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.

Hopping mad at HopGuard

I put off writing this post for a very long time—since November, actually. Although I often display irritation in my posts, I try damn hard to remain civil. But the makers of HopGuard have pushed my civility to the limit. I had to cool down for months before I could write something that wouldn’t get me banned from the Internet.

From the top, the story goes like this:

I do not use hard chemicals in my hives but, since mites are a problem, I use one of the so-called “soft” or “natural” products. Although I’ve tried formic acid-based products, I prefer the thymol-based ones, either Apiguard or Api-Life Var. I used them according to package directions and had excellent results. As far as I know, I never lost a hive to mites in the many years I used those products.

Like all treatments, however, they should be rotated with other treatments to lessen the chances of building resistant strains. When HopGuard came on the market I was ecstatic: here was a product that was easy to use, had an active ingredient other than thymol, and didn’t require the dreaded “fumigation chamber” in hot weather. I read everything I could find about it and wrote extensively about it here at HoneyBeeSuite.

When it came time to treat for mites last summer, I read the directions carefully and watched HopGuard’s own video several times. I calculated how many strips to use per hive based on the number of brood boxes and the number of frames covered with bees, and I staggered the strips in the pattern they recommended. I followed every last instruction from the package insert and the video to the letter.

I was happy with the way the bees reacted to the HopGuard and, although it was messy, I was happy with the ease of use. The insert said I could use the product up to three times per year, but I always treat for mites in August only, so I just crossed that chore off my list. Job done.

Everything was fine until, months later, I saw a post on BeeSource about “progressive” HopGuard treatments. Curious, I read the series of posts. The gist of the thread was that, since the HopGuard strips tended to dry out in the hive, they didn’t continue to kill mites after the first few days. As a result, beekeepers were adding a new set of strips every week for three weeks. According to the thread, Mann Lake, the company that sells HopGuard, was advocating this procedure.

I had trouble wrapping my mind around this. It sounded like an off-label use, something a reputable company would never advocate—at least not publicly. I re-read the label. It says that a treatment is one set of strips and that the treatment may be repeated up to three times a year. To me that meant maybe spring, summer, and fall . . . or something similar. No rational person reading the instructions would conclude it meant three weeks in a row.

I didn’t believe it, so I wrote to John I Haas, the parent company of BetaTec Hop Products. I received an answer that reads in part, “. . . the HopGuard strip does dry out over time in the hive which reduces its efficacy. In using only one round of strips when there is brood in the hive, the mite phoretic load will be reduced and this could help the beekeeper keep his hives healthy enough to get them to a time later in the year when other treatments and/or HopGuard can be used more effectively. . . . Tests by the USDA and by a number of commercial beekeepers have found the [sic] several consecutive applications do in fact reduce the overall mite load and have saved hives that would probably have died. The label does allow for multiple applications . . . up to 3 times per year. . . .”

But again, I ask you, how was I supposed to know that “up to three times a year” meant “three weeks in a row?”

By the time this little gem of wisdom came to my attention, I had already lost many of my hives. I’ve lost more since then . . . and all the post mortems indicate mites. After successfully wintering year after year by using Api-Life Var according to package instructions, I’ve now lost most of my hives by using HopGuard because I didn’t know that “up to three times per year” means “three weeks in a row.” You have no idea how hopping mad I am.

Furthermore, many of the good things I said about HopGuard in previous posts aren’t really true. For example, it’s not more convenient than other products if you have to apply it three times instead of just once, and it certainly isn’t cheaper. But more than anything, it seems unconscionable that a company would go to market with—and write instructions for—a product that they themselves didn’t know was going to dry up in three days. Didn’t anyone do field trials?

The makers of HopGuard cost me a bundle of money. Worse, I was an enthusiastic advocate of HopGuard. I promoted it, recommended it, and my posts about HopGuard have received much traffic. The boondoggle caused me to let my readers down. How many of them lost hives due to lousy instructions?

So that’s my story. I will rebuild my apiary, although not all at once. I’ve learned my lesson about trying new products. I apologize to any of my readers who lost their bees. To be fair, HopGuard appears to be an effective product, but the obfuscatory language is just plain unacceptable. So to BetaTec I say re-write your materials. Fix your website. Say what you mean. Get real.


Screen shot from Betatechopproducts.com, captured 2-8-2012.

HopGuard: first impressions

It’s been over a year since I last treated for mites. However, due to a recent increase in deformed wing virus, I decided to treat for mites before winter sets in. I prefer winter bees (those that live many months cooped up in the hive) that have not been directly exposed to any mite treatment. Consequently, I strive to have mite treatments completed by the end of August.

Although the directions say that honey supers do not have to be removed during treatment, I received a note from a reader saying that he could detect the odor of HopGuard in his honey supers. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk, so I pulled the supers before doing the treatment.

As a point of comparison, the only mite treatments I have used in the past have been ApiLife Var (a biscuit-like thymol product), ApiGuard (a gelatinous thymol product), and Mite-Away II (pads soaked with formic acid). Like HopGuard, these products are considered “soft” chemicals, meaning they are naturally-occurring substances that kill mites rather than synthetically manufactured molecules.

I found the previous products to be extremely effective but really unpleasant. The worst part is having to make the hive into a “fumigation chamber” and locking down all the natural ventilation. Also, I hated the smell of those products, so I was ready to give HopGuard a try. So here are my reactions, divided into positive and negative.


  • I was pleasantly surprised by the odor. I was expecting the worst after that one reader comment, but I found very little in the way of offensive odor, even when opening the new package. To me it smelled faintly of hops—not strong like when I’m brewing beer—but just slightly hoppy.
  • Quantities were easy to figure for each hive. One strip per five frames of bees seemed a little more tailored than the quantities recommended by the other products. I used anywhere from one to six strips, depending on the colony size.
  • The bees seemed unperturbed when I placed the strips in the hive. My bees usually go ballistic when I apply the other products, but they seemed not to be offended by the odor of HopGuard any more than I was.
  • In the past when I had to lock down the ventilation, mite treatments were followed by much bearding and general unrest. With the HopGuard everything seemed normal after the application.
  • HopGuard lists no temperature restrictions the way the other products do. The thymol products are ineffective when it’s too cold, formic products are dangerous when it’s too hot. HopGuard is just plain easier.
  • The price: this stuff is a whole lot cheaper than other soft treatments. It is actually affordable.


  • OMG! HopGuard gives new meaning to the word “messy.” I was ready for this, having watched the video, and even brought rags and extra nitrile gloves with me. Still, after the first three or four hives, HopGuard was everywhere. By the time I was done, I had to wash my hive tools, the smoker, the propane torch (used for lighting the smoker), the bucket I used to carry things, my bee suit, rags . . . even my shoes. Beekeepers are used to things sticky, but even so . . .
  • The directions for use are glued to the outside of the foil package. They became completely saturated and unreadable after a few hives. I would prefer to have the directions separate from the package. Although some general directions are found online along with the video, I haven’t found the actual package insert. It would be a nice thing to have.
  • I don’t like the idea that I need to distribute the strips among the brood boxes. For the most part, I can’t move my brood boxes this time of year. Some weigh 80 or 90 pounds, and I weigh like 115, so moving them just ain’t gonna happen. I ended up carrying an extra brood box with me, removing enough frames from the top box so I could reach down into the lower box and insert the strips. Then I had to replace the frames in the top box and add those strips. Meanwhile HopGuard is smeared over every conceivable surface and it’s about 200 degrees in my bee suit. This problem was even worse in my triple deep hives.
  • Related to the above is the fact that I don’t like to tear my hives apart this time of year. Honey cells inevitably break open and attract robbers and predators. In addition, I run the risk of killing the queen in a season when the drones are gone and the colony can’t replace her. Is it really necessary to put the strips in each brood box or could they all be put in the top box?
  • When I opened the foil package, I knew I would not use the entire package in one day. In light of that, I opened the package as carefully as possible, conserving ever millimeter of the bag length. Still, at the end of the day, there was not enough bag left to wrap and store the contents. The directions say you can store the extra strips in the foil bag, but there’s no way. I folded the foil over as well as I could, then wrapped the foil bag in plastic wrap, and put the whole thing in a plastic bag, and put the bag in a bucket. Next time I went to use it, HopGuard had leaked everywhere. I hope BetaTec is reading this because we need a longer bag!

If the HopGuard works, I would use it again in spite of the inconvenience. I liked the way the bees responded to it, I like the price, I like the smell, and I like the fact it is made from all food-grade products. These are all big advantages. Still, if some of the other issues were addressed I think the product would be a lot easier to use.


HopGuard section 18 approvals

For those of you interested in HopGuard, I just received notification from Mann Lake Ltd. that Section 18 approvals have been issued in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Arkansas and Mississippi are supposed to be next.

HopGuard is a naturally occurring food-grade alternative to chemical pesticides. It has been found safe to use even in queen-breeding operations because it has no negative effect on egg laying.

For more information (and opinions) on HopGuard, please see HopGuard: the new Varroa pesticide and HopGuard: update.

For the record, I have no financial interest in either HopGuard or Mann Lake Ltd.


HopGuard: update

Since I last wrote about HopGuard it has become available through Mann Lake Ltd. If you are interested in ordering it, you must first confirm that your state has a Section 18 Emergency Exemption for the product. You can call your state Department of Agriculture or Mann Lake (800-880-7694) for this information. The active ingredient in HopGuard is hop beta acids.

This is the first of two “natural” miticides due to be released this year. The other, Mite-Away Quick Strips, is scheduled to be released this spring—after some lengthy registration delays. The active ingredient in Mite-Away Quick Strips is formic acid, a substance that occurs naturally in honey, although in very small quantities.

YouTube videos giving usage instructions are available for both HopGuard and Mite-Away Quick Strips.

One interesting point of comparison is the price. HopGuard requires 2 strips for every ten frames of colony. So a double deep requires four strips per treatment. At $30 for 50 strips, that is $2.40 per hive. Mite-Away will require 2 pads per colony per treatment. At $48 for 10 pads (Brushy Mountain price), that is $9.60 per hive.

Conveniently, that comes out to exactly four times the price for Mite-Away as for HopGuard per treatment. Is Mite-Away four times more effective than HopGuard? That is hard to imagine. For me personally, I feel more comfortable with both the HopGuard instructions and price. I couldn’t find much on how either product works, but I will continue to dig and let you know what I find.


P.S. If you live in Washington State, pesticides approved for mites can be found here.