Mighty mites:

🕔Apr 06, 2007

“I’m going to test this one too, and if it’s got the mite I’m gonna do ’em in,” Lou Blackburn says with determination, surveying the beehives on her Smithers property.

Today is bittersweet for the dedicated 71-year-old, who is a ball of white bee-suit-clad energy as she buzzes around her hives, carefully inspecting each honeycombed frame and gingerly dropping them back into their wooden supers.

“It’s so sad—so sad. These little beggars have worked so hard for me,” she says, shaking her head.

It’s the first time Blackburn has visited her honeybees since learning they have the aptly named Varroa destructor mite and, as she lifts heavy, honey-laden supers and hauls them away for extraction, she is plagued with the decision of whether to continue with the hives or destroy them, for fear of infecting the rest of the valley.

Labelling honey “organic” can be sticky business, according to federal regulations put forth by the Organic Production Systems General Principles and Management Standards, which requires organic hives to use only organic wax, untreated wood, lead-free paints and assurance of no pesticide use within a three-kilometre radius.

But if ever there was an ideal place to produce honey without toxic treatments and pesticides, until recently at least it was the Bulkley Valley. Considered one of the last remaining mite-free pockets in all of North America, local beekeepers enjoyed raising brood without chemicals required to control pests and were sought-out from across the province to sell their mite-free bees.

Last summer, when Smithers Beekeeping Club president Claire DeJong suggested that the roughly 20 beekeepers in the group test for the mite, everyone thought it would be a formality. But the discovery of mite infestations in more than half the hives between Houston and Hazelton would change the face of local beekeeping forever.

“I’m against drugs, too,” Blackburn says flatly, dismissing the idea of using formic acid in spring and fall—outside honey production times—to control the mites. There are natural methods for controlling the mite, but they are said to be onerous and have limited results.

“If I get sick I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not going to take none of those drugs they’re tryin’ to shove at ya,” she says.

When the mite was first discovered in the United States in 1987, it had already taken hold in more than a dozen states. It appeared in Western Canada in the early 1990s and today Hawaii is the only place in North America considered mite-free.

The varroa mite reproduces by laying eggs in the bees’ brood cells which, even if the mature mites are destroyed, are capped with wax, making it impossible to kill the next lifecycle. The mites are small: about 1.5 mm long. They weaken the colony by slowing down reproduction, thereby decreasing productivity. If left untreated, mites will eventually destroy the colony.

Maintaining hives over the course of a summer requires about an hour each week, and having the mite doesn’t add much to that time commitment—save semi-annual hive treatments—or affect the honey, but it detracts from the organic nature of beekeeping.

“Organic is really tricky. If I want to call my honey organic, I have to know no one has sprayed anything (on crops in the area),” says Alec Deas as he meticulously presses new wax sheets into a frame.

A retired college instructor, Deas is as methodical about his beekeeping as Blackburn is fervent. He has set up nearly a half-dozen rookie beekeepers in the area with their own hives, selling two supers with frames and a small colony for $175, and enjoys sharing his knowledge as well as uncovering the hidden bee-lover within his pupils.

In an effort to keep his own operation of about 10 colonies safe from the mite, he hasn’t allowed anyone else’s equipment or bees onto his property, preferring to sell his own equipment along with the colony. But despite his best efforts Deas’s hives tested positive for the pesky parasite last summer.

Likely due to bee migration, within a few months’ time it had taken hold in most of the valley.

“If there are other apiaries around and the bees migrate, chances are the mite is going to become established,” DeJong says. “It’s just learning how to keep ahead of it. From what I understand, it’s more a matter of controlling the mite, because there’s no way to eliminate it.”

The local club plans to bring in beekeepers from other parts of the province whose bees have been infected with the Varroa destructor to discuss ways of dealing with the problem. What these northern beekeepers are learning is that the mite isn’t an insurmountable problem—other apiarists have been dealing with it for many years.

“We did work very hard to keep people from importing bees or equipment just so we could stay mite-free. I don’t know how they came to this area,” DeJong says. “It’s here now; there’s no point getting all worked up about where it came from.”

Over the winter, DeJong feared she had lost both her hives. Despite a negative mite test last summer, she wonders if she might already be infected.

In Deas’s case, honey production was up nearly 100 percent last summer for the second season in a row, despite the recent setback. He and his beekeeping partner, Allen Banner, have been experimenting with different treatments to see who gets the best result. Otherwise, they’ll carry on their operation like they always have.

For Blackburn, her love of bees overruled her aversion to chemicals. She treated her 13 remaining hives last fall and will again this spring in an effort to control the pests and continue her 35-year love affair with beekeeping.

Last season, her honey production was exactly where it should be. “I really couldn’t sit back and bellyache because I still got 100 pounds per hive,” she says. “The mite’s here and it’s here to stay, so deal with it.”