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A Mighty Coalition Takes on the Varroa Mite with New Management Guide
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A Mighty Coalition Takes on the Varroa Mite with New Management Guide

By the Honey Bee Health Coalition 

As beekeepers all know, when it comes to the health of the honey bee, one of the biggest challenges our winged friend faces is, ironically, a very tiny parasite, the Varroa destructor mite. In response to this challenge, the Honey Bee Health Coalition has developed a guide, available to all beekeepers, to assist in the management and control of Varroa mites.

The Varroa mite, a pivotal player in recent honey bee population declines and the loss of entire hives, is no bigger than a pinhead. The eight-legged mite, whose entire life cycle is dedicated to draining honey bee larva and sapping the blood of colonies’ crucial workers and drones, poses a serious threat not only to honey bees, but also to vast swaths of our food supply.

In fact, the problem posed by this highly mobile and resilient parasite is one of the reasons the Honey Bee Health Coalition was formed last year. The Coalition’s mission, as a collaborative partnership of more than 30 different organizations and agencies, is to identify effective strategies to help achieve and support a healthy population of honey bees, while also supporting healthy populations of native and managed pollinators in productive agricultural systems and thriving ecosystems.

“Beekeepers don’t have the tools to control this situation on our own. The Honey Bee Health Coalition is a unique collaboration of diverse interests all working together to implement solutions focused on managing Varroa and achieving healthy populations of honey bees that benefit us all. Together we can accomplish a lot more than we can on our own”, said George Hansen, commercial beekeeper and past president, American Beekeeping Federation.

While there is a lot of work to do to strengthen honey bee health, one project of the Honey Bee Health Coalition is developing this playbook for beekeepers on how to tackle the Varroa mite. Dr. Dewey Caron, Emeritus Professor of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, Affiliate Professor at Oregon State University’s Department of Horticulture, and member of the Honey Bee Health Coalition, worked with the Coalition to produce Tools for Varroa Management, A Guide to Effective Sampling & Control.

This guide, developed with input and review from leading experts in the field, lays out straightforward, proactive monitoring methods and guidelines to help detect and control Varroa mites. Because beekeepers face a wide range of conditions, the guide has built-in flexibility for beekeepers to decide the treatment regime that is best for their situation and risk tolerance.

One of the important features of the guide is the focus on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a strategy that combines proactive non-chemical methods and chemical treatments to minimize and manage Varroa mite infestations.

“The general principles of IPM are to discourage the development of pest problems through early detection of increases in pest numbers, and to correct pest problems before they become critical, by using diverse, safe, and effective tools,” according to Dr. Dewey Caron. “IPM tools include biological, physical and chemical techniques that, when used appropriately, should help decrease the levels of the target pest.”

The guide also lays out what’s at stake, not only for individual beekeepers, but also for their peers in the local community, if proactive measures are not taken to control Varroa infestations.

Varroa mites can and will devastate individual beekeepers’ hives. The steep population declines that hives have suffered in recent years underscore this stark truth. Varroa mites have also demonstrated time and again that they can easily spread between hives, hitching rides during foraging, swarming or through the sharing of beekeeping equipment.

Dr. Dave Epstein, Senior Entomologist at the USDA’s Office of Pest Management Policy commented, “It is recommended that beekeepers have Varroa mite management plans in place for all of their colonies to minimize the spread of disease and to prevent unanticipated high losses associated with Varroa infestation. Mite populations can build up quickly, moving to other colonies in the same apiary and beyond, including reintroduction to previously treated colonies. Beekeepers need to be well-versed in assessing the need for treatment and in applying an array of management options, including the use of mite tolerant stock and a range of chemical and non-chemical controls that meet local needs, conditions and temporal considerations in maintaining the health of their colonies.”

Even if beekeepers agree on the need to confront Varroa mites, they may not know how to assess mite populations or when to use chemical or non-chemical measures to protect their colonies. The Honey Bee Health Coalition’s guide lays out both, including methods of ascertaining how many mites are present and recommended treatments. The guide also discusses which treatments are appropriate at different phases in a honey bee colony’s life cycle.

“Monitoring and knowing your mite levels is an important step in Varroa management. Remember, practice makes perfect when it comes to measuring your mite levels - repeated assessments will lead to improved accuracy. It’s every beekeeper’s responsibility to know what their mite levels are and to treat when they’re too high. The most successful beekeepers monitor colonies regularly and often,” said Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology, University of Maryland.

All beekeepers should remain vigilant to detect mite levels and, when mite populations increase, be prepared to take timely, effective action to reduce colony losses and the spread of infectious disease and parasites to neighboring colonies. Mite numbers can grow quickly in early fall, after adult bee populations peak, so assessment and treatment is critical to ensure that healthy bees enter the dormant period when the adults need to live longer for continued colony success.

Ultimately, treatment effectiveness depends on the accuracy of Varroa mite population assessments. To ensure colony survival, beekeepers need to know when Varroa mite populations exceed three to five mites per 100 adult bees, particularly during the fall and into the winter, when bee populations naturally start to decline. And because Varroa mites can easily move between hives, the detection of a problem in a single colony means that control measures are needed across all of a beekeeper’s populations.

“The ‘Tools for Varroa Management’ guide is an excellent resource for all beekeepers. The work done by Dr. Caron and Coalition members to produce these guidelines is substantial. The guide brings together pragmatic, proactive techniques that are easy to follow and will help improve management of this major honey bee enemy,” said Dick Rogers, Entomologist at the Bayer Bee Care Center.

The Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Tools for Varroa Management, A Guide to Effective Sampling & Control is available free to all and can be accessed at: www.honeybeehealthcoalition.org/varroa.

We encourage all beekeepers to use and share this guide to help improve the health of honey bees in their own apiaries and beyond.

About the Honey Bee health Coalition 

Just as the problems facing honey bees are multifaceted, so too are the strategies to confront them. In addition to addressing issues around Varroa mites, the Honey Bee Health Coalition is focused on four main areas to improve honey bee health:

  • Forage and Nutrition: Ensuring honey bees — especially in and around production agriculture —
have access to a varied and nutritious diet throughout their lives.
  • Crop Pest Control: Controlling crop pests while safeguarding pollinator health.
  • Hive Management: Putting the best available tools, techniques and technologies into the hands of beekeepers, so they can best manage their hives.
  • Cross-Industry Collaboration: Working together across agencies and organizations to improve honey bee health.

To learn more about the Honey Bee Health Coalition and how you can help improve bee health, please visit our website at www.honeybeehealthcoalition.org

posted August 2015

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