Updated: Aug 20
01/26/2021- The Apis Mellifera otherwise know as the western honey bee has been struggling to survive against the Varroa Destructor mite, and beekeepers have been trying to help their colonies defeat or manage it since the 1980's in their beehives.
Hygienic Honey Bees
The western beehive has evolved over thousands of years to be the creature we see today and though it has evolved to handle all sorts of pests and climate challenges, the mite is a bit unique. Honey bees in Asia have developed/ evolved to manage the mite and has done so, for hundreds if not thousands of years.
The Varroa Mite has Landed
It wasn't until the 1980's, so the industry estimates when the Varroa Destructor, which was only home to Asia as far as we know, spread west. They honey bees didn't have the time that evolution normally grants them due to the ease of transportation nowadays. This has led to major efforts by beekeepers, scientists, researchers, and the like to come up with a solution to help the Apis Mellifera through management practices, synthetic drug treatments, organic treatments, and others.
Short Game vs. the Long Game
Beekeepers have been progressively seeing large losses due to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is a complicated discussion within itself. However it is mostly adopted that the Varroa mite is the largest contributor to CCD and annual bee losses of ~45%. Losses like this have been tracked voluntarily through organizations like the Bee Informed Organization, and the annual losses are not getting any better over the last few years.
Short Game- Treat/ Manage
The mostly adopted short term game plan has been to treat the colonies, which has been creating some problems with drug resistance to some of the treatments. The treatments are pesticides meant to kill an insect on an another insect, so precision is vital in ensuring both insects are not killed. Some of the arguments against treating with chemicals whether organic or synthetic, are-
is that those chemicals likely end up in the honey
the treatments are strengthening the mites resistance (Amitraz is an example)
treatments are weakening the genome of the bee, making them chemical dependent
The short game has been all about treatments of the bees, with some successes and others that have been total failures. Some of the treatments have provided the mites with resistance to the chemicals that are made to defeat them. Currently mites have developed a resistance to Amitraz, which is the main pesticide in Apivar® and Apitraz®, and is no longer recommended for treating bee colonies.
Treatments are widely adopted among beekeepers currently and are critical to commercial beekeepers. As an example provided in Phys.org-
In the early 1990s, Daniel Weaver, a bee breeder in Navasota, Texas, let the mite run wild in 1000 of his colonies. Just nine survived the first year, and from these he bred mite-resistant bees. "It was a painfully expensive experience," he recalls, and costly enough to put many beekeepers out of business. Such natural culling could also mean losing valuable bee strains produced by decades of breeding.
As a result, many beekeepers treat their hives with pesticides. Others add in or substitute nonchemical methods, although they are more work and can pose trade-offs. For example, mimicking swarming by transferring a queen and some workers to a new hive means a smaller colony and less honey for a while.
Another way beekeepers have been managing against varroa, is to provide brood breaks through timely splits. The mites reproduce within the cells of brood and need capped brood to continue their growth. Timely splits can prevent and greatly reduce mite infestation by transferring queens to new equipment as well as placing brood in queen less hives.
By transferring the queen to new equipment, the bees will need to take time building up new frames which provides several day or weeks of brood less hives, preventing the mites from mating and infesting the new split.
Brood in Queen Less Hive-
By removing the queen, the hive will take several of the eggs and produce new queens. This gives the brood break for 16 days, plus the days or weeks for mating. So by doing this the hive gets a new brood break for approximately 18-25 Days.
Long Game- Hygienic Bees
The mite originated from Asian honey bees (Apis cerana), which had a natural hygienic behavior, something the western/ European (Apis Mellifera) had not possessed, resulting in large colony losses. Time will provide the solution through natural selection if we as beekeepers allow. Unfortunately the average beekeeper cannot perform effective bee breeding without an all-in or all-out approach.
What I mean is, through treating you are not allowing the hygienic bees to rise and survive as the weak survive and stay within the gene pool and you are relying on the luck that the non-hygienic genes mix with other characteristics of value, such as honey bound, gentle, etc. Even bee sellers that advertise hygienic are relying on this such luck as well and label them hygienic based on results of "tests" of comb cleaning or bee analysis from a lab or similar.
There are many successful chemical free treatment commercial and backyard beekeepers, but most of them still rely on management practices to assist the bees in fighting the mites. The hygienic bee is the solution to not requiring management practices in regards to the Varroa Destructor mite. Some of the arguments against NOT treating with chemicals, are-
Your colonies will result in massive losses