The following conversation was held via e-mail between Michael Rzeszutek of Operation Bee (http://www.operationbee.com) and the OACC (http://www.oacc.info). The discussion is posted here with the permission of both parties. We invite you to follow the conversation and welcome you to post additional information or questions that you may have on the subject of organic apiculture and the role of organic agriculture in maintaining pollinator populations.
I will do my best to answer your questions with the information that I have. I hope that this information will be of use to you and Operation Bee.
Organic apiculture in Canada is governed by the Canadian Organic Standards, which outlines the principles and practices of organic management. The standard, along with the accompanying Permitted Substances List, dictates what practices and substances can be used in organic production in Canada. As defined in the Standard, "Organic production is a holistic system designed to optimize the productivity and fitness of diverse communities within the agro-ecosystem, including soil organisms, plants, livestock and people. The principal goal of organic production is to develop enterprises that are sustainable and harmonious with the environment". Thus, organic agriculture strives to manage systems with minimal intervention and healthy practices that protect the environment and maintain diversity, and does not allow the use of synthetic substances, such as pesticides.
The Standard (see http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/ongc-cgsb/internet/bio-org/documents/032-0310-2008-eng.pdf
) has a section dedicated to organic apiculture (Section 7.1) outlining foraging, hive management, feeding and pest/disease management practices and strategies for organic production. Meanwhile, the Permitted Substances List (see Section 5.3, http://www.tpsgc-pwgsc.gc.ca/ongc-cgsb/internet/bio-org/documents/032-0310-2008-eng.pdf
) outlines substances that are permitted for use in organic production - if a substance does not appear on the list, its use is not permitted. Thorough record keeping and annual site inspections, overseen by a Certifying Body, ensure that these principles and practices are being followed and that only permitted substances are employed.
Now that you have an overview of how organic beekeeping is governed, we can address how the Varroa mite is managed in an organic system free of the synthetic chemicals often relied upon to control this pest in conventionally managed hives.
The first, and overarching, management strategy used by organic producers of all sorts is prevention. The aim is to reduce the incidence of pests and diseases, since organic producers do not have the extensive chemical toolbox available to them to control pests once an infestation has occurred. In the case of beekeeping, this can be accomplished through a number of means that are outlined in the Canadian Organic Standard: selecting or breeding for resistant queens and colonies that are less vulnerable to infection, reducing bee stress by ensuring that hives are placed in areas where proper and adequate food is available, and by ensuring hives are at the proper density, disinfecting tools and equipment, and regularly inspecting for pests and diseases. The use of screened bottoms on hives can allow adequate ventilation and can also cause any shed mites to drop from the hive.
If an infestation of Varroa mites should occur in spite of the beekeepers best preventative strategies, there are tools available to the organic producer. Given that routine hive inspections should be occurring, the infection should be detected quickly. First, the infested hive is to be isolated from other hives to reduce the spread of the pest. To address the mite infestation, the use of botanical compounds, formic acid and oxalic acid is allowed, however there may be some restrictive measures that must also be followed (see the Permitted Substances List). The destruction of male brood is also allowed when an infestation of mites occurs. And if these measures fail to bring the infestation under control, all efforts must be made to save the hive, including the removal of the hive from organic production.
While I cannot speak to the effectiveness of these strategies, as I have had limited interaction with organic beekeepers to date, there are a number of successful organic apiaries in Canada, suggesting that there are ways to raise bees organically and successfully in spite of this widespread and destructive pest. May I suggest that you could perhaps contact a few of these operations to allow you to get a better grasp on the success of these organic management strategies for limiting/managing Varroa mites?
Thank you for contacting the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada with these questions, I hope that the information outlined above has been helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any additional questions or comments, and best wishes for Operation Bee.
Joanna MacKenzie, M.Sc., P.Ag.
Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada
Nova Scotia Agricultural College
Truro, N.S. B2N 5E3
Phone: (902) 896-2249
Fax: (902) 896-7095
OACC website: http://www.oacc.info