Treating Your Bees with Natural Sources of Oxalic Acid
I have treated my colonies that needed treatment with shredded Thyme leaves with satisfactory results. When using shredded Thyme herb plant leaves it is the thymol in the plant oils that affects the mites in the hive. There has been some recent encouraging reports of success in treating bee colonies for Varroa mites with oxalic acid from shredded rhubarb leaves. I have not tried the shedding Rhubarb leaves treatment yet, but have plans to try it with my next required treatment.
Many plants we grow and eat contain varying levels of naturally occurring oxalic acid. The highest levels of the oxalic acid is found in Rhubarb leaves. Similar high levels can be found in the plants Lamb’s Quarter and Sorrel. The levels of the acid in the Rhubarb leaves is too high for safe human consumption. It is however safe to handle and process the leaves under normal conditions. The second highest levels of oxalic acid is found in the older leaves of chard, spinach, and beet greens. If you have ever bit into older leaves of chard, spinach or beet greens, you would have found a sharp bitter taste on the tongue. That is the heighten level of the acid. However, that level in older vegetable greens is not at the toxic level to humans as Rhubarb.
The shredded leaf treatment works with the bee’s dislike for anything foreign in their hive. The colony will drag smaller pieces through the hive and out the entrance. After shredding leaves, either with your hands or chopping them up with a knife, remove any stems and large pieces too big or tough for the bees to chew up. Spread a couple of handfuls out over the top of the frames in the top box and close up the hive. Any pieces too big to carry or drag out are chewed up and torn apart in their attempt to remove them. Moisture and oils from the plant containing oxalic acid is spread throughout the hive during the cleaning out process. It is very important to remember that with natural sources of Varroa mite treatments we aren’t trying to kill the mites. We are trying to apply a level of irritate to the mites that makes them drop off and not have a high level of adverse affect on the bee’s health. The concept of natural treatments is to help the colony manage a tolerable level of mite population themselves. I treat using natural treatments for low and moderate levels of mites. Natural treatments for the most part are to help keep a healthy colony healthy. That is why a natural keeper must always be vigilant in monitoring mite levels. If you discover a colony with an out of control, critical level of mites as in a “Varroa Mite Bomb” this is serious. You will lose this colony if you do not do intensive care treatment- now! This is not the time to debate commercial or natural treating or what is healthy or not or even what your personal feelings are. You have no time and nothing to lose using a commercial treatment product- they are going to die if you don’t. In the area of fighting the Varroa mite, don’t think of yourself as just a beekeeper, think of yourself as a mite manager. Again as I have stated in past columns, a sliding bottom board screen floor under your hive is the foundation of successful mite treatments. A keeper must know if they need to treat or if a treatment method is working. A SBB is an important tool for monitoring the need and effect of any treatment method. Even if you use commercial miticide treatments SBB monitoring is invaluable for confirmation of treatment success. Every year I hear the same thing from keepers, “I treated my hives for mites and they died anyway.” I know I don’t let up on the virtues the SBB, but with something insidious and deadly as Vaorra mites you have to be able to closely monitor,(at any time) the level of the threat and treatment results.
“It’s all about the bees”- Ernie
Why would I, as an Alternative beekeeping advocate, write about the use of commercial miticides? First and foremost for me personally, the most important thing is keeping bees alive.
Everyone’s bees. Also, I consider myself an intellectual Alternative keeper, in that, I wouldn’t “take anything off the table” in my pursuit to keep bees alive. Though I don’t use miticides- I will do everything I can to help keepers who do. Varroa mites have the ability to continuously built up resistance to commercial treatment products. Each new mite control product that comes on the market has a useful life of less then 10 years. It is not defects in the products. The products are effective when first introduced. The Varroa mite has developed a method of quickly building up an immunity to each new product. What exactly is happening that makes it possible for the mite to build up resistance so quickly with every new product? It’s predictable, it’s coming, it is going happening. Producing another form of miticide produces another population of immune mites. Developing new miticides doesn’t solve the resistance problem. What is the process that breeds populations of super mites that build up an immunity to each new product introduced by the beekeeper? Once we find the mechanics of the immunity build up process, we can develop methods of management that prevent that process. If we as beekeepers can “short circuit” the mechanics of the immunity process it would enhance the effect and efficiency of any treatment to control Varroa mites.
In treated hives, over 40% of the mites that fall to the bottom board are still alive. 1. They received what is referred to as a sub-lethal dose of miticide. The mites got enough of a dose to temporarily incapacitate them but not kill them. This segment of the mite population recover on the floor of a solid bottom board hive, reattach to bees approaching near them, and return back up into the colony. Mites receiving and surviving sub-lethal doses of a miticide, returning back into the hive and breeding generation after generation build up an immunity to that miticide.
One way of “short circuiting” the immunity process is using screen bottom boards. SBB’s are literally and figuratively the foundation of a hive as part of a Integrated Pest Management program. Screen bottom boards must be constructed correctly and used correctly to provide the most benefit as an enhancement to treatments and the prevention of mite immunity buildup. Most treatments work best in an enclosed hive so a SBB with a sliding board under the screen is more desired then an open screen floor. The 40% of mites still alive after receiving a sub-lethal doses of miticide fall through the screen, are unable to reattach to a bee, and die on the sliding board under the screen. Mites looking to reattach to a bee can sense bees within 1 inch away. It is important to construct SBB’s with the sliding board an inch and a half or more below the screen. Live mites that fall to the sliding board beyond “sensing” distance will wander aimlessly on the board for a short time looking for a bee, then sit and die waiting for a bee. Sticky boards can be used on SBB’s with sliding boards closer then one and a half inch to the screen during treatments. The sliding board SSB is also a valuable tool to the beekeeper for easily monitoring mite populations and observing the need for and efficiency of treatments.
1. Chapleau, J.P. Experimentation of an Anti-Varroa Screened Bottom Board in Context of Developing an Integrated Pest Management Strategy for Varroa Infested Honeybees in the Province of Quebec (2002)
In my mind Alternative Varroa Mite control encompasses anything not involving commercial treatments or ignoring the problem. I am not marginalizing the value of chemical miticides I’m just discussing alternative methods of dealing with the mite. The concept of the Alternative methods involves empowering the bees to control the mites themselves. We as keepers provide the tools and conditions for the bees to control their mites. Find out how the bees work and let them do the work. Trust me- no one wants to control the mites more then the bees do, their lives depend on it.
The first thing to understand in managing mites in general is a Integrated Pest Management method, or IPM. Simply put, it is using more then one method of mite control, at the same time or consecutively. A single method alone may not be highly effective in controlling mites but in combination with other methods will make a difference.
For all of the following methods to work well the colony must sit on a correctly designed Screen Bottom Board. The SBB is literally and figuratively the foundation of a healthy colony. In a solid bottom board hive when a mite falls to the floor, it simply waits for a bee to come near, latches on to it and returns back up into the colony. In a SBB hive you don’t have to particularly kill the mites, just make them fall off the bees. The SBB separates the little bugs from the big bugs. Once a mite falls from the colony, for any reason and lands on the sliding board under the screen, it will die waiting for a bee that will never come. Depending on the study you read, anywhere from 5 to 40% of the mites in a colony fall naturally without any kind of treatment. Add the natural fall rate with any or all of the following methods and a keeper can give a colony a fighting chance of surviving Varroa mites.
Regionally bred queens and queens bred for mite resistance. Literally- the farther away from the genetics of commercially bred southern queens that you can get, the better.
Agitating the mites:
What we are trying to do with these next methods is “agitate” the mites on the bees. An agitated mite starts squirming, jumping and moving from one bee to another trying to escape the agitation. Then during the confusion and chaos, being knocked off and falling the screen floor.
Smoking the hive. When working with the bees add green Cedar sprigs to the smoker. The smudge has been found to significantly irritate mites.
Powdered sugar- pouring powdered sugar into the hive. Purportedly the fine powder agitates the mites and affects their ability to grip onto the bees.
Thyme plant shredded leaves and tiny twigs. Strip a large handful of leaves and sprigs off a living Thyme plant and spread it out on the tops of the frames in the top box on the hive. The bees will pull the Thyme through the hive to remove it, spreading Thyme oil throughout the hive. The oil of the Thyme plant is not only effective on Varroa mites is also active against both tracheal mite and chalkbrood. The most important weapon one can have in their Varroa mite arsenal is the Screen Bottom Board. Within seconds of sliding the bottom board out from under the screen the keeper can assess the level of mites in the hive. Quickly and easily monitoring the mite population and the effect of any treatment on them. I paint my sliding boards white to make counting the mites easier or one can use sticky paper on the sliding board.
It’s all about the bees- Ernie
Throughout recorded human history there were very few special men and women that understood the honey bee and how to keep them well enough to be called a Master Beekeeper. In ancient Egypt the Pharaoh’s apiaries were cared for by a select few Master Beekeepers and they were held in similar regards as temple priests. I would argue that it might have been a bit easier to keep bees in those days and still those select few were looked upon as mystical. As I work towards my Master Beekeeper Certification, it has become vividly clear to me why only a very few special men and women ever reach that level. They are able to “think” differently or as I say, “Break the code” of beekeeping. The ability to understand the concept and philosophy of working with honey bees. Most of all, to realize that the art of keeping bees is unlike any other form of animal husbandry. There is nothing we do as humans with animals, plants or anything else- that is remotely similar to keeping bees. As beekeepers we must disregard everything we know about any other form of animal husbandry. There is nothing we know in that area that will apply to bees. Believe me, I have tried for years to compare beekeeping to some other form of keeping livestock or pets. I wanted to say, “It’s just like keeping chickens” and give some examples. It just doesn’t apply-there is a reason we never hear the phase “Master Chicken Keeper”.
I feel we have to think differently about keeping bees. A different mind set, understanding that honey bees are unlike anything else we keep. How do honey bees and keeping them differ so much from the other creatures we keep?
First of all they are insects and their life cycles and the life cycle of the colony as a whole is different. There are individual bees being born and dying constantly in a colony. Workers only live weeks during the Summer, Drones don’t fair much better. Good queens are old in 2 or 3 years. Even wild colonies established for years, naturally die out from time to time. A colony can be considered a single living organism made up of 1,000 of individuals but it is not like a pet cat. The cat, as a single living organism, will live for years and our focus of managing and keeping a cat is focused on that expectation. With a colony of bees the natural order of life is not the focus of the life span of any individual in the colony. The only purpose of each individual is to give their life for the colony and the colony’s only purpose is to give it’s life for the species. The workers work as hard as they can then die, the queen lays a many eggs as she can then dies, the colony produces as many other colonies as it can then dies. They all die relatively quickly and all of this is obsoletely the completely natural flow of life for this species of creature. We as keepers must understand, work with, and manage that natural flow of life and death.
When you buy a package, and hold the queen cage in your hand. Look at her and understand this particular queen will most likely be dead within a year. Realizing that this is a natural order of events, we as keepers use management methods to prevent it from ending the life of the colony as a whole. One of the skills of a keeper is the ability to “tweak” the natural order of a colony. There are no management methods that will keep an old queen alive and viable past her natural life span. The method is to replace her with a new queen before she gets to the end of her life. Doing so allows the colony as a whole a chance to continue living on with a new queen. There are other managements we use as keepers to enhance colony survival such as feeding during droughts and winters, reducing entrances during hornets and robbing, treating for mites, etc. Most of all remember, our bees are unlike any other kind of animal husbandry. So think differently.
At this point hopefully we have all pretty much put our bees to bed for the winter. There isn’t much we can do for our hives now that we should have done last Fall. Gently lifting a side of a hive to check weight or maybe a quick peek on a warmer sunny day to check for winter stores.
This is the beginning of our new year and is a time to reflect on our personal past year in beekeeping and do some introspecting on our future plans for this Spring. What are we going to do in relation to our apiaries- more bees, replacing bees, increasing or replacing equipment and woodware. Maybe this year growing some plants just for bee forage.
It is actually the time to start thinking about ordering bees. Remember beekeeping is a business that is always thinking one or two seasons ahead. Our club has always been good at obtaining a supplier for our packages. Because of genetic issues there is never a shame in shopping around for possible sources of stronger bee stock. In the market for packages and nucs- suppliers are now already advertising for keepers to order early because they expect to not have enough bees to meet demand. Usually it is first come, first served for packages and nucs, but now some suppliers are asking for deposits on packages and nucs. Even if you aren’t sure if you are going to need packages, nucs or queens this year. Make a guess and reserve what you think you might need. If you find out you don’t need something you reserved let our club know and/or the local beekeeping Facebook communities. I guarantee there is always keepers that missed the deadline for ordering or just realized they needed bees that will buy your reserved packages or nucs.
I just discovered this local nuc supplier; This is Kevin and Amanda Mills in Rochester. I have talked with Kevin and he is now taking deposits for nucs. He works with local queens in his nucs. If you are like me, I like to stretch my spending money for my bee stuff, out as far as possible. Now would be a great time to buy and assemble any woodware that we may be thinking we’ll need. One extra hive set in reserve is a good idea. With all the work and speding going on in the Spring- scrambling to buy and set up an empty hive for that surprise swarm capture is never that much fun. As far as woodware and supplies we have 2 local sources I know of which are the Lacey Tractor Supply Store and Beeline Apiaries in Rochester. This year I am going to put a bit more effort in planning, ordering, and planting bee forage. I feel the greatest time of need in the Pacific Northwest for bee forage is August and September. Now understand, I like the result of any work project I do to be as easy as possible to achieve and maintain. It’s not really being lazy, it is just working smarter. If I can plan a job with an objective that at a certain point becomes as maintenance free as possible, I’m there! As far as bee forage, I’m betting this year on The Chinese Tallow Tree, also know as the Ben Franklin Tree. They produce blossoms from August until the first heavy frost and do well in our climate. In an article published in the 1979 American Bee Journal, Hayes states “The Chinese tallow tree has become the most successful tree nectar source ever introduced into the United States.” I have not done business with this companies yet, so I can’t give them a personal recommendation. I just link them for everyone to check the tree out.
“It’s all about the bees” Ernie