Organic Varroa Management - Beekeeper Education in Hawaii

2010 Annual Report for FW10-011

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Western
State: Hawaii
Principal Investigator:
Richard Spiegel
Volcano Island Honey Co.

Organic Varroa Management - Beekeeper Education in Hawaii


The purpose of the grant was to:

• Evaluate various IPM (Integrated Pest Management)methodologies to combat the varroa mite and to evaluate which treatments were cost effective, practical and effective for an organic commercial apiary.

• Share the practical varroa management experience with other commercial, backyard and agriculturalist beekeepers.

• Train more beekeepers and encourage the placement of organically managed hives in agricultural operations and backyards and to teach beekeepers how to organically manage hives with varroa.

At the time the grant application was submitted, Volcano Island Honey Company (VIHC) did not have the varroa mite in its hives. At the beginning of the grant period, the apiary was afflicted with the varroa mite, which created a crisis condition for the apiary. VIHC proceeded with testing IPM strategies on a smaller scale than originally proposed, while simultaneously fighting not to lose too many hives.

Objectives/Performance Targets

1) Field test varroa management strategies (note: the hive numbers were adjusted down to five for each treatment at the beginning of the grant period in consultation with the grant administrator.)

– Drone comb management: 65 hives with farm-made organic drone foundation/65 hives with plastic foundation

– Powdered Sugar Dusting: delivery of organic powdered sugar with backpack sprayer and hand sprayer

– Mite Away Quick Strips: 60 hives to learn how to use it, observe how it impacts bees and test honey for formic acid residue

– Screened bottom boards and sticky boards: how to manage and use

April, 2010: Purchase drone comb roller, plastic foundation, backpack sprayer, hand sprayer, organic sugar, Miteaway quick strips, screened bottom boards, sticky boards. Hire research and teaching assistant.

April/May, 2010: Make drone comb foundation. Place organic wax foundation in 65 hives and plastic drone foundation in 65 hives. Monitor hives. Test and remove every 20 – 23 days. Install sticky boards in all hives. Ongoing monitoring.

April- Sept, 2010: Ongoing monitoring/management of drone comb every 20 – 23 days.

April – Oct, 2010: Powdered Sugar treatments.

Nov, 2010: Treat 30 hives with Mite Away Quick Strips. Monitor hives.

Jan, 2011: Treat 30 hives with Mite Away Quick Strips. Monitor hives.

2) Educate commercial, backyard and agriculturalist beekeepers about organic beekeeping and organic varroa management in Hawaii and increase number of managed hives, through:

– Beginning and intermediate beekeeping workshops

– Sharing of information learned through: PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos, Blog and Twitter posts

Aug 2010: Class curriculum and teaching tools: PowerPoint, handouts. Order class equipment.

Oct – Nov 2010: Beginning and Intermediate Beekeeping Classes.

Jan 2011: Post videos to YouTube. Create and boost informational webpage(s). Blog and Twitter posts.


Testing of IPM for Varroa Management: What We Did – How We Did It/Challenges/Analysis of Results

Unfortunately, by the time the experiment began we had a serious varroa problem, which affected what we had originally planned. In preparation to test different methodologies of varroa control we first did a preliminary varroa mite survey of all 130 of our hives. Sticky boards were placed in a specially designed bottom board under all of the hives and were read by counting the mite drop on the boards one week later. Testing with the sticky boards was crucial as we did not understand the level of infestation in the hives or how wide spread the problem was. We then chose the 25 hives that had the highest number of mites to conduct the experiments on as follows:

5 control hives (no treatment)
5 drone comb management hives
5 sugar treatment
5 formic acid
5 VSH queens with no additional treatment

Results are as follows:

Drone Comb Management

The Drone Comb management method did not work due to bad timing. The frames of drone foundation were placed in the brood chamber of the hives after the bloom had already passed and the bees were not making drones. Because of this, the bees did not draw out the wax foundation sheet into drone comb. The beekeepers are not inclined towards this method for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is labor intensive. The timing for drone comb management is crucial for the reason mentioned above, as well as the opposite problem of breeding mites if you do not pull the frames and eradicate the mites in a timely fashion. The drone comb management is also a problem because you are taking out 1/10 of your breeding capacity. The extra energy it takes for the bees to clean the frames is also energy that the bees cannot then expend in other activities.

Sugar Dusting

This method, which we had the least amount of hope for, turned out to yield interesting results. We first tested using a backpack sprayer, but the sprayer, while expensive, was not effective as the spray was too fine and there were other mechanical issues with the sprayer. We next tried using a crank flour sifter. One person opened the hive and one person cranked in the powdered sugar. Within 20 minutes there was a significant mite drop. When this was repeated one week later there was another mite drop. This method only addresses the phoretic mites, but does drop a lot in a short time and gives an immediate reading for the amount of mites in a hive. The mites that dropped to the board below with the sugar had to be disposed of as quickly as possible, and this was done by bagging the board and transporting it out of the bee yard.

Formic Acid

Using Mite Away Quick Strips (MAQS) is by far the most effective and least time consuming option, and the bees seemed to tolerate it fairly well. However, MAQS is costly. Unfortunately, there was a problem with an ingredient in the formulation, and it was temporarily taken off the market. The problem was eventually rectified, and we are still using MAQS with spot treatment for phoretic mites with a new product called HopGuard.

The hives were extremely distressed after the first season with the varroa mite, and we were losing colonies. Added to this, just after the first round of experiments, the “small hive beetle” was discovered on the island and proliferated rapidly, which put our remaining hives at risk. If that was not enough we had a visit from the Pennsylvania state bee inspector who encouraged us to do readings for Nosema Ceranae, a microscopic parasitic fungus. Our readings have shown our colonies to be way above the threshold requiring yet another type of treatment.

Installing the sticky boards was an eye opening experience for the apiary, as that is how the varroa mites were originally discovered, and the sticky boards combined with a screened bottom board provided a first level of prevention against the proliferation of the mites (as mites that drop can not crawl back up in to the hive.)

It was very confusing during the project period as it was unclear for a while what a certified organic apiary could use to effectively treat for varroa. The most effective Formic acid-based solutions such as MAQS are currently pending review by the NOSB. The apiary organic standards have not been updated since 2001.

Once the apiary became seriously infected with varroa, formic-acid products were the only time- and cost-effective varroa treatments. The organic certifier ( International Certification Services, Inc. (ICS)) issued the following statement:

“ICS has adopted a to certify organic apiculture operations using the NOSB’s recommendation as the standard. NOSB issued it’s first guidance in 2001 and recently updated it to improve harmonization with international organic apiculture regulations. This guidance includes language that the use of formic acid should be allowed (with restrictions) as a pest control material.

Of course the formulation of brand-name formic acid products must be reviewed and approved prior to use, but that is the same as the requirements for any input material used in all scopes of organic production.

Please note that if the NOP decision is to not adopt the recommendation, or to adopt it with modifications, ICS will have to revise our certification standards accordingly; any operations certified for apiculture will be required to comply.”

VIHC can recommend sugar dusting and drone comb management to hobbyist level beekeepers, but it was not practical at all for even a small commercial apiary.

The other method that was incorporated during the project period was the introduction of VSH (varroa resistant) Queens, which are selectively bred for hygienic, varroa resistant behavior. This seems to offer the greatest hope for combatting varroa in the most natural and least invasive way. VIHC believes and hopes that having bees and queens with VHS genetic will eliminate or reduce to minimal the need for treatment. VIHC has a number of artificially inseminated queens with VHS genes, and we have been breeding VHS queens. But it takes time to evaluate the effectiveness of using VHS queens for varroa control.

Sharing Varroa Management Experience and Training New Commercial, Backyard and Agriculturalist Beekeepers: What We Did – How We Did It/ Challenges/Analysis of Results

Volcano Island Honey Company partnered with Jenny Bach from Bee Love Apiaries to teach the Beginning Organic Beekeeping class. Beginning Organic Beekeeping filled up immediately with a maximum of 18 students and 35 people on the waiting list. Jenny Bach of Bee Love Apiaries has a list of hundreds of people collected from movie screenings and talks who are interested in classes.

Interest and demand for the class was high, especially as the cost of the class and equipment was subsidized through the grant. There is a high degree of interest, but during tough economic times, most people can not afford to attend a class and purchase equipment without a subsidy.

Five classes were held through July – August 2011. The class included both classroom and field instruction.

Richard Spiegel and Jenny Bach have divergent philosophies about varroa management and the management of hives for pollination only vs. commercial honey production. The class learned to build and maintain hives for both pollination and honey production. They were exposed to differing viewpoints about the realities of allowing the hives to naturally self-regulate for varroa (which results in the loss of hives but leaves the strongest hives), an economically unsustainable proposition for a commercial beekeeper or orchard vs. treatment of hives through the methods mentioned above.

An intermediate beekeeping class was not conducted. The human and financial resources that were put into the varroa management experiment (during a time of the company’s first varroa mite infestation, which was not anticipated) and the beginning organic beekeeping class proved to be significant, and the company could not logistically or financially manage a second set of intermediate classes. At the time the grant was first submitted, the company did not have the varroa mite. There is a clear demand on Hawaii Island for more affordable beekeeping classes.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

As wild hives continue to decline in Hawaii, the goal is to teach agriculturalists how to keep and manage hives themselves, especially to help maintain some of Hawaii’s major commercial crops: coffee, macadamia nuts, melons, tomatoes, cucumbers, citrus, avocado and guava. Additionally, it was hoped that the experiment with organic varroa management could be of benefit to Hawaii’s commercial organic beekeepers.

The Beginning Organic Beekeeping class was successful in helping to get commercial and backyard farmers started beekeeping. However, the positive contribution is just a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the problem and the high demand for education.

The experiments with organic varroa control yielded a sad, but realistic, result: it is difficult for a commercial apiary that relies upon honey for its income to manage varroa without using chemicals — even if they are “soft” chemicals. The few methods that are allowed under organic standards — drone comb management, sticky boards and sugar dusting — are all somewhat effective on a small scale, but Volcano Island Honey Company found them impossible to implement (financially and logistically) in a even a small (100 hives) commercial apiary. The only way to effectively manage for varroa is with a formic-acid product or a new product called HopGuard.

Producer Adoption/Reactions from Producers

Nearly all of the participants from the class adopted beekeeping as a practice and have set up hives and are in the process of learning more. A vigorous list serve discussion keeps the class members engaged with each other and the instructors.


We recommend that Western SARE fund more classes focused on beginning, intermediate and advanced beekeeper education which provides beginning beekeeper equipment to class attendees. There is a clear need and a proven demand on Hawaii Island for education coupled with equipment so people can immediately translate knowledge into action and maintain hives. The demand for education was beyond our ability to meet it.

Project organizers fielded dozens of calls from people who said that their backyard and commercial agricultural production had declined dramatically as a result of the die off of wild bees.


• Beginning Organic Beekeeping Class: The class was announced through Press Releases and calendar listings in local newspapers (Big Island Weekly, Hawaii Tribune Herald, West Hawaii Today), Big Island Beekeeping Association blog, Hawaii Homegrown Food Network newsletter and calendar, Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers and Kona Coffee Farmers Association email lists. Five classes were attended by 18 people and there was a waiting list of 35 people.

• Beginning Organic Beekeeping Class Blog posts at

• Documenting drone comb management, powdered sugar method and miteaway quick strips with video tape and pictures, to be shared in classes and online (YouTube, Blog, Website)

• Blog posts on selected class topics and drone comb management, powdered sugar method and miteaway quick strips on

• Posting of information on selected class segments and drone comb management, powdered sugar method and miteaway quick strips on web page(s) at






















Andrea Dean
Technical Advisor
Po Box 1088
Kapaau, HI 96755
Office Phone: 8089603727