A dozen Canterbury beekeepers will be joining forces to counter the constant threat of varroa mite this season, by pooling data from mite-loading tests as part of a project that hopes to pave the way for a national programme. The Mite Monitor concept recently received $20,000 of funding, through AGMARDT, to launch a feasibility study. The goal? Proving that establishing a database and mapping programme for varroa infestation levels will add value to commercial beekeeping operations.

The Mite Monitor concept has the potential to provide beekeepers all over New Zealand with a "live" and "dynamic" view of mite levels reported in neighbouring areas to their apiaries. Before that can happen though, the team behind the concept will seek to prove its worth in Canterbury using a manual data system.

"I'm so excited. I have been banging on about this idea for two or three years," Ashburton queen-breeder Rae Butler said.

Butler has long been undertaking regular mite-loading tests as part of her breeding program for varroa tolerant bees, which carry the varroa sensitive hygiene trait.

Advertisement

"I would see inconsistencies with mite loading, which pointed to reinvasions. It was obviously something that was going on regionally," Butler explained.

The queen-breeder saw the value in gaining a better understanding of the prevalence of the destructive mite in not only her own hives, but also areas in which she kept bees. It was going to take cooperation among neighbouring beekeepers though, a process which can be hard to bring about.

However, Butler found an ally in Martin Laas, research apiarist for Mid Canterbury's largest beekeeping operation, Midlands Apiaries. Together they progressed the idea and mustered up support from fellow beekeepers in their area.

They also gained the attention of Gertje Petersen, scientist at FutureBees NZ, an industry-science research group. Together they successfully applied to AGMARDT under the FutureBees banner.

Alcohol-wash tests for mite-loading in hives will be carried out routinely by a group of Canterbury beekeepers as part of the recently funded Mite Monitor programme. Photo / Supplied
Alcohol-wash tests for mite-loading in hives will be carried out routinely by a group of Canterbury beekeepers as part of the recently funded Mite Monitor programme. Photo / Supplied

With a dozen beekeepers on board and $20,000 in funding on the way, Petersen will be employed to implement the Mite Monitor feasibility study this coming season.

Participating beekeepers will be required to undertake four coordinated rounds of alcohol-wash mite-loading tests, before and after spring varroa treatments and then before and after autumn treatments. Results will be recorded on a mites-per-100-bees basis, but only made available to all beekeepers in a "normalised" manner, such as a scoring system.

"We will keep GPS locations of every site and the idea is to produce a spread map after every testing period. At the end of the project year we should have four heat maps of varroa in the area," Petersen said.

This will give beekeepers a greater understanding of where reinfestation is most likely, allowing them to undertake appropriate prevention methods and more timely treatments.

Advertisement

By encouraging better mite-loading testing it will also help beekeepers determine the effectiveness of their current varroa management plan.

"We will use the information to form the basis of the bigger project to show how much value you can get out of not just monitoring mite loadings, but putting your data into context. That is the key part," Petersen said.

There are around a dozen participating beekeepers and companies who collective own anywhere from two to 6000 hives, with Midlands Apiaries and Taylor Pass Honey Company among those.

Having those large companies on board is important in proving the practicality of carrying out a statistically significant number of tests on a large amount of hives, while offering an acceptable return for the companies' investment of time and labour, Petersen said.

Butler, who has long had the Mite Monitor idea, but not the means to make it happen, understands that during the feasibility study they are going to have to work with their supporting beekeepers as best they can.

"Hopefully we can do this at a level that is affordable to the beekeeper, because for many there is not a lot of money around at the moment," she said.

Advertisement

"The project has a small budget, but we will use it to the best of our ability. The beekeepers will not be paid for providing data, but we will help them with monitoring."

Butler said she has always wanted to do industry good and hence her excitement at the potential of Mite Monitor.

"The more data you can collect, the more informed decisions you can make. Hopefully then we can see positive results and can make it a more nationwide thing."

- This article was first published in Apiarist's Advocate beekeeping eMagazine, subscribe for free at www.apiaristsadvocate.com.