Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on August 10, 1998. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Beekeepers Battle Devastating Mites
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi beekeepers continue a decade-long battle against mites that devastated hives nationwide in the late 1980s, and drove many owners out of business.
Dr. Clarence Collison, head of the entomology and plant pathology department at Mississippi State University and a bee specialist with MSU's Extension Service, said Mississippi produces about 2.25 million pounds of honey each year at a value of $1.2 million. The entire industry brings in an annual $2.1 million to $3.1 million from the combined sale of items such as honey, beeswax, queens and pollination services.
When tracheal mites came into the United States in 1984 and varroa mites in 1987, Mississippi, as well as the rest of the country, lost 40 to 50 percent of its hives.
"In a matter of months from their entering the country, these mites spread across the states," Collison said. "Initially, both had devastating impacts on the beekeeping industry."
Most beekeepers who did not treat for the mites lost all their colonies. Many hobbyist got out of the business, and economic pressures forced many commercial producers to close as well. Wild bee populations were almost completely destroyed.
"The people who treat for bee mites on a regular basis and understand the problem are the ones who are still surviving," Collison said.
Both mites feed on the bees' blood and if left unchecked, kill their hosts. Tracheal mites are microscopic parasites which live inside the bees' breathing tubes. Varroa mites attach to the bees' bodies and can be seen with the naked eye. Varroa mites attack both adults and young, while tracheal mites seek adult hosts.
Hubert Tubbs, owner of Tubbs Apiaries, Inc. in Webb, has been in the commercial bee business since 1985. With 3,500 bee colonies, he is the state's largest resident beekeeper.
"When the mites first arrived, the tracheal mite was new to us and was a serious problem," Tubbs said. "The first year we had the tracheal mite we lost 1,000 colonies."
On the recommendation of researchers, Tubbs placed patties of shortening, sugar and antibiotics in the hives. He said oil from the patties confuses the mites and disrupts their life cycle.
Collison said the only chemical registered for tracheal mite control is menthol crystals, which are allowed to vaporize in the hive. Bees inhale the fumes, killing the mites. Success of this treatment depends on factors such as temperature, exposure time and placement in the hive.
After the problem with tracheal mites was in hand, varroa mites struck.
"We thought the tracheal mite was real bad, but after a few months we realized that the varroa mite was twice as bad," Tubbs said.
Tubbs began treating his hives with Apistan Strips, plastic strips filled with a pesticide that bees brush against, killing the mites on their bodies. This treatment is not used when bees are producing honey. Tubbs caught the mite infestation by chance before it became a problem.
"We attacked the varroa mite before he had a chance to infest the hives to the point where we were going to lose them," Tubbs said.
While the treatment for varroa mites is currently effective, there have been reports of mite resistance to the pesticide, Collison said. Treatment is also expensive and the battle never ends.
Phyllis Turbeville has helped her husband, Don, raise bees as a hobby in Ocean Springs since 1986. The couple have two hives in their back yard in town, and 14 more in the country.
"We lost two hives this year from varroa mites. Just about every year that we've had bees, we've lost one or two hives to mites," Turbeville said. "Around 1993 we were wiped out by mites. We weren't prepared to handle the mites and had to start all over again."
As a preventative measure, the Turbevilles treat twice a year for varroa mites and yearly for tracheal mites. This year they have about 600 pounds of honey to sell. Their price is $6 per quart, slightly lower than the $6.50 per quart charged at a local farmer's market, Turbeville said.
The Turbevilles are one of about 800 hobbyist, 12 full-time commercial beekeepers and 30 to 40 part-time producers keeping 20,000 to 30,000 bee hives in the state, Collison said. In the winter, that number swells to 80,000 to 120,000 as bees from the Midwest are overwintered in the southern half of the state. Nationwide, there are about 2 million bee colonies, down from more than 4.3 million before the mite invasion.
As bee numbers dwindle, pollination concerns arise. Without managed and wild populations, bees are being trucked longer distances than ever before to pollinate crops. Coupled with this problem is falling honey prices.
"If we don't get the price of honey up, people will get out of the beekeeping business and plants in the United States will suffer for pollination," Tubbs said. He added that wholesale honey prices, once 90 cents per pound, are now down to 58 cents a pound.