Mitekeeping for everyone
Note: I have mitekeeping on my mind this week, so I decided to resurrect this post from October 2012. This story is about a beekeeping book, new in 2012, that summed up the Varroa mite problem in two paragraphs. I was reminded of it recently when a new beekeeper told me that neither her mentor nor her bee club ever mentioned mites. She wanted to know if they were still important.
It’s my impression that mite discussions are frequently avoided because they are too controversial. The mention of mites often results in arguments about treatment-free vs conventional beekeeping. Since these discussions can be heated and uncomfortable, lots of people avoid them altogether.
This is a sad state of affairs because mites are here to stay, and managing Varroa mites has to be a priority with every beekeeper. Yes, I believe there are various approaches that work, but ignoring the mites is not one of them.
Last week I was in Costco paging through a beekeeping book they had for sale. Suddenly, I got the creepy feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked up to see a young man in a green t-shirt with a panicked look about him. He was on the other side of the table.
He looked straight at me and pointed to the book in my hand. “Do you know anything about beekeeping?” he asked.
I shrugged and closed the book. “A little,” I said.
“Do you have bees?” he asked, clearly agitated.
His demeanor put me on guard. “A few,” I said.
Then he surprised me. He said, “I’m going to get a hive in the spring and I need to know how to keep them alive for a long time. I keep hearing stories. What is the most important thing I need to know?”
This is not the typical about-to-become-a beekeeper question, which is usually more about equipment or honey or getting stung.
So I gave him a not typical answer. I said, “Learn the honey bee life cycle inside and out, both the individual cycle and the colony cycle. Learn the Varroa mite life cycle inside and out. Once you understand those two things, learn how they fit together. That is the secret.”
I was still explaining what I meant when someone came by to claim him and they both left. Thinking about what I just said, I reopened the book—255 pages. I found the section on Varroa—2 paragraphs, about 1/3 of a page.
Here’s the thing: for most of us in North America, if you are going to be a beekeeper you are also going to be a mitekeeper. It’s an inescapable fact. It is nearly impossible to persist year after year if you don’t understand the dynamics of the two populations living inside your hive. Yet most books that I’ve seen mention mites only as an afterthought, a footnote.
Many new beekeepers I have met have said they hoped their bees didn’t have mites, or they hoped they would learn about mites before they became a problem, or they thought mites wouldn’t be a problem right in the beginning, or they thought the whole mite thing was an exaggeration.
Sorry, but it doesn’t work that way. Let me repeat: The day you become a beekeeper you also become a mitekeeper. Remember that. Say it out loud. Learn everything you can about mites and their population dynamics. Concentrate on becoming a master mitekeeper and the beekeeping part will be easy.