Comparison of a commercial Varroa mite honeybee treatment with treatment-free Varroa management techniques

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,998.00
Projected End Date: 08/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Dancing Bee Gardens
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Ross Conrad
Dancing Bee Gardens

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bees


  • Animal Production: parasite control
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Pest Management: biological control, cultural control
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, holistic management
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    Traditionally, modern agriculture has turned toward chemicals in order to deal with pest issues. This project will test the ability to prevent Varroa mite populations from reaching damaging proportions in honey bee colonies solely through the beekeeper’s use of physical management techniques. These techniques include the use of screened bottom boards, a break in the brood cycle, the culling of older comb, and the removal and destruction of capped drone brood that contains reproducing mites. If such techniques, when combined, can be shown to sustain the lives of colonies without the use of chemical treatments, it will reduce pesticide use, while increasing bee health and profitability, and help reduce the costs and labor associated with yearly colony losses. Fortyfive nucleus colonies will be split into three groups of fifteen hives each. A test group that receives the above mentioned management techniques, a treatment group that will receive a commercial mite treatment, and a control group. The results on long-term colony health, honey production, and mite population levels will be monitored over the course of three years and shared with beekeepers across North America, through an article in a national beekeeping journal, the internet, and through presentations to beekeeping groups.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project will determine if productive and healthy hives can be maintained without introducing chemical or foreign substances into colonies to control Varroa populations. Several physical management techniques (screened bottom boards, the making of yearly splits that imitate natural swarming, the replacement of older, possibly contaminated comb, and the culling of capped drone brood) will be combined in hives to replace the need to rely on chemical inputs for mite control. Based in the Champlain Valley of Western Vermont, the performance of 45 colonies will be tracked and evaluated for survivability, Varroa mite population rates, and honey production. The project proposes to track the hives over a three year period in order to evaluate the long-term impacts of this novel approach and compare it to a common commercially available mite control treatment that is based on formic acid.
    Our objective will be to track the survivability and productivity of hives that are both treated with a commercially available Varroa miticide and those that are only exposed to specific physical beekeeper management techniques. Fourtyfive 10-frame nucleus colonies will be purchased in April/May 2016 and randomly divided into three groups of fifteen hives each. One group of fifteen hives will be the control group that will not receive any mite treatments or mite management but will be maintained identically in every other way to the rest of the hives. Another group of fifteen hives will be the treatment group and will receive a single commercial mite control product in accordance with the product label {Mite Away Quick Strip (MAQS)}. The MAQS was chosen due to it being the most commonly used commercial mite control treatment used by beekeepers who participated in the Bee Informed Partnership’s National Management Survey 2013-2014. The final group of fifteen hives will be the test group and will be outfitted with screened, rather than solid wood bottom boards, will be divided in year one, two, and three, and allowed to raise replacement queens naturally in order to break up the brood cycle, given all fresh foundation with which to draw comb as needed (with the older combs that are supplied with the original nucleus colony removed from the hive at the end of year one), and outfitted with frames of drone comb that will be culled and destroyed regularly in order to remove mites reproducing in the brood.

    Mite populations in all hives will be monitored twice a year, once in May and once in early September following the honey harvest and prior to the application of varroa treatments where applicable. In addition, hives that receive commercial mite treatments will be monitored for mites following completion of their respective treatments. Mite monitoring will be accomplished by obtaining ½ cup of bees ( ~ 300) from the brood nest and putting them into the mason jar. About 2 tablespoons of powdered sugar will be placed into the jar and a lid will be placed on the jar. The bees and sugar powder will be vigorously shaken to dislodge the mites. The jar of bees will be allowed to sit for a minute, and the shaking repeated. The lid will be replaced with a wire mesh cap and the sugar and mites will then be shaken out through the screened top onto a white plate. The powdered bees will be returned to the hive and then the powder on the plate will be sprayed with water using a spray bottle to dissolve the sugar in order to make any brown mites removed during the process clearly visible on the white plate. The number of mites visible will be divided by three in order to determine the percent infestation of the sample.

    An estimation of honey production will be tracked yearly. This will be accomplished by documenting the number of supers of honey harvested from each hive each year.
    Winter survival will be followed each year noting the approximate strength of surviving hives in the spring. Hive strength will be evaluated by documenting the number of frames of brood and bees the hive contains during the first major inspection of each hive in late April or early May. All hives will receive identical management in all other areas including late winter/early spring inspections, supplemental feeding of sugar syrup when necessary, reversal of brood chambers in early-to-mid-May to suppress the swarming impulse, regular cursory inspections to insure normal hive development during the season and the need for additional supers to provide increased honey storage space when necessary, treatment for diseases when symptoms are present, winter preparations (supplemental feeding if necessary, insulation between the inner and outer covers, mouse guards in entrance, and an electric fence surrounding each apiary to deter bears). The control group will be located a several hundred feet from the other colonies and separated by a fairly thick tree line in order to reduce the potential for mite drift from collapsing colonies.

    The following is an outline of the project  timeline:

    April/May 2016 – 45 nucleus colonies are purchased and set up in bee yards. All hives are labeled for individual identification and randomly grouped into three groups (control, treatment and test) of fifteen hives each. R. Conrad (5 hours)
    Each May (beginning in 2016) – Each hive in the test group is divided and allowed to raise new queens naturally. R. Conrad (4 hours)
    Each June (beginning in 2016) – Varroa populations will be monitored in all hives. R. Conrad (6 hours)
    Each September (beginning in 2016) – Excess honey not needed for overwintering is harvested and documented.
    Varroa populations will be monitored in all hives. Varroa treatments are applied to hive groups where applicable. R. Conrad (8 hours)
    Each October (beginning in 2016) - Varroa populations will be monitored following treatments being applied in the group of colonies identified to receive the commercial mite treatment. All hives prepared for winter. R. Conrad (5 hours)
    Each April (beginning in 2017) – Hives are inspected and colony strength and winter survival is measured and documented. R. Conrad (4 hours)
    May 2017 – Old combs removed from brood chambers of test group. R. Conrad (4 hours)
    Equipment preparation and yearly hive/apiary maintenance /weekly inspections throughout the active season for all three years and post-trial outreach - (100 hours)
    The outreach plan is as follows:
    An article describing the project and reporting the results will be submitted for publication to Bee Culture magazine. I will offer to give presentations on the project and its results to state and local beekeeping groups, with a goal of giving a minimum of 3 presentations to various groups within a year of completion of the trial. A copy of the article submitted to Bee Culture reporting on the project will be posted on the Dancing Bee Gardens website. In addition, I will make myself available to any and all media inquiries about the study and its results.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.