We’ve been keeping bees for a five years now. Our approach to beekeeping is to focus on raising healthy bees, and the rest will take care of itself. While inexperience in our first year and severe winds two years ago “relieved” us of some hives, we haven’t lost a single hive to disease. We keep our bees at an organic CSA farm, do not use synthetic chemicals/medications in our beekeeping, and are very cautious to not over-harvest honey.
The varroa mite is the #1 threat to honeybees in the US. While Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been a sensational story for about five+ years now, it is the varroa destructor that is responsible for more honeybees losses than any other bee threat. The most common method of dealing with mites is to use miticides, often a chemical strip placed in the hive. Of course, over time, the mites develop a resistance, and a more powerful chemical becomes necessary to keep them at bay.
Since we’ve chosen to raise bees naturally, our initial approach to the mite problem was to sprinkle/sift powdered sugar into the hives. The powdered sugar falls on the bees, they clean it off each other, and clean off the mites in the process. A screen bottom board allows the mites to fall down onto a tray with either vegetable oil or a sticky paper, and are unable to get back into the hive.
Please note, the bees are not necessarily fond of being sprinkled with powdered sugar. If a giant being were to lift the roof of my house and sprinkle in something that stuck to me that required I stop everything to clean it off myself and my family, I might be pretty ticked off too. But, it won’t cause a bigger problem with chemical resistance later on down the road.
Some bees, however, have significantly better hygiene habits, and are pretty good at cleaning the mites from each other and the larvae (killing the larvae, but protecting the colony) all on their own. A better solution is to take a long-term approach to mite control through selective bee breeding. Honeybees are routinely bred for other traits, including docile temperament, increased honey production, etc. All that is involved is a bit of observation (such as evidence of chewed mites, as cited in the article), an interest in queen rearing (or let them raise their own queen), and patience to observe the bees over many years.
To keep things simple, check for evidence of mite problems (usually deformed wings are a tell-tale sign), and only make splits of your “strong” hives. Either, breed your own queens, or let the bees raise their own queen. If you purchase a queen, you will be stuck with whatever genetic traits the new queen has, which defeats the purpose of breeding out of your own bee stock. Bee packages and nucleus hives are getting quite expensive , but do not be tempted into make splits of hives with a mite problem. They will always remain dependent on your intervention.
You have a choice with your weaker colonies, help them survive with a method like powdered sugar (without making splits from them), or just let nature take its course and allow the colony to fail. If you only have a few hives, you’ll probably want to support the weaker colonies until you build up your beeyard with strong, naturally mite-resistant hives.