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Bee health knowledge – about not falling into traps

In the past years, I’ve often thought that many problems would at least be smaller if people had more knowledge, more education. I don’t mean years at school. It’s more the capacity of critical thinking, of common sense that I miss. Or recognizing that things are a little bit more complex than the black or white thinking that’s so popular. This is true for bee health knowledge, too.
Last time, I discussed why it’s so important to make varroa treatments as recommended by scientists. There’s this supposed gap between theory and practice that makes some beekeepers fall into the trap of thinking they know better. Again – because it’s extremely important – theory and practice aren’t opposed to each other. They are complementary. Two sides of the same coin.

However, it’s also true that many scientists don’t explain their work well. Or simply don’t remember that not everybody knows what they know. Or simply do bad science. Yes, that exists. Scientists are humans, too. It’s difficult to distinguish it from good science if you don’t have the necessary knowledge. In addition, there’s also a lot of misinformation. There are people that take a certain piece of science out of context. And then paint it in black and white, add some whoo-whoo or some buzz words like “all natural!”, “100% safe”, or “scientists don’t want you to know this”. This is the reason why I insist so much on explaining complexity. I don’t do this to be the know-it-all or to show off. I do it because I don’t want you to fall into the traps that come along with bad science or misinformation.

Most important piece of bee health knowledge: 100% efficient or safe doesn’t exist

It’s easy to fall into these traps. Sometimes they come along in a trustable package. Like the actor in the lab coat in the toothpaste commercials. When it’s about bee health knowledge, usually, it’s less obvious. So, whenever you come across a “too good to be true” moment, think twice before you invest time or money. One of this “to good to be true” moments: a varroa treatment promising to kill 100% of the mites. Without any side effects. So, not only 100% efficient, but also 100% safe for the bees. If you come along something like this, do me a favour: Run! Or at least don’t buy it. With such a claim, the only 100% you can assume is that it’s a scam.

There’s no such thing as completely safe and efficient. I dare say there will never be. Every varroa treatment has its characteristics that influence the efficacy. For instance, oxalic acid is active only on the mites on the adult bees. Those in the brood cells stay happy and reproducing. Formic acid kills also the mites in the brood cells, but it’s most efficient with temperatures between 15-18°C. When it’s too hot, it can harm the brood and sometimes the queen. Thymol does better with higher temperatures, but sometimes needs a second treatment, especially with high infestations. With synthetic treatments, there’s the risk of resistance or residues in the honey. You see, there are always pros and cons. If you do it right, the pros are dominant over the cons.

It’s more important what stays in than what falls down

There’s another common misunderstanding when it comes to varroa treatments. Beekeepers sometimes tell me: “I use x (insert substance or product name…) to treat against varroa and it works!”. Sometimes it’s also a modification of the treatment, so a deviation from the recommended way to do it. They assume it works because they see many varroa mites falling on the bottom board after the treatments. Unfortunately, that’s a false sense of security. Because it’s not relevant how many mites fall down, but how many of them stay in the colony.

Let me give you an example. You treat a colony with substance A and see 600 mites fall on the bottom board within a few days. You do the work and count them. In another colony, you treat with substance B. Just to try it out. Here, you only see 1,000 mites falling down. Following your gut feeling, I’m sure you say that substance B is more efficient, right? But now remember that there’s no such thing as 100% efficacy. So, there are still mites in the colony. How many of them depends on the initial infestation of the colony.

Let’s assume that in both cases we have only 50 remaining mites in the colony. For substance A we have an efficacy of 92.3%, while substance B killed 95.2% of the mites. In this case, you’re right substance B is more efficient. However, now let’s assume that in the colony treated with substance B there are 100 remaining mites. Then the efficacy is only 90.9%. Which is still good, but lower than in the case of substance A.

How to measure efficacy and keep treatments safe

But how do you know how many mites are still in the colony after the treatment? Well, by another treatment. The so-called “critical treatment”. This isn’t something beekeepers are supposed to do. It’s part of the clinical studies that scientists do while studying the substance and pharmaceutical companies have to do for the registration of a product. In this case, it’s not enough to compare two colonies like in the example above. There are more colonies tested, also to see the variations between colonies. Because not every colony has the same infestation levels. Some are less active or have different environmental conditions. The amount of brood will be different from colony to colony, etc. All this could influence the success of a treatment.

Then, there’s the safety for the bee colony. Every treatment with an effect (i.e. killing varroa mites) will also have side effects. In the studies, scientists check what these are. How often they occur. If they have permanent impacts or if the colony recovers from it. Another question: How much do I need to get the most efficient and safest possible treatment? And what happens if a beekeeper accidentally uses the double dose? You see, there are many questions to be answered and this list is far from complete.

All this results in the recommendations you get on the label on how to use the product. This is also why you will never read a recipe for a DIY treatment on this blog (I had that request under my “how to oxalic acid” post). Because this is work that needs to be done respecting certain rules. A registered product gives you the result of it.

About transparency and bee health knowledge

Obviously this may be an issue for some. You have to trust that the pharmaceutical company did the work correctly. As I said before: There are products out there that make promises they definitely can’t keep. So, the 100% thing I already explained, is the most important red flag. But there are some others to look out for:

Red flag no. 1: There’s no clear declaration of the active substance. You need to know what you’re treating your colonies with. Active substance means something like “oxalic acid”, “amitraz”, or “thymol”. It’s not the product name, but the ingredient that kills the varroa mite. If the active substance is a company secret or “protected by a patent”: Don’t use it. Every medicine will indicate the active substance. Every single one (also those in your medicine cabinet).

Red flag no. 2: No instructions on how to use it. This is a big one, too. Scam products will claim to be “all natural” or similar things, suggesting that there’s no risk at all. Neither for the bees, nor for the hive products. Unfortunately, “natural” doesn’t mean harmless. You know that there are poisonous plants out there, don’t you? Well, they’re as natural as the edible ones. A trustworthy product will have indications on how to use it and what to do if there are side effects.

Red flag no. 3: No restrictions when to use it or how often. Varroa treatments are medicine. As every medicine, they are used as much as necessary and as little as possible. Any treatment claiming that you can use it whenever you want is a scam.

These are the minimum requirements for transparency every good varroa treatment will cover. You can check them even if you failed the science class in school. It’s part of the bee health knowledge you need to keep healthy and productive colonies.

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