Varroa mites: They're back! Or, rather, they never really went away. With all the spring focus on getting your bees installed and hives opened, preventing them from swarming, and supering up, it’s easy to lose track of the one critical thread that runs through all beekeeping: the need to control Varroa destructor mites. No matter what else you do perfectly, failure to start and maintain mite control methods will surely doom your hive. You can’t wish varroa mites away; you must develop a plan to deal with them. Explore these tips for how to create a mite control plan that adheres to your own beekeeping goals.

When to begin a varroa control program

Don’t wait until there’s a problem to begin thinking about mite control for your hives. Varroa mite control can start right away — even as soon as when you choose your beekeeping equipment. Some research has shown that small cell combs could be more effective for mite control as this type of foundation may help reduce mite reproduction. You can also begin your beekeeping journey by choosing mite-resistant honey bee varieties. The work continues after you’ve installed your bees, season after season, with regular mite counts and subsequent treatments as necessary. These tests and treatments are more successful when you plan ahead.

Create a plan for varroa mites

The first step in devising a successful mite-control strategy is to assess your mite count. There are three ways to do this: mite monitoring boards, sugar rolls, and alcohol washes. There are pros and cons for each mite count method, so choose which is best for you by researching each method before picking one.

Varroa mite monitoring timeline

If you haven’t already done so by June, it’s time to start your monitoring program for the year: weekly, if you choose to use a passive method like a monitoring board; monthly, if you use sugar rolls or alcohol washes. You may not need to treat for another month or more, but monitoring should begin right away — a single test won’t give you a full picture of the ever-changing pattern of mite build-up. It is that pattern and rate of increase that will determine when, and what, you do to knock mites down to safer levels again.

Know when to start mite treatment

In addition to knowing what your mite counts are, understand what mite level is considered safe. Generally, 2 to 3% mite infestation (wherein we use the equation %=Number of mites/100 adult bees) is the guideline for when to treat. Then, consider which treatments and methods you have at your disposal to prevent excessive mite levels or to stop a varroa mite infestation that's already in progress.

Being able to act quickly is key in mite control plans, and the best varroa mite treatment depends on the season. Do your research so you can choose a summer mite treatment method that’s approved for use when supers are on or understand the benefits of winter treatment using the vaporized oxalic acid method to keep mite populations low.

Varroa control tips for beginners

If you’re just starting out, don’t believe the sometimes-repeated notion that you don’t need to worry about mites in your first year. You do, and failure to implement mite control practices early enough is probably the number one cause of first-year beekeepers losing their hives before Christmas. Decide which testing method you want to use, then begin right away. What you eventually decide to do for mite treatments depends on those all-important mite test numbers — explore our sample Varroa management plans to inform your own testing and treatment schedule based on climate and location.

Continuing varroa control for experienced beekeepers

If you’ve been keeping bees for a year or more, you don’t need to be told that varroa mites are a threat. You may already know that from the bitter experience of losing colonies to them and the viruses they bring into a hive. Even if you’ve been successful at keeping your bees alive through effective treatment tactics, you know that what worked last year is just the starting point for refining your program from year-to-year. Continue monitoring your hives to get accurate mite count information, which allows flexibility when choosing which mite treatment to use, and when.

Whatever your level of experience, don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can’t do anything about mites, or that you don’t need to re-think your program every year. You can, and you must, because your bees can’t handle this threat on their own. It’s all up to you. For more advice from expert beekeepers, explore our Beekeeping Guide.