Varroa Mite Treatments: Hard and Soft Miticides
Different options for when to treat bees for mites.
Regardless of where you keep bees, varroa management is a constant topic within any beekeeping community. A quick look through the latest beek HOW-TOs, or a short visit to any bee club, and varroa mite treatments are bound to surface sooner rather than later. And with good reason; without proper varroa control, we beekeepers lose our valuable colonies. Yet, as many will tell you, determining which treatment options to choose for your own apiary may, at times, seem daunting at best. So, here’s a quick run-down featuring the latest soft and hard chemicals available today.
Soft vs. Hard Varroa Mite Treatments
The chemicals used to treat varroa are often referred to as either soft or hard chemicals. In a nutshell, “soft” chemicals are naturally derived and include the organic acids formic acid (Formic Pro, Mite Away Quick Strips) and oxalic acid dihydrate (OA), essential oils (Apiguard, Apilife Var), and hop beta acids (Hop Guard) while hard chemicals are synthetic, or manmade, miticides.
Notable advantages of soft over hard miticides are the reduced potential for mites to build resistance to the treatments, they can be used in organic farming operations, and each one’s components are readily found within the hive and/or food we consume on a regular basis such as thyme, beer, spinach, and honey. Soft chemicals also do not contaminate the comb as the synthetic options do, making miticide buildup in the comb and its resultant issues with queen and brood health over time a non-issue as it relates to beekeeper miticide use.
Just as with synthetic miticides, these naturally occurring treatment options exhibit varying levels of efficacy, often determined by temperature, application method, and even the timing of applications. When used correctly and at the appropriate time, however, natural miticides can be just as effective — if not more so — as the hard chemical alternatives.
However, don’t make the mistake of thinking these natural options are harmless to humans, animals, and even the bees. Instead, be aware there is a much narrower margin for error with soft chemicals than with the synthetic miticides for both the applicator and the bees. Too little too late and varroa are not managed. Too much or incorrectly applied and queen loss, brood loss, honey contamination, and comb contamination may occur. Some require the use of a respirator; most require the use of gloves, eyes, and skin protection to prevent injuries. So be sure to read and follow package directions at all times to ensure the highest level of mite kill and safety for all concerned.
Those varroa mite treatments labeled as “hard” chemicals can be found under the names of fluvalinate (Apistan), amitraz (Apivar), and coumaphos (CheckMite+). The positive side to these synthetic treatments is the significantly higher margin for error as opposed to soft chemicals. In most cases, should you accidentally over-apply just a little, there’s a good chance all will still be well within the hive provided it wasn’t too much of an overdose. Yet, despite this potential safety net, it is always important to closely follow the label when handling these hard chemicals as harm to both you and the bees is still quite possible with misuse.
Despite this perceived room for error, however, there are two significant drawbacks to hard chemicals to consider: the potential for mites to develop resistance and the buildup of hard miticides within the wax/comb over time. Just as we’ve seen bacteria develop resistance to our antibiotics, varroa mites are developing resistance to the hard chemicals we use in our hives, as well, thus making them ineffective over time. One way to slow this resistance is to only apply according to the label and only as often as needed according to well-conducted mite count tests. Another suggestion is to rotate treatments rather than using the same one year-round.
As for wax/comb miticide buildup, once again proper use of miticides will slow this unavoidable buildup, allowing for longer use of valuable comb before the combs need to be rotated out of use. Overuse and incorrect dosing are significant contributors to wax contamination while inappropriate timing is the culprit behind contaminated honey. All comb eventually becomes contaminated, but slowing the contamination avoids the potential problems that may occur and keep the bees from having to build new comb quite as frequently.
Both soft and hard chemicals do a good job of dropping mite counts and improving the overall health of a colony when applied correctly. In most apiaries, there is a place for both types depending on the circumstances and the preferences of the beekeeper. The important thing to note is to make a selection, use it correctly, and take mite counts to ensure the treatments are working.
Helpful links to further assist in selecting the appropriate varroa mite treatments for your apiary:
Honey Bee Health Coalition: Tools for Varroa Management https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/HBHC-Guide_Varroa-Interactive-PDF.pdf
Mann Lake: Education: Varroa Mite Treatments chart https://www.mannlakeltd.com/mann-lake-blog/varroa-mite-treatments/
Adapted from Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Tools for Varroa Management at: https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/HBHC-Guide_Varroa_Interactive_7thEdition_June2018.pdf
And Mann Lake’s Education: Varroa Mite Management at: https://www.mannlakeltd.com/mann-lake-blog/varroa-mite-treatments/
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.