Bee Chemotherapy – Part I

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:

bees after formic

Dead bees on the front entrance board about 16 hours after application of formic acid.

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.


10 thoughts on “Bee Chemotherapy – Part I

  1. clivebennett796

    I love reading about your bees – it takes me back to when my Dad and I used to keep them. Our bees were mostly of Italian import but we did have a few hives (kept separately) of wild native bees. Theses were much easier to handle and seemed fairly resistant to disease. We never took honey from them and hoped they would stay fit and healthy. You may like this post about the Cornish black bee:

    Thanks for some lovely posts

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marriedwithbees Post author

      Thanks for sharing the link about the Cornish black bee. I am hopeful that as our skills develop we will begin to catch swarms and introduce some more diversity into our bees. We have Italian bees now. One of the reasons I love beekeeping is that there is always something new to learn. I am glad you have those nice memories with your dad.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. brucelovesbees

    Evolution is a gradual process. Selective breeding is not. In 3 short seasons I went from 25% survival of 10 colonies to 100% survival of 25 colonies by letting the unfit die, and expanding from the survivors. Now, most of my 85 colonies have absolutely no problems with mites. To say it can’t be done is ignoring the success of thousands of people who actually do it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marriedwithbees Post author

      Thanks for reading the post and commenting. You make an excellent point. I agree selective breeding is different from natural evolution. Researchers have been having success creating lines of hygienic bees. It sounds like you have been actively managing your hives and implementing a successful strategy. That’s great. I think the key difference is that you are actively taking steps to manage your hives and control for varroa through selective breeding. I guess what I have a problem with is beekeepers who buy packages of bees every year, choose to ignore varroa all together, let their colonies die, and then repeat the cycle every year. I didn’t highlight those differences in my post. I’m thankful that you brought it up in your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Our Shameful Beekeeping Secret | Married with Bees

  4. Pingback: Bee Chemotherapy – Part II | Married with Bees

  5. Emily Scott

    Oxalic acid doesn’t need any special equipment if you use the trickle method – only a syringe. I usually do it that way once a year around the winter solstice. Sublimination does have the advantage that you can do it multiple times, trickling you can only do once.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. marriedwithbees Post author

      Thanks for the comment. That is an excellent point. I think the trickle method is good if you have a small number of hives. I think the vaporizer method would be faster if you had more than just a few hives. I don’t understand why more hobby beekeepers in the US don’t utilize the oxalic acid trickle method. When I was learning about it by watching YouTube videos, all the videos I watched were made by British beekeepers. I’m going to bring this up our next bee club meeting to see if others have tried it.


      1. Emily Scott

        Vaporising oxalic does have its advantages for sure, for instance you don’t have to open the hive up and it has a slightly higher varroa kill rate while being a bit gentler on the bees. But as you say trickling is very simple if you have just a few hives, and has less health and safety risks/simpler equipment for the beekeeper!

        Liked by 1 person

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