Last week, two of my four families flew the hive. During the prior two weeks, two of them had been blown over by the wind, seems a freak hurricane or tornado blew down from the mountain and knocked them right off their stand. Antonio, our farm hand, donned the bee suit and put them back. I got to the farm last weekend and as soon as the sun came out, Ugo and I went to check on them. Two of the hives were empty! One completely sacked (when bees from other hives come and steal the honey), not a drop of honey, let alone a bee. The other was heavy with honey but I found just one bee —dead—with her tail poking out of a cell.
The feeling of failure was just short of overwhelming. I called my expert beekeeper friend and explained the situation. She said even if the hive falls over, the bees tend to stay inside, huddled in the middle until the sun comes out so the falling over probably wasn’t the reason they left. The reason is probably…varroa*. She suggested I bring a frame to the veterinary institute for analysis, which I did and the veterinarian called me this evening.
“You have a serious varroa infestation,” he told me in a sad tone. The vets at the Institute are like social workers for bees, doing everything for their welfare, and I’m the abusive parent. If I’d been him, I’d have yelled at me along the lines of “what’s wrong with you, you haven’t done any varroa treatments since 2009??!!! Do you have your head in the sand??? You don’t deserve to have bees.” But he was gentle and matter-of-fact with his advice, not once condescending or critical.
He noted that I follow organic practices and asked if I’m certified. No, I’m not. He suggested a double dose of Apistan, something that’s not permitted in organic practices because, although it doesn’t leave residuals in the honey and isn’t dangerous to man or the bees, it remains in the wax and is a threat to fish and water systems. Ugh… The problem now is while I’m not certified organic, I’ve always followed organic practices, both in my farming and beekeeping with the idea that one day when I produce enough to actual bring something to market, I’ll go through the certification process. If I manage to get the varroa under control and reach my goal of at least 10 hives by summer 2012, then I’d go through the organic certification but my wax would have Apistan residue. It will take me about three years to replace the treated wax, changing out three or four frames each year (each hive has 10 frames). If I don’t do the Apistan treatments, I might have zero hives.
The alternative to Apistan is oxalic acid, an organic acid that’s been successfully used against varroa for years but a recent law has temporarily outlawed it (this is Italy). Until the end of last year, beekeepers could request it from veterinarians and participate in a testing trial. Having so few hives, I didn’t bother requesting to participate (bad parent). I do have oxalic acid in my garage and the bee police have never come knocking at my door so, in theory, I could use it instead of Apistan.
I have a week to decide since I won’t be at the farm until March 12, in the meantime, my remaining bees are on their own.
*The Cliff Notes version of Varroa:
Varroa is the terrible and feared mite that enters into the cell with the larva and reproduces; when the bee is born, often she’s deformed. It also hops on the back of the bee, right wear the nape of the neck would be if bees had necks and pesters the bees. It also weakens the bees and is often accompanied by a viral infection, usually Nosema. This little bugger came to Europe from Indonesia in the 80’s and has been wreaking havoc ever since. In Indonesia, the native bees have genetically developed a defense and they pick the mites off each other much like monkeys delouse one another. In Europe, the bees have yet to develop this genetic defense.