were all called, they were basically a method for hurting both mite and bee, but hopefully mite more, with varying degree of success.

Your thymol story is certainly not an isolated one, or surprising and each time we read that the latest thing is naturally occurring so can’t be harmful, that essential oils are all lovely and harmless and formic acid is what ants use and is naturally occurring and is found in tree sap (or whatever) so is entirely natural to spray all over the bees…and each time, the keepers grab hold of it and use it with less guilt and more hope than science.

But none of these treatments have captured the beekeepers’ imagination around the globe so forcefully as oxalic acid.

Firstly, it again is ‘naturally occurring, it’s in rhubarb for goodness sake and we eat that, so really it’s like sprinkling lettuce on them and is completely without guilt and it works! Only it isn’t harmless. It’s an acid that can melt a visor and whether it’s drizzled onto the bees or fumigated using a battery powered vaporiser, it’s still acid and it’s not naturally occurring in a beehive, ever.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad of course. It just means we have to be cautious. Especially so, because everyone on Facebook and social media is on the edge of their seats with anticipation and longing for The Answer and reacts so quickly to jump on the band wagon.

If we look at the empirical evidence for human intervention on pretty much any area, we’re notoriously poor at being patient and allowing nature to find its way, or waiting for small scientific samples to be properly tested before thinking “oh come on. I need this now. I’m sure it’s fine. Bob next door used it and his bees are fine. My bees are infected. This works. Why wait? In fact, I’m being irresponsible if I wait, because they can infect others. Everyone else is doing it. The associations say it’s ok and recommend it. I’d have to be one of those airy-fairy organic vegan types who haven’t a clue about the real world to decide not to use it….right?

Well…actually no.

Susan Rudniki (above) offers a quietly spoken thought. A minority of equally quietly spoken but sensible people also offer a thought. You have offered it too. But it is scary. It isn’t popular. Anyone mentioning it is shouted down. But just maybe natural selection, giving strong colonies a chance to adapt to Varroa, by managing everything else as well as we can…rather than have them rely on us spraying, gassing, sprinkling and wafting these things at them…is it possible that the answer lies there?

Neonicotinoids – ask a cotton farmer. A nice and responsible farmer who values the environment but has a commercial crop to protect. Yes or no? It’s understandable that he says yes, surely? But it’s not likely to be a good idea long term is it?

So, whilst I totally agree with your theory, I worry about your caution in not following it up with what to do about it and what all these readers will conclude for themselves.

Dave
Reply

As a third year beekeeper I have less qualification to speak to the varroa issue than most. Certainly Rusty and many others who keep bees. Having said that I must agree with both Richard and Susan.

As beekeepers we are often astute observers and students of nature, and if we are to learn anything from nature it is this. The natural world is far more qualified at solving its problems then humans are. Humans want quick answers, nature wants balance.

When I took up this endeavor I knew I would soon enough be dealing with varroa. I made the decision to take the “natural selection” route that Richard so diplomatically mentions. Even though this practice has been scorned by conventional beekeepers I chose to be treatment free (there, I said it) and let the chips fall where they may. Patience, something our species is in short supply of, will either supply the answer or show us the path.

My faith in nature far outweighs my faith in the “treatment du jour” seen on the social media sites. Certainly more faith than I have in the EPA and USDA as Rusty concludes in her thesis concerning the effects of pesticide-contaminated pollen on larval development.

As a side note, Rusty’s thesis is very well written, informative, and would be worth the time spent reading it. Nice job, Rusty. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Dave,

My post is about learning to diagnose a problem—Do I see absconding or varroa?—not a prescription on how you should keep bees. As I’ve said hundreds of times on this site, I believe the ultimate decision of “how” is up to the individual beekeeper. I can point out alternatives and that is all. A true treatment-free beekeeper is extremely aware of mite levels in his hives, and he uses that information to improve his stock. Ignoring mites is not how they get good at what they do.

You say, “let the chips fall where they may.” That is exactly what so enrages the commercial beekeepers. Those chips (varroa mites, in this case) fall into the hives of other beekeepers on the backs of absconding individuals, drifting drones, and robbers. So by not caring for varroa mites in some way, you infringe on the colonies of others. I’m not saying “how” to treat—perhaps you use mechanical means, such as drone trapping, twice-weekly powdered sugar, brood breaks, or queen sequestration—but you have to do something. Like any endeavor worth pursuing, becoming a true treatment-free beekeepers is work.

You also point out that, “The natural world is far more qualified at solving its problems then humans are.” This is absolutely true with no qualifications, as long as you can find some “natural world” left. In the natural world honey bees did not exist in North America. Pesticide residues have been found in every single human even in remote tribes, because we have polluted our oceans, soils, and atmosphere. We have buildings, roads, cities, and impermeable surfaces everywhere you look. We have destroyed or at least altered every single ecosystem on earth, and now we are cooking the whole thing as a unit. Natural world? Where???

So we have an introduced species living in an altered landscape eating foods it didn’t in the past and living with parasites which it didn’t evolve with. Sure, through 100 million years of natural selection honey bees (and all bees) have been able to evolve to fit their environment. But change is happening faster than ever, way too fast. The patience you mention is indeed important because it may be another 100 million years before things straighten themselves out.

Another thing I always say, “We have to start from where we are, not from where we should be.” I support treatment-free and natural beekeeping as long as it is done in a responsible way. Responsible means keeping your own varroa mites in check by whatever means you chose while you are in the process of developing and raising your own mite-resistant bees. That’s a win for you, the honey bees, other beekeepers, and the planet.

Dave
Reply

Rusty,

Thank you for responding to my comment. It was quite unexpected and my intention was not to take your post in a direction you didn’t intend. I understand your post was about learning to diagnose a problem not about how to keep bees. I always find your posts to be thorough and informative. As I said, I’m a third year beekeeper and as such would not presume to know everything there is to know about beekeeping.

I’m keenly aware of the mite loads in our hives and have seen little evidence of mites until a warm day recently when I saw some on the corrugated sheet under the screened bottom board, which I monitor regularly. Come spring I’ll deal with them appropriately, and yes, I anticipate it will be work.

I’ll stand by my “natural world” position and will agree with you on the distribution of pesticides throughout the world and there is not much natural world left. You say, “We have to start from where we are, not where we should be.” and I wholly agree. However, we (collectively) also need to agree on where we should be, and there’s the issue.

We are starting from a position of too many pesticides/chemicals and their pervasiveness in our world. Your thesis points that out brilliantly. So I believe we need to start looking in the other direction…less pesticide/chemical use as our starting point to a different end. Loading the world up with more and “better” pesticides and chemicals only worsens the problem.

We are seeing weeds become resistant to herbicides and fungicides in short generational time spans. Is there a reason to believe varroa won’t react in the same way? Maybe nature is kicking evolution into high gear in response.

The conventional solution to pests is to use a “bigger bat” so to speak, which starts the cycle anew. The lesson is clear if we care to listen. Someone once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result. Without much argument we live in an insane world.

In the end I have chosen to be treatment free…responsibly, without chemical treatments and that is what I meant by let the chips fall where they may. Certainly not a purist position. However, those who treat also infringe on my colonies. Where that conversation leads deserves a whole different forum.

Rusty, I sincerely and deeply apologize to you if my comment took your post of topic. It was not my intention and the last thing I want to do is politicize your excellent resource.

Thank you.

Rusty

Dave,

No offense taken. Disagreement is how we learn and how our thinking evolves.

terry
Reply

Rusty,

Would you explain some different kinds of varroa mite medication to us newbe bee –wanna bees members//times and applications. Lost my hive early in Nov. Did not use any varroa mite product. Brand new to this bee thing??? Want to start over this spring and would like to do it right this time if possible. Am trying to learn. Thanks for all your advice———————Terry

Rusty
Reply

Terry,

Based on the requests, I will try to put together a comparison of the Varroa options. It’s complicated.

terry
Reply

THANKS —–I GOT A LOT TO LEARN

Mary
Reply

Thank you! I had a pollen test and am concerned about continuing beekeeping, due to insecticides and applications in the area, but not on my property. Your thesis will be a great resource.

Dermot
Reply

Great article with a sensible logical process.

I’m also in Australia, probably best described as pre-Varroa, and I’d have to say my fellow Aussie’s experience above is an anomaly. We (my daughter and I) have notched up 96 swarm collections or colony removals this season along with running 10 of our own hives and rehabilitating upwards of 20 colonies and absconding just isn’t an issue we have to deal with.

As it would be such a strange occurrence, we would expect to hear about it amongst our local Association membership (250+), especially at monthly meetings of up to 100. We do not have people discussing this at all.

Bonnie Mogstad
Reply

We have lost one hive so far. The large unfriendly hive that we did not treat this past year. I opened it up today to examine and there were only about 2roa mites, dead I believe but very visible.

My other large hive that was treated and the newbee hive are still buzzing away, I can hear them thru the box and they peek out at me occasionally to say Hi.

RobWok
Reply

Excellent article. I just want to add one other thing that happens: Too much feeding. This sounds weird, but one thing that I’ve seen is that new hives get abundant sources of feed, and not enough protein. When you supply sugar water for the bees, the bees will load up. However in a natural situation, you’ll have bees going out for nectar and getting pollen at the same time. So, there may be plenty of honey (or thickened sugar water) in the hive, but little bee bread. The hive won’t necessarily abscond, but can dwindle to nothing, and that can be confusing for a beekeeper that doesn’t know how to conduct a thorough post mortem.

Andrew Dewey
Reply

Rob – I hear your point but must point out that some nectars are not so great for over wintering. Nectar from Aster is a particular problem here abouts (Maine) because it has a high content of Ash – something that the bees don’t digest. If the bees aren’t able to go on cleansing flights, the ash “poop” becomes dysentery. Dysentery CAN be a symptom of Nosmea, but isn’t always.

I haven’t made up my mind about the practice but it is not uncommon to feed sugar syrup during the August dearth and then place honey supers for the fall flow. That way the Aster honey goes to the beekeeper and the bees don’t need to keep their legs crossed all winter!

Chris Gredler
Reply

Thanks for your article on varroa. I am sure it reminded many beekeepers that we need to be more vigilant in managing mites. In December I lost my spring nuc to varroa. The smaller nuc is weak but carries on. The last two years have been frustrating but I will not quit. This spring I will hopefully have more knowledge. When my new package arrives I will do an alcohol wash so I know where my mite level is at. Green drone frames will also put in. If the drone frames are foundation they should be pulled every 28 days and every 21 or 22 days if drawn out. Is this correct? Thanks! Your site has been a real help to new beekeepers like myself.

Rusty
Reply

Chris,

The brood cycle for drones is 24 days, but the workers need a few days to clean used cells and the queen needs a few days to lay the eggs. Some folks say once every 30 days is enough, but I think 28 days is about right, which is exactly four weeks and easy to remember.

Chris Gredler
Reply

Rusty, thanks for the explanation. It was a huge help. Chris

ET Ash
Reply

a snip…

‘At first, I wondered if an influx of Africanized genes into the larger population was causing an increase in absconding, but I could find no evidence for that theory in recent literature.’

my comments…

likely there is no published account but there was a wave of ‘absconding disease’ (back in the 60’s I think) and africanized genetics was pointed to as a possible cause. for folks information africanized semen was distributed across the country by a well know bee expert of the day and it was rumored that some africanized stock escaped from the Baton Rouge station. 50 + years later this rumor was repeated but only after a USDA researcher had retired.

It should be mentioned here that very populated hives also will consume more feed resources than a smaller hive.

None of the above should be considered as disputing the value of the above article which is directly on target and every novice beekeeper should read and digest. Imho…. even if you do not treat folks need to monitor their varroa infestation.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

Thanks so much for the vote of confidence!

Monica
Reply

Which gives better results in the fall for checking varroa counts – powdered sugar shake or dust – or the one I can’t bring myself to do – alcohol shake?
Every other day I am out there checking the varroa boards, spring thru late fall. On some hives I next to never see a mite. On others I see a couple and take whatever step I think is necessary to help slow the problem. I try a bit of everything but chemicals.
So all of this leaves me wondering if what I am doing is good enough. I lost now three hives since the first of the year. The first one to go was my largest and strongest. Then two others followed a few weeks behind……
i have not really had real problems with Varroa – but with more hives comes more issues I guess.
My biggest effort this year is adding more fragrant herbs to the garden and around the hives – plants that naturally are high in essential oils. I am working on the theory of a constant proactive approach verses a sledge hammer reactive state. But I cycle back around – is what I am doing enough? I don’t want to be part of a larger problem – I just to mind my own beezwax.

Monica
Reply

Hi Rusty,
So the concern I have is when I am checking for the varroa, is correct counts, I truly never know if what I am seeing is correct. So is there a in yard way to make sure that a person is getting the most correct counts?
I personally use the powdered sugar and mite boards. I think the powdered sugar shakes give me the most accurate counts, but when u see one mite after a shake it always makes me wonder if I did it the wrong time of day, if I should have shook them differently or if I am super lucky.
I know people out there use a alcohol shake – for me that is too much. I would rather use a gentler, less dead method

Barry Z.
Reply

Rusty,

We had a very mild fall and the bees were still foraging in December (asters mostly) so I was quite surprised to find a dead out in early April. They were a first year colony, but had had a great year, even producing a small amount of surplus honey.

When I did my post-mortem, everything pointed to Varroa, except that there were LOTS of dead bees in the bottom of the hive. There was lots of honey left, some spotty capped and uncapped brood, and some (not a lot) guanine crystals visible. Is the presence of all of those bee corpses an indication that my die off may have been due to something other than Varroa?

In any event, I installed a new package and will be far more vigilant in dealing with this destructive critter going forward.

Rusty
Reply

Barry,

Sounds like mites. If the hive was still going in December, it may have been too cold for the remaining bees to carry out the corpses. Usually when the colony dies earlier, like in October or November, you don’t see many dead bodies.

sebastian
Reply

Dear Rusty et. al.

I’m a new beekeeper who just received a local 4 frame nuc 5 days ago from a seller who is chemical-free who i know does not use treatments of any kind, but does drone trapping, makes herbal teas.

yesterday, we found 7 young bees on the ground near the hive either dead or unable to fly. upon closer inspection, they appear to all have traits of DWV (small misshaped or missing wings). we are assuming that they failed in their orientation flight. just now, i found 3 more lying on the ground with the same traits.

i’ve been reading about various mite treatments, bee and mite life cycle, etc. but have found little or no information about how to deal with a brand new nuc that may have a varroa problem. i do understand that timing is critical, depending upon what stage the hive is in.

i have not gone in the hive since the day after installation, as i found the queen lying on the ground about 20 feet away from the hive the morning after installation after being almost absolutely positive that we spotted the queen the day before and she placed into the hive (i spotted her almost immediately when picking up the nuc). so i was a bit concerned and did not want to disturb them, as i read that finding a queen outside the hive was extremely rare.

i put some fresh nettles in front of the entrance, just to give them a tiny boost of formic acid while i determine a plan of action.

if you have any suggestions or sources that i can read about this situation, i would greatly appreciate it. i have no problems of figuring out how to do a sugar roll test or applying one of the various mite control methods, but i’d thought i’d ask before digging into a new hive and disturbing them until i know exactly how to handle.

thank you very much.

Rusty
Reply

Sebastian,

Based on your description, I’d say this colony has serious issues and it will die of DWV if not treated for mites quickly. It may already be too late. Finding the queen outside the hive is also a bad sign. I would open the hive and see if the queen is there, see if she is laying, and see if brood are being raised. In the meantime just pick a mite treatment that works for you. Many are based on frames of bees. So count the frames of bees you have and read the directions. If you have five frames, treat for that many. The directions are straight forward.

When you buy treatment-free bees they should also be healthy bees. Buying a box of treatment-free disease-ridden bees is not the idea. I’d ask for a refund.

sebastian
Reply

thanks for taking the time to respond Rusty.

i found the queen this morning, unfortunately she was laying dead on the ground about 5 feet away from the hive. bees are dropping by the dozen, many of them young ones. i’m collecting what i can to see if i can have someone to do a post-mortem on them.

have called a couple local beekeeps to get their advice and am getting stern lectures on the necessity of toxic chemicals (beyond that of what you discuss here). am pretty darn frustrated at this point.

thanks for sharing all your knowledge and experience.
cheers

Alex R
Reply

Rusty, what is your opinion on freezing and reusing frames from hives you believe abscond from mites?

Rusty
Reply

Alex,

They are fine to use. Frames with no live bees cannot pass on mites or the viruses that mites carry.

Gustavo Louro
Reply

I confirm all points listed, because, in october 2016 y personly assist to three absconded in the more largest colony in the apiary, that have produce about 40 kgs of honey, and died, after absconded, in a week, cause varroa.

The incident occurred in September, October, or November.
The colony seemed normal during a recent inspection, usually between one and four weeks prior, and then suddenly disappeared.
The beekeeper did not see the bees leave or find them later.
Honey was left in the hive or it had clearly been robbed (as evidenced by ripped cells).
A small amount of brood remained in the hive.
A small number of listless bees lingered on the combs, but the rest were gone.
The queen was missing.

Rusty
Reply

Gustavo,

I’m sorry you lost so many bees, but I’m happy my list is correct.

Elizabeth
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Should I treat an empty hive for varroa in the spring? My bees are gone, sadly. Just as you described above. Last seen active in December – noticed gone early February (in MA). Only found one varroa on the few dozen remaining bodies. Some evidence of comb destruction, 60+ pounds of honey left, several small fields of honey comb uncapped (not ravaged) and dripping. A mystery, but now I wonder if there are no bees can I repopulate that hive without treating for varroa or do I need to treat it? Also, your opinion on leaving the comb for the new package.

Rusty
Reply

Elizabeth,

Since varroa cannot long survive without honey bees, there is no need to treat the empty boxes. I would leave everything for the new colony, including the honey and the combs.

debbie
Reply

Interesting read …. formic will kill your queens if she comes in contact with it .. just for the record. They never put this part on the labeling ! One must be extremely careful when putting these products into the hive. Everything we treat with has it’s consequences. Tread carefully ! Choose your poison and try your best is pretty much all we can do now. And as for farmers, they are the scourge of the earth, polluting the air, water, and land. What bee actually has a chance? Corn dust is deadly to bees. All the chemicals like formic, etc., that are ‘natural’ in the hive is bunk, they are not in the hive in the levels beekeepers use. The treatments are overwhelming for the bees, thus they leave the hive in droves. We all must treat with responsibility, considering the effects on the bees first and foremost.

Rusty
Reply

Debbie,

As a farmer myself, I find your remarks offensive. A quick search of my comments section shows that since 1-28-16 I have answered 22 of your questions, some in considerable detail. For this, I am called, “the scourge of the earth.” Thanks.

ET Ash
Reply

So do I Rusty. I am an agrian first and secondly a beekeeper. I don’t see any value in pitting farmers against beekeepers. Both parties have too much in common and it is in neither groups interest to allow anyone to pit one group against the other. Since I maintain a good number of hives (about 200) I do depend on farmers and ranchers to allow me access to their property to maintain my own stock (on about 15 sites). I respect what they do and the decision they make and I suspect they respect my own efforts in rearing bees… not only in what and how I keep bees but in the work I do with students at the Texas A&M Bee Lab. I am not home grown (ie not born in Texas and no I did not get here as quick as I could) but we do have a large number of folks who support all Aggies and especially the students and staff at Texas A&M. All new beekeepers need some method to monitor for varroa (as a probability it is the most likely cause in terms of a hive’s declining health) and to at least consider some ‘treatment’ that does not offend your sensibilities. We have a lot more options to treat than we did when varroa first showed up so the tool box of possibilities is now greatly expanded. I myself choose not to treat but then I have a lot more hives that can perish and a lot more years of experience in how to deal with health problems of the honeybee. I should emphasis that not all the problems of a hive are ALL ABOUT VARROA so no one should put on blinders and think this is the only problem out there and as the article clearly states a through analysis should be taken whenever a hive dies. This information can only add value to what you know about a hive of honeybees.

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

I have degrees in both agronomy and environmental science, which some folks think is a strange combination. But taken together, they both have made me a better beekeeper. Many of the growers I’ve worked with are extremely aware and sensitive to bee problems. They want solutions as much as beekeepers do, but they, like all of us, are caught in a shifting, changing world. Farmers feed the world and they depend on beekeepers to help them do it. Many of the “solutions” we have—both farmers and beekeepers—are not ideal, but as I always say, to make things better we have to start from where we are, not from where we should be. Name calling will serve no one and only widens the rift.

As for mites, I never tell beekeepers which treatment to use. Instead, I try to cover the options available and let the individual choose how to handle their bees. Education is key to understanding your choices. As you say, you choose a method that does not offend your sensibilities, and work from there.

Anyway, thank you for speaking up. I read your comments almost daily on Bee-L and know you have a lot to offer the beekeeping world.

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