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I began this blog to chronicle my beekeeping experiences. I have read lots of beekeeping books, but nothing takes the place of either hands-on experience with an experienced beekeeper or good pictures of the process. I want people to have a clearer picture of what to expect in their beekeeping so I post pictures and write about my beekeeping saga here. Along the way, I've passed a number of certification levels and am now a
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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Gonorrhea and the Varroa Mite

Today in my iPhone news source this article appeared. I read the whole article with interest because of my interest in the varroa mite and the "treatment" that is regularly recommended - no, pushed with great guilt-induction down new beekeepers' throats.

The title of the article is

Wherever you are in the world, time is running out for treating gonorrhea

The point of the article is that bacteria that cause gonorrhea are growing increasingly resistant to all drugs available for treatment. In the United States, the article says, cases of gonorrhea rose 50% between 2006 - 2015. And at the same time, the bacteria are growing more and more resistant. The future does not look good for new gonorrhea cases.

Beekeepers keep treating the varroa mite and it doesn't go away. Instead, we are developing a stronger and stronger varroa mite. As we proceed to treat the varroa mite ineffectively, we are in grave danger of finding ourselves with a SuperVarroa Mite. And the varroa mite will be just like gonorrhea with NO EFFECTIVE TREATMENT.

As treatments are tried, the varroa mite gets stronger and the treatment no longer works. So now everyone is encouraged to use oxalic acid. It's bad for bees (the only truly safe time to use oxalic for the bees is when the hive is broodless - and do you know any beekeepers who actually only treat in December?) and bad for the varroa mite (everybody loses - including the beekeeper who has to be extremely careful with the toxic "treatment"). Meanwhile, the varroa mite gets stronger and stronger as it lives through these efforts to obliterate it. 

I have bees that survive without treatment. Mind you, all of my bees do not. My bees that die are usually swarms I catch or bees I purchase (which I do rarely) from beekeepers who treat. I do lose hives when they don't go into winter strong enough - that may be caused by varroa. I don't have confidence in the survival of a hive until it has lived through two winters. But when my bees die, it's usually beekeeper error that I can trace and tell you what happened. I am only interested in my bees that do survive because that means they have the genetics to live WITH the varroa mite.

I have kept bees since 2006 without treatment. However, I lost bees when I moved in 2011 and they didn't get moved well. I lost my very best survivor hive last summer when I made mid-summer splits too late; the splits were robbed out the day I made them and the queen was accidentally killed in the original hive. Beekeeper error, not varroa, caused the loss of that, my best hive.

Right now I have bees from a swarm I caught four or five years ago that are thriving, surviving every winter and producing honey. I made a split from that hive this spring and I hope it does just as well. I have two hives on the roof of an Atlanta elementary school that were previously kept by a beekeeper who did not treat and are now my bees. Those two hives are overflowing with bees and have been alive for at least four years with no treatment. I made splits from those bees and gave away queen cells to a friend of mine so we can have continued treatment free bees.

I also have a swarm in a top bar hive. The swarm came from a hive that had not been opened, much less treated, in four years. I have great hopes for them. If they make it through the winter, I'll make a split from them next year. 
At Young Harris last week, I went to a very good presentation by Geoff Williams of the Auburn bee lab. His subject was "When chemicals and pathogens collide." My favorite part of the lecture (maybe because I answered a question and won a t-shirt!) was when he explained the relationship between chemicals and pathogens. There are many relationships - he had an entire chart. The relationships are defined by who profits in the relationship - the pathogen? the chemical? neither? both? 

But the relationship that seems most functional to me when I think of the varroa mite and the bee is mutuality (number one on Geoff's chart). We need a bee who can live with and tolerate the varroa mite and a varroa mite that can't destroy the bee, but can still reproduce itself. That is not going to happen as we continue to help breed a stronger and stronger varroa mite. 

I wish the universities would focus on how treatment-free hives manage to survive. I wish they would work on developing the strong genetics of those bees and that they would quit engaging in a process to develop the SuperVarroa mite, which is what they are doing now.

But you and I both know where the money comes from for university research. It's from Big Ag and not the backyard beekeeper. So the focus of university research is on bee survival for pollination of the almonds and other crops at whatever cost, rather than looking at balance in the beehive.

I went to another talk at Young Harris entitled The Top 10 Best Practices in Modern Beekeeping. The speaker began talking right from the start about varroa mites. More than midway through the talk, he never had moved into whatever the other nine practices were. 

I left when he did what many speakers do today - blame the treatment-free beekeeper for the strength of the varroa mite. I've heard so many people say that the treatment-free beekeeper has hives that are bringing the varroa mite into the hives of those who treat through a "varroa bomb" and we should be strung up on the highest tree (or at least that is implied). 

It would be encouraging if interest were expressed in why surviving hives make it through the winters rather than employing shaming toward people who are trying to take care of their bees in a way that works for them and for their bees. 

Instead, the top ten practices of modern beekeeping that are encouraged are 1. Treat varroa; 2. Treat varroa; 3. Treat varroa; 4. Treat varroa; 5. Treat varroa; 6. Treat varroa; 7. Treat varroa......I don't know what 8, 9 or 10 are because I walked out.


  1. You sure hit a nerve with me on this one! The nerve that says I agree with you 100%! You are the reason I am a bee steward today when I heard you speak as a guest at a local bee club about using no foundation and no standard treatments. I tried the oxalis acid on a thriving hive one time, but lost it anyway. Organic treatments or no, they are still dangerous to the honeybee and the human. I agree with you about breeding stronger more resistant mites rather than honey bees. And I am told at every turn that I am, and beek keepers like me, are the reason there are so many mites and that all I'm doing is creating mite bombs for other beeks. It does no good to point out their loss rate is comparable or more than the treatment free folks.

    This is such a divisive issue there is no compromise in any circles I know of. I was told by UGA expert, name withheld, that if I didn't treat bees with orthodox treatments, I could always expect them to die and was creating a problem for surrounding bees in my area. This was in response to my concerns over my case of the vanishing honeybees. 13 of 14 colonies, normal fall colonies with brood breaks suddenly vanished. Short and sweet was the reply that it was because I did not treat them. I explained about the brood break and Tom Seeley's experiment with the same, treated vs untreated and was told GA bees were different from New York bees! I explained they were mostly feral, having trapped them in the mountains. Was told no matter, they were loaded with mites and viruses. Treated like a child caught with my hand in the cookie jar.

  2. Thank you for your fervent reply. I do think it gets into a them vs. us thing. We started the Atlanta Bee Meetup to make a safe place for beekeepers to discuss how they keep bees without being jumped on and criticized. There's room for all kinds of beekeeping, and I think there is a loss of respect for that in the university circles. It's my personal belief that in the end the universities and the varroa mite will "win" if everyone doesn't listen respectfully to everyone else. It's an art as much as it is a science. I know lots of beekeepers who don't treat and do it successfully.

  3. Anonymous11:12 AM

    Universities and the like will never study treatment free or promote it when funding for such projects comes from the chemical companies. Such is the world we live in.

    I agree with you!!

  4. Thanks for being bold and promoting your success at treatment free beekeeping. I couldn't agree more with what you wrote and love the analogy with gonnorhea. My bee club and especially the new leadership this year promotes the "you have to treat or you are infecting my hives" method of beekeeping. Since they are treating for mites, what do they care if my mites move to their hives? The treatments will fix that! For now, I'm keeping under the radar, but have been contemplating a post like your - consequences be damned! Thanks for the inspiration!

  5. Linda, you are fortunate you are developing a line of bees that can manage the Varroa. However, I am going to have to weigh in on the other side. You may have particular gifts in the form of location, location, location that many of us cannot share. Which underlines that old saw "all beekeeping is local"...we do not all face the same equation in terms of what it takes to keep bees healthy, the stressors are different in both quality and quantity. I could go on for a lot more space than is allotted in these reply boxes, but the highlights are:
    -there *is* quality research being done on treatment free, all over the world. Here in Canada there are multiple programs attempting to breed, fix and identify a meaningfully Varroa resistant gene pool, and not all are funded by chemical companies. In addition, the studies must stand on their own merits, irrespective of funding source. We are well beyond being fooled by sub-par, vested-interest research.
    -the organic acids do not drive resistance in the way earlier treatments (coumaphos, fluvalinate) did, so not all treatments are reflective of the resistance metaphor of the bacterium vs. the antibiotic
    -very promising remedies based on benign viral loads in Varrao, RNAi and gene silencing techniques are now in the pipeline
    -bee dense areas make running treatment free impossible or impossibly daunting
    -the terms "treatment free" and "treatment" mean different things to different people. Until we are very specific about our practice and our local challenges we cannot have fruitful discussion on this vs. that.
    -the beekeeping community has enough challenges in the form of agricultural practice and degraded/disappearing forage, we cannot afford to be divided on the topic of Varroa approaches as well.

    1. I love it when you chime in and thanks so much for your perspective. I'm glad to hear that Canada is working in a more open-minded way. The UGA bee lab is only interested in the latest varroa fix and not interested in looking at beekeeping in a more broad-minded way - and their major speakers tend to shame beekeepers who are trying something else. You suggested that I am not in a bee-dense area. I am however, in an urban bee-dense area. There are eight beekeepers, many of whom do not treat although some do,
      who live within a block of my house. I was recently asked by a newspaper what the major problem is that faces the backyard beekeeper and my answer was all the people who are spraying for mosquitoes and using other pesticides on their plants - because in the city that is a HUGE problem. And you are right about treatment or treatment free and what is the definition. Many people consider oxalic acid not a treatment because it is a natural product (!!!) but it kills bees, people and the varroa mite. I keep thinking that the issue is that of the parasite that can't afford to kill its host. A stronger varroa mite will kill its host, the bee, and we will then have neither bees nor the varroa mite.

  6. A lot of people all over the world, and outside of big pharma, are working on old and new tools to deal with Varroa. TF is not the only answer yet. It is true that most (not all) methods of mite control push resistance to that method, and we have to factor that in to our management decisions. Even IPM strategies push resistance. Mercifully new research avenues are opening up that may well eradicate the Varroa mites. The organic acids, handled properly, are easy on bees and people, do not leave toxins in the hive products, and are tough on the mites. Like you, I am in an area that is full of agri-toxins, in the fields, drifting onto wild forage in hedgerows, and in the local groundwaters. It is a frustrating thing when most of that comes from a bee-dependant berry industry! It is darned tough to be a successful beekeeper...and make handling exploding bee populations your biggest issue.

  7. I love this post, Linda! Dean Stiglitz has talked about why the alleged "varroa bomb" theory should not lead folks to blame the TF beekeepers. Dean points out that folks who treat raise treatment-dependent bees and mites. These bees swarm. A small percentage of swarms end up being managed by beekeepers, in fact most who survive are in tree cavities, building structures, etc. These bees, having been propped up by treatments and excessive feeding, are much more likely to become the alleged varroa bombs that TF bees are blamed for.
    Your bees are surviving, not dying out and creating alleged varroa bombs. Like you, I'm sick of being a conscientious beekeeper with bees who survive (unless I accidentally kill a queen or a storm blows my hives over) who pays to go hear "experts" say things like "it's all the fault of the treatment free beekeepers".
    I invite your readers to track down the research that alleges that varroa bombs are the problem. Read critically. With research papers online, we have resources that enable us to think for ourselves and not just believe everything that comes out of one university study.


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