Sunday, September 14, 2008

Varroa Bee Mite

Here’s an inspiring sight from a hike last year: a non-native honeybee pollinating native ko'oko'olau flowers along Chain of Craters Road in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. Makes me ponder the roles of honeybees in our native ecosystems and how they will be impacted by the recent arrival of the varroa bee mite.

Until recently, Hawai'i and Australia were the last places in the world that were still free of the varroa mite, which feeds only on honeybees and destroys entire colonies. However, the varroa mite is now widespread on O'ahu, and last month the Hawai'i Department of Agriculture recorded the first sightings on Hawai'i Island. So far there’s been no detection on Maui, Kaua'i and Moloka'i.

A varroa mite is very tiny, only 1-1.5 mm, but magnified under a hand lens it sort of looks like some weird Pokeman character, a freaky, hairy, flattened reddish-brown jelly bean with legs. Small populations have been discovered on feral bees in the Hilo area in five locations, according to Clayton Nagata, plant quarantine inspector with the HDOA. At the Kino'ole Farmers Market this weekend, Nagata talked to the public about the HDOA’s efforts to control the spread of the varroa mite. They're using swarm traps made from pressed paper pots baited with beeswax and pheromone. So far there are 150 traps placed within a one-mile radius of where the mites were first found near the Hilo Airport.

Some locations where the varroa mite has appeared:

  • Near Hilo Airport, by Verna’s plate lunch stand and Hilo Seaside Hotel
  • Banyan Golf Course
  • Along Kamehameha Avenue, near Suisan
  • Near the Waiakea Fire Station, old refueling depot in Keaukaha

Only 8 to 12 individual varroa mites have appeared in each wild colony. If the Big Island becomes heavily infested it could be devastating for local beekeepers and fruit growers who depend on these important pollinators. A reduced bee population means local farmers and gardeners would see poor yields and low quality produce. In addition, the varroa mite is bad news for the local industry in Kona that raises millions of queen bees for export to agricultural ventures worldwide; the cost of buying honeybees to release in nurseries would most certainly increase. And what will be the impact on the cost of food?

If you are reading this and you are a honeybee, stay away from airports. The HDOA is trying to establish a honeybee-free zone around airports, and unfortunately, to find out if a hive is infested with the mite the HDOA has to kill the entire colony. The HDOA doesn’t know to what extent the varroa mite has spread on the Big Island.

There is a way to partially eliminate the mite from a commercial hive by using a sticky tape with a miticide; it touches the bees and kills the mites, but this doesn’t help our producers of organic honey.

If you see honeybees or beekeeping equipment being moved between islands, or on the slim chance you are one of the few sharp-eyed gardeners who like seeing bees up close and personal (certainly not me, I’m allergic) and you see what you think is a varroa mite, contact the HDOA at (808) 643-PEST (7378).

Learn more about the varroa mite from the HDOA website here and here. Download a HDOA PDF publication on the varroa mite here.

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