Hard Decision regarding the Hive

Our honeybee hive is as strong as we've ever seen it. In a severe drought year, with all the beekeepers we know having to feed their bees, ours are bringing in nectar and pollen daily. Our forethought and planning with the pollinator gardens have really paid off in a big way. Looking through the hive today, we noticed many bars completely full of capped honey, with more bars full of ripening nectar. There's not much brood, which is expected this time of year, but the hive seems well-set for the winter months.

All this was very pleasing, and we would have been entirely happy with our inspection, had we not noticed this.

It's hard to see, but the arrow is pointing to a varroa mite on the back of this bee. It's a red shiny dot. My hive tool is pointing to it from the other side.

We noticed 3-4 mites on as many bees - they're not overrun, by any means, but will be soon if left untreated.

And in a not-unexpected twist, we noticed four wax moth larvae crawling on the floor of the hive. I promptly severed them in two with my trusty hive tool, but I left the hive inspection feeling very depressed and unsettled.

We lost our hive last year to varroa - it was in late November and we didn't notice until the entire hive was dead.

We've never had wax moths before, we only noticed them for the first time about a month ago, but the really special thing about them is that they destroy the honey and the wax, so even if our hive dies from varroa, if the moth larvae get to it before we do, we won't even be able to harvest the ample honey crop.

I called my beekeeping mentor immediately (that's my dad :) ) and we talked about the fact that he had just bought some formic acid strips from the beekeeping store for just this purpose. He invited me over to look in his hives and see if I saw mites there.

So I did. But first I researched formic acid. As you know, I've been struggling with the question of whether or not to chemically treat my bees. Most beekeepers do, regularly. I feel strongly that the bees (not just my bees, but bees in general) need to evolve past this, and in order to do that, we just need to leave them alone. And until I saw mites on my bees today, I was sure that I would never treat  them.

Then I thought about the fact that my bees did not come from a wild swarm, but from a breeder, who definitely treats his bees. My queen has been treated before. She grew up being treated and having that help. Her genetic line is used to being treated. She has never developed the ability to resist mites. She isn't likely going to start now. My bees will die, if left untreated.

This pisses me off, because having to get a new colony is not only heartbreaking, it's a pain. It's expensive, and they always come in mid-April when the first nectar flow is already finished here in Northern California - they miss the native wildflower bloom. And then I have to feed them for weeks while they build their comb (since I have a top bar hive, they build their entire comb). And just when they get to a strong and healthy place, varroa descends. And it will descend every year, this is just a fact of life now.

Then I thought about the wax moths. Formic acid has been shown to kill wax moth eggs and larvae as well as varroa mites. My mind started to change.

So when I inspected Dad's hives with him, and we found varroa in one of them, and he didn't hesitate to put a strip of formic acid on top of the bars of his hive, I found myself taking the other strip home. And then I opened up my hive and placed it inside.

It doesn't smell great. I'm sure the bees won't like it. Some will probably die. The queen might even die. But if I don't do this, the colony will surely die. So I'm going with the better odds.

I'll keep you updated, friends. Formic acid is considered an 'organic' treatment, but it's certainly not the kind of organic I'm used to here at Poppy Corners. I'm not entirely happy, but I feel confident that I'm giving my bees a shot at survival.