Honey Bees in B.C. struggle to survive in the drought

Beekeepers or bee-losers?

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BY RIVER KERO

It might be a tiny parasite, but the Varroa destructor mite is an enormous problem for bees and their keepers — and now in more ways than one.

Varroa mites have long been a major cause for honeybee colony collapse. But one recent study shows they are now transmit a crippling pathogen: deformed wing virus or DWV.

According to the study, a new and dominant strain of the virus is now spreading, one which is more virulent and contagious. Symptoms of this new variant (DWV-B) of this seasonal virus include: twisted wings, bloated abdomens, smaller bodies and discolouration.

SFU researchers have been working on a chemical compound to kill the varroa mites without harming the honey bees.

As the team studies the compound to understand fully how it works before seeking federal approval, beekeepers must continue to use traditional methods to keep the scourge under control.

Misery of mites

Varroa mites are miniscule, only one millimeter long, but can propagate and easily devastate beehives. Steve Sandve of East Van Bees said it’s the “number one” problem beekeepers have to contend with.

“It’s a little tiny mite that’s pretty large when compared to the bee, like having a large backpack on your back,” said Sandve.

J Chandler of Jane’s Honeybees, based in South Surrey said beekeepers aren’t beekeepers anymore — they’re mite killers.

“The mites feed off of the bees and puncture holes in their exoskeleton when they’re feeding on the bees. The bees are [then] more susceptible to diseases, viruses, things like that.”

He concluded: “If you’re not doing that [killing mites], you’re not beekeeping anymore because you have no bees.”

Treatment to cure bug issues

Testing for the mites is possible, but tricky. Unless the hive is tested in the right spot at the right time, the cluster of mites might be missed.

But there are a number of tools beekeepers have at their disposal to combat them.

Sandve said he uses treatments that can be chemical or organic for his hives. Other times, he will confine the queen to stop her from laying so there’s no brood for the mites to infest.

Chandler said he uses pharmaceutical plastic strips that beekeepers can put into the hives that are impregnated with mite killer. The bees can walk across the strips, and the medication kills the mites.

“Sometimes they get resistant to the medication, so you’ve got to keep switching those up,” Chandler said.

Hobbyist beekeeper Greg Joiner of the Riley Park area in Vancouver has also battled the Varroa mite. But he is optimistic about bee evolution.

“They’re evolving this defence strategy,” he said. “It’s called hygienic behaviour. They’re attacking the mite, they’re figuring out ‘okay, we’ve got to take care of this ourselves.’”

VIDEO: Janne Potter and other experts talk about the challenges honeybees face.

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