With varroa mite becoming an ever-increasing threat to bee health, we begin a new series of stories cataloguing beekeepers’ efforts to best manage the parasitic mite in their hives. First up, we check in with Gary Sinkinson, president of the Southern North Island Beekeeping Group (SNIBG) and owner operator of Gazzabee Honey’s 1000 hives in Wairarapa and Manawatu.
Managing varroa mite has become a pet topic for Sinkinson, both in his own business and also through advocating and educating better practises to fellow beekeepers through his role in SNIBG.
“I have been acting as a mentor for a lot of people because we have been experimenting a lot and have it pretty down pat now, in terms of keeping varroa out of our hives,” Sinkinson says.
He first started beekeeping in 2001, so has had plenty of time to develop Gazzabee Honey’s pest management plan.
“We are trying to stick to the registered products to find out what is going to work, in terms of timing and placement,” he explains.
With the potential for varroa counts to easily get out of hand, be it because of reinvasion, resistance or other, Gazzabee Honey now use five or six treatments a year. The calendar generally follows a pattern of amitraz (that being the active ingredient of Apivar and Apitraz) in autumn for a “really good knockdown”, then a thymol (such as in Api Life Var) in the hive all winter.
“It’s really good, but not as a front-line treatment. The thymol also helps reduce nosema,” Sinkinson explains.
Spring is then started with a formic acid treatment, in the shape of FormicPro.
“If you put that in just before major honey flow, when the bees are going to then concentrate on going out and foraging instead of robbing, then you get 100 percent knockdown, or close to it, and reinvasion shouldn’t be an issue at that time. I have tested it through and through and you never find a varroa in your hive after FormicPro. They will only come in on the back of bees robbing.”
From there, Sinkinson carries out regular mite monitoring through spring and summer and any apiaries that show a mite count above two mites per 250-300 bees immediately get treated with flumethrin (such as Bayvarol). Then it is back to amitraz in autumn.
He is a big advocate for using amitraz treatments in autumn, due to their superior knockdown, and flumethrin in spring, as opposed to vice-versa as many beekeepers practise.
“By using Apivar in Spring and Bayvarol in autumn, it doesn’t knock enough down in autumn to get them through the winter. You need to get rid of the varroa to make the bees healthy, big and strong and fat in autumn, ready for winter.
“You need to get your varroa treatments in well before your queen stops laying for winter. That way she can get at least a round of laying in that is undamaged bees.”
The formic treatments used in spring vary in size, depending on the size and strength of the colony and Sinkinson advises beekeepers test various treatment strengths and monitor results to determine what level of formic acid treatment is best for their situation.
Mite monitoring is a key part of the Gazzabee management plan, with Sinkinson advocating for alcohol washes. In his experience, sugar rolls only shake off around half of the mites that an alcohol wash will.
“You need to know what is in your hives, so mite monitoring is the first step to success. You can’t just guess, because you can’t see the bloody things.”
Too many beekeepers rely on visual inspection of a hive and uncapping drone brood to determine infestation levels, but that is just too unreliable Sinkinson believes.
“The way we are doing it now, we have done for the last four years, and that is monitoring regularly. I usually check eight hives out of 20 or 40 in an apiary.
“I do samples of 200-300 bees and if you have got three or four varroa over that many bees you will never see them in a hive, ever. Even if you have 20 per 300 bees, you will struggle to see them. It is not until they are running across frames and on backs of bees that you see them, and that is when they are 60, 80 or 100 mites per 300 bees. Really, really bad.”
Sinkinson is more than happy to share his tips for managing varroa and that advice, along with American foulbrood identification and best practice, has become a big part of the SNIBG’s twice yearly field days.
“We have been trying to educate beekeepers for years on this subject. So, if anyone wants to ring me and have a talk about managing varroa then they should,” Sinkinson says, adding, “I’m more than happy to.”
Gary Sinkinson can be contacted by ph: 06 323 0554 or firstname.lastname@example.org