Without Chemicals

Yes it can be done. No, you cannot completely rid your colonies of either pest, but by reducing the numbers of Small Hive Beetles and Varroa Mites, you can give your colonies a better chance of survival. This is not a lesson in Small Hive Beetles or Varroa Mites; this is simply an article to explain how I have been successful in controlling these pests without using chemicals.

There are a lot of articles written, by folks who push using chemicals to control the SHB and other chemicals to control Varroa Mites.  I understand that the Commercial Beekeepers don’t really have an option and must use chemicals, they cannot afford the labor involved to use the 4 methods listed here. I have read articles written by beekeepers that choose to do nothing to control Small Hive Beetles or Varroa Mites, these folks usually call themselves “Organic Beekeepers”. I suspect that they are purchasing packages every couple of years to replace their “organic bees”.   But I applaud their efforts to be chemical free.  The back yard beekeeper who wants to put in the extra time and effort, and the Organic Beekeeper, can both stop using chemicals and use these Integrated Pest Management items to control SHB and Varroa Mites.

If you choose to use chemicals to control any pest you must follow the instructions printed on the manufacture’s label. By reading the label you can determine if it can be used during the honey flow, does it need to be taken out so many days or weeks prior to placing your honey supers on the hive, how many treatments are required for the product to be effective, etc.  I for one have chosen not to place chemicals of any kind in my bee hives, so if the nectar flow is on or not it makes no difference to me, and I have had really good success by using these four items and methods put together.

All beekeepers who deal with Small Hive Beetles know that they will lay eggs around the hive either in cracks or in stored pollen located on the brood comb. I read an article online written by Jon Zawislak with the University of Arkansas that states that “a single female beetle can produce over 1,000 eggs in her life time. The eggs generally hatch in 2 to 4 days and the larva immediately begin to feed on pollen, honey and bee brood.  In 10 to 16 days, beetles complete their larval development and will exit the hive to pupate in the soil.” The larva burrows into the ground about 4 inches and completes the pupal stage. Three to four weeks later they emerge and can fly to a bee colony and start the process all over again.  So I ask you, knowing this, if you can break the cycle and stop the larva from getting to the ground why would you not do so? 

Screened bottom board with pullout tray

Screened bottom board with pullout tray

1   Small Hive Beetle Trap – There are a lot of beetle traps on the market, some are placed inside the hive be-tween the frames, others are places under the frames on the bottom board, but none of these type traps address stopping the larva from getting out of the hive and into the soil.  There are a number of mechanical beetle traps on the market that use a removable tray that you partially fill with vegetable oil to catch the adult SHB, the larva that is headed for the ground and Varroa mites that are groomed off or Fall to the bottom board.   The ”West Trap” was one of the first on the market to use a tray to put oil into, there is also the “Freeman Beetle Trap” which has a tray to put oil in as well,  there are others as well that are meant to replace your bottom boards with an oil filled tray.  I purchased one from http://www.greenbeehives.com years ago and modified it to my preference and have made my own since then. I have not used the West Trap or the Freeman Trap brands so I won’t advertise which one is best or worse, that is not the point here, any mechanical beetle trap that has a tray of vegetable oil under the colony to catch ALL pest is what you’re looking for. The key to the bottom board with an oil tray is the size of the openings that allow adult beetles and the beetle larva to get through without allowing your bees to get to the oil.  If the opening is too small then the adult beetle can’t get through, too big and then the bees get into your oil and it kills them as well.  The trap I purchased uses a 6 X 6 wire mesh that I order from http://www.TWPINC.com when I need more. I make bottom boards for my 10 frame hives and my NUC colonies as well. 

I have seen folks who use a screened bottom board with something sticky sprayed onto an insert with a grid on it to collect mites over 3 days to determine if they need to chemically treat for Varroa Mites, whereas I am disposing of mites that are groomed off of bees every day by using my Small Hive Beetle traps.

Varroa Mites crawl into an open cell containing a honey bee Larva just before it is capped and raise their young by using the hemolymph of the developing Pupa to feed on. I have read that at any given time 80 to 85 percent of the Varroa Mites in a colony of bees are under the capped brood.  The Varroa Mite prefers the developing drone pupa over the worker bee pupa, since it takes an extra 3 days for the drone to emerge. 

2    Drone Brood Frames– The second item I use is the drone frame, they can be purchased at about any bee supply. They are simple to use, and cheap. By placing a frame of drone comb in each of your hives, you can capture and remove a lot of mites. I place the frame directly in the brood area and when I work my colonies every 12 to 14 days any time I have a drone frame with capped brood I take it out and place in the freezer for at least 48 hours, put another drone frame in the hive when you remove the one with capped brood, and start the process all over again. I don’t bother to clean the dead brood from the frames once frozen, I simply take out of the freezer the day before I’m going to work bees and thaw it out, once inside of a colony the bees will clean the dead brood out and your beetle trap will show the capping’s and all the dead Varroa mites that were killed when you froze the drone frame.  A word of caution, if you use drone frames, you must check your bee hives regularly.  If you place a drone frame into your hive and leave it you have placed a Varroa Mite Bomb that will cause your Varroa mite count to explode.

Capped plastic Drone comb frame

Capped plastic Drone comb frame

3   Break the brood cycle – After the nectar flow is over, you need to break the brood cycle. Some folks say that you can cage the queen for a period of time, I’m not sure I like the idea, so I choose to make reverse splits instead. Buddy Marterre wrote an excellent article that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Bee Culture.  I can’t do a better job of explaining splits than he did so I won’t try.  By making a reverse split and starting a NUC using the Queen and no capped brood, you leave the majority of the Varroa Mites in the old colony. Now the original colony must raise a new queen, this could take 12 to 16 days, based on the eggs that are used. By the time the new queen has mated and laid eggs all of the original queen’s eggs will have hatched, to include the drones.   By making a reverse split you end up with a new queen to go into the Winter and Spring, leaving less chance of a queen failing during the late Fall or early Spring and less chance of them wanting to swarm in the Spring.  I check the original colony on day number ten or eleven after the split to make sure that there are queen cells present. If the original colony has failed to make queens, harvest the original queen from the NUC, place her in a cage, and reintroduce her to the colony.  It should take 3 to 4 days for her to be released and start laying again, by the time these eggs get thru the larval stage and are ready to be capped, all of the eggs that were laid before the split will all be hatched.

4    Sugar Water Spray – Check the original colony at day 10 or 11 after the split to make sure they are making queens.  Once you verify that there are queen cells, close the colony back up and leave them alone until day 24 after the split. On day 24, using (1 to 1) sugar water with a little Honey- Bee-Healthy, lightly spray both sides of every frame in the original colony. As the bees are cleaning the sugar water off of each other they are also grooming any Varroa mites from each other. If you find any capped brood left, they will be drones and you can either wait until the next day and return to that hive to spray the frames, or use a nut pick and uncap the remaining drones and continue to spray.  The object is to have no capped brood and let the bees groom as many Varroa mites as they can get off before the mites have capped pupa to raise their young on.  Some folks use a powdered sugar and sprinkle on the bees instead of spaying sugar water, I tried the powdered sugar one year but decided that the sugar water seems to work best for me.

I have not yet dealt with replacing queens with Varroa Specific Hygiene’s (VSH), or Suppress Mite Reproduction (SMR). I have been able to control the pest in my apiaries without re-queening with VSH or SMR queens so far. I reserve the right to add the SMR or VSH queens to my Varroa Mite control methods in the future if need be.  Using the four methods I have outlined above won’t completely rid your bee hives of SHB or Varroa Mites, but your bees stand a better chance of fighting off other diseases and pest if they are not fighting SHB and Varroa Mites.  Good luck and Bee Good Beekeepers.

~Eric Talley I got involved with Honeybees as a Future Farmers of America project in 1973.  After a successful career in the Marine Corps, I retired in Eastern North Carolina and took up beekeeping again. In the 30 years that I was absent from the beekeeping industry there were a lot of pest and diseases introduced to America, I am doing what I can to figure out how to keep Honeybees alive without using chemicals to do so.

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