July 15, 2012
I put mite treatment in all three hives on Friday, because I had determined that I had a fairly serious mite infestation. Earlier in the week, I put a plastic board covered with petroleum jelly below each hive , and left it for two days. There is a special kind of base you can buy for your hive that has this “IPM” board that slides in and out; our beekeeping teacher told us all to get these.
After the IPM board is in place for a few days, you take it out and count how many mites fell and got stuck in the jelly. Divide that by the number of days the board was there, and you have your “mite count.” My worst hive, Apt. C, had a count of 15. Although it’s not the most definitive method for a mite count, it was a serious number. The other two hives, the one that swarmed and the swarm, were lower but still had more mites than you want; I had actually seen them on a drone walking around in Apt. A, which is bad news. Swarming actually can help control mites, because mites breed inside the capped cells of baby bees, and swarming breaks the brood cycle for a period of time, thus interrupting the mites’ reproduction cycle.
Be that as it may, if you treat one hive in an apiary, you need to treat them all. In fact, if you treat your apiary and your neighboring apiaries are within flight distance of yours, they need to treat too. I worked it out with the two closest neighbors who are in my club; they both treated at about the same time.
My relationship with these neighbors has changed now, because here we are - strangers before I started beekeeping – and we’re suddenly sharing a significant risk; we all have hundreds of dollars tied up in our bees and we may have different ideas about how best to manage them. How do we handle this? Do we all demand that nearby beekeepers manage their bees the same way we manage our own? I would not feel right doing that, so all I can do is what I think is right with my own bees. It’s not an easy decision either; killing the mites killed a bunch of bees as well.
Furthermore, I still have two hives without queens.
Apt. C looks wrong. I didn’t fully inspect it today, except to check on the emergency queen situation went I removed the mite poison. I found a few supercedure cells and left them, in hopes that there could be a new queen soon. The last time I was in there, there was brood all over the place in random places, and there didn’t seem to be any honey capping going on, which there ought to be by now. I am nervous about this hive.
Apartment A is worse. It seems to still have capped brood, but the last time a queen was laying eggs was too long ago for them to not have been born by now. Did I count wrong? Did I miss the queen before she was gone? Are there a bunch of dead pupae in there? Why? I found some dead baby bees, seeming like they started to emerge and then they just died. That was alarming, but since I had read that the mite poison especially kills babies and queens, I want to believe that’s why they’re dead. The really concerning thing about this hive is that the girls seem listless. They aren’t cleaning out the dead bodies and they aren’t collecting a lot of pollen. They have a bunch of liquid in the comb, but I think it’s just the sugar water I’m feeding them; if it were nectar, they’d be making it into honey and capping it off. It could also be water, which they bring in and fan to create a sort of air conditioner in the hot weather. There’s one pupa in there whose head got eaten, I think, but the rest of her is just sort of hanging out of the cell. This is very disturbing.
As I get discouraged, reading books to try to figure out what is going on and not finding clear answers, I am struck once again by the helplessness one feels when attempting to assert control over a natural process. It is no wonder that people thought that making agriculture more like industry was a great idea. Reduce the backbreaking labor, reduce the variables that can ruin the outcome, use the least expensive means to produce more, more easily. How can that be anything but wonderful? Unfortunately, growing food is a natural process no matter how much we don’t want it to be; it is subject to nature no matter what we do. When we increase the chemicals that kill the pests and control the genetics of the plants and animals we grow, natural selection enables the pests to grow beyond what we invent. When we produce fruit that won’t rot if you transport it across the globe, you can’t let it ripen naturally and it loses its taste and nutritional value. You cannot outsmart Nature; you must learn to speak its language and improve your skills working in concert with it.
This is the case with mites and bees. Mites came to the states in the late 1980′s, and our honey bees have not had time to evolve to adapt to them, so we use pesticides. We were taught in Bee School that we should use pesitcides sparingly, as part of what is called Integrated Pest Management (hence, the “IPM” board); you can’t count on poisoning the mites that get in your hive and be done with it, so you need to manage the situation on multiple fronts. You check for mites; you treat early with benign treatments like powdered sugar; you can put in drone foundation in hopes that the bees will put most of their drones in one place and then you can kill them (mites much prefer to reproduce in drone cells because they take longer to emerge, so the mites have longer to reproduce); etc, etc. You learn more tricks as you talk to more beekeepers. You integrate as many methods of pest management as you can and use pesticides only when you must.
I’ve been listening to the audiobook of The Botany of Desire, by Micheal Pollen. In a chapter about apples, he explains that the apple trees in orchards are not grown from seed but are grafted onto other trees. In all my years picking apples in our local orchard, I never suspected that they are all clones of each other. Because apples have not evolved, Pollen says, they actually require the most pesticides of any fruit, since the pests have evolved and the apples haven’t; chemists have to keep reinventing pesticides to keep up with the pests’ adaptations.
IPM applies to all aspects of agriculture (and to medical care too; antibiotics are people’s pesticides). We have interrupted the natural process with all the clever chemicals we’ve invented, and farmers and apiarists (and doctors and others) are finally figuring it out. You need to find a balance of permitting plants and creatures to co-evolve with their pests, and at the same time keep the pests from killing them. So, I treated the mites because they got bad, but next I’ll be learning how to treat them with powdered sugar and maybe I’ll do that once a month as a benign prophylactic.
It’s more work to use IPM, and that’s the sticky point. Growing food with methods that will work for the long run means figuring out how to use natural processes, not sidetrack them. If I brush my bees with powdered sugar, the mites fall off and the bees get to clean the sugar off each other. I won’t have poisoned anyone, and the bees will be encouraged to remove the mites themselves – or, in beekeeping language, “it promotes hygenic behavior.” As a beekeeper, I have to have a pile of books and an email list of mentors, because I can’t just go to the store and buy a solution to the problems that come up. Imagine that – I can’t buy the solution – I have to work to solve it? I was going to say it’s downright un-American, but actually hard work and ingenuity came before shopping malls, so it’s totally American.