In its pure form, beekeeping is a joyful activity that can be peaceful and rewarding for beekeepers. Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as it used to be because of the confluence of diseases now threatening bee populations worldwide.
Hawaii‘’s geographic remoteness kept it isolated from the spread of new diseases for a long time. But in just the past few years, several new pathogens have arrived, with serious consequences for bees and beekeepers around the State.
The three main pests affecting Hawai‘i Island include: 1) Varroa mite, 2) Small Hive Beetle, and 3) Nosema cerenae, a parasitic fungus. These pathogens are not related by cause and effect, but their impact does seem to ‘pile up’ — such that their combined effect is more serious (and complicated) than each one individually.
Arguably the most dangerous of these pests is the Varroa mite, an ‘ecto-parasite’ that feeds on the blood of adult and developing bees (like a tick). While Varroa likes to feed on both worker (female) and drone (male) bees, it prefers the drones because of their larger size — allowing the mite to reproduce more quickly.
Like other pests, Varroa can spread quickly throughout a beehive because of honeybees’ social nature. Bees interact constantly: passing honey, nectar, and pollen back and forth, cleaning each other and honeycomb cells, and feeding brood (babies) and the queen. Controlling bee diseases, therefore, requires a deep understanding of bee behavior and colony life.
Varroa’s debilitating effect is not only in its ability to shorten bees’ lifespan, but also its potential to serve as a vector for viruses. Certain viruses have always existed in bees’ guts at a baseline level, but when those viruses get injected into the bees hemolymph (blood) by the mite, they multiply rapidly and kill the host bee. Since we cannot treat the viruses directly, many beekeepers have turned to focus on controlling Varroa.
Since Varroa reached Hawaii in 2009, island beekeepers have scrambled to save their bees. In this three-part blog series, we report on VIHC’s experience with Varroa, which began in 2007 with a grant from Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE).
Organic Varroa Management & Beekeeper Education in Hawai‘i project sponsored by:
This project was funded by a grant from the Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program.