All our bees are currently undergoing the beekeeping equivalent of chemotherapy. In a previous post, I wrote about how our bees are infected with varroa mites. (If you missed the post, you can reach it by clicking here.) This week we treated our eight hives with formic acid. If you think beekeeping is all about singing sweetly to your bees while you happily collect honey, you would be wrong. Sometimes beekeeping means you put on chemically resistant gloves and place acid inside your hives in the name of integrated pest management.
We treated the bees around 4 pm on Thursday afternoon. By 8 am Friday morning, this is what I saw on the front entrance boards:
The loss of some bees within the first few days of treatment with formic acid is normal. (This is our first time using it, but I read that you should expect to see some dead bees.) Nevertheless, as a beekeeper you hate to see dead bees even when you know it is going to happen. I checked on all the hives later in the afternoon, and all the dead bees were off the front entrance boards. Forager bees could be seen going in and out of the hives. I could smell the formic acid when I stood behind the hives. It can’t be pleasant right now inside the hives, but doing nothing means our bees will be infected with mites going into winter and will probably all die. The colony has to take the discomfort now to be healthy later.
Formic acid is one of several different treatments for varroa mites. Formic acid and oxalic acid are considered organic mite treatments. You can even use formic acid treatments while you have honey supers on your hives because the formic acid is not soluble in the honey or the wax. Formic acid is easy to handle. You purchase pads that are saturated with the acid. The pads are placed on the frames inside the hive. Care must be taken to avoid contact with your skin and eyes, and you don’t want to accidentally take a big whiff of the fumes. Oxalic acid is another popular varroa mite treatment, but it requires special equipment and requires you to vaporize the acid inside the hive by heating the solid acid crystals. Oxalic acid is a much cheaper treatment than formic acid, so this is probably what we would use if we had ten or more hives. All treatment methods have their pros and cons, and deciding which treatment is best to use for a particular situation is a bit like solving a beekeeping calculus problem.
When a human has cancer, a doctor may prescribe chemotherapy. The chemotherapy frequently makes the patient very sick and kills the cancer cells along with some useful fast growing cells like those found in hair follicles. As awful as the cure is, a patient endures it because the outcome is beneficial. Bee colonies are classified as superorganisms meaning the individual bees all work together collectively as a whole. Varroa mites are like cancer cells inside the colony. The formic acid is awful and kills some bees while it is also killing the mites. The colony is sick for a while during treatment, but the goal is to have a healthy colony at the end.
Some argue that treating for mites interferes with natural evolutionary processes and keeps the bees from developing defenses against the mites. I think this is an erroneous argument because it fails to take into account how modern transportation and shipment of goods and people around the globe rapidly spread pests, disease, and invasive species. Many of the pests that plague Kentucky beekeepers today weren’t an issue twenty years ago. Last year many Kentucky beekeepers lost colonies to infestations of small hive beetles, and the small hive beetle comes from Africa! That’s not part of a normal evolutionary process. Evolution is a gradual, natural process. Accidentally shipping pests and invasive species by plane and ship into new parts of the globe is not something Mother Nature does. Humans own that problem. We can’t wait for all the bee colonies in North America to get wiped out while we wait to see if an evolutionary miracle naturally takes place.
In about two weeks, we will remove the formic acid pads, check the hives, and do another mite check to make sure the counts are lower after treatment. I will keep you posted in Part II as to how the hives survived this round of treatment.