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Honey Bees: Pollinators In Peril

by Mike Brandolino

Beekeepers feeding their honey beesHoney bees are extremely important insects all over the world. These industrious creatures are among the most effective plant pollinating species on the planet. Farmers rely on these insects to pollinate many of their fruit and vegetable crops. Without the assistance of honeybees, many farms would fail to exist.

The agricultural industry is at risk because tracheal and varroa mites threaten the very existence of honeybees.

Honey bees and all other insects breathe through tiny holes called spiracles, which are located along the sides of their bodies The spiracles are the openings to small tubes call trachea. The honey bees’ bodies expand and contract to take in oxygen. Tracheal mites are extremely small and live inside the honey bees’ trachea. The mites block the breathing tubes, which makes it very difficult for the honeybees to breathe.

Varroa mites are external parasites that suck “blood”, actually hemolymph, from the honey bees. Insects do not have blood like humans. Hemolymph is a free-moving bodily fluid used to transport nutrients and wastes through the insects’ bodies. Hemolymph does not circulate through a circulatory system like human blood moves though arteries, veins, and capillaries to transport oxygen throughout our bodies.

Honey bees are attacked and threatened by these parasitic mite species on the inside and outside of their bodies. The bees do not have any defenses to protect themselves from these harmful invaders. Mites have very short life cycles and can produce many generations of offspring in just a few weeks.

Beehives are easy targets for the varroa and tracheal mites. Farm workers can unintentionally infest honey bee colonies and hives with these mites. The mites can hitch a ride on the workers or their clothes. When the workers attend to another hive, the mites can enter the clean hive and wreak havoc on the honey bees.

Farming technologies have little to offer in protecting the honey bees. There are few, if any, good methods to eradicate or at least control the parasitic mite populations in and on the bees and in the hives. Honeybees are extremely sensitive to insecticides and even very small doses can kill them.

The only known means of controlling tracheal mites is to use menthol. The menthol vapors have the ability to reduce tracheal mite population in the honey bee colonies and hives. Extreme caution must be used when treating the honey bee hives with menthol, which can injury the bees and contaminate the honey.

Varroa mites can be controlled with the miticide Apistan (fluvalinate). University of Kentucky Entomologist, Ric Bessin, recommends that this treatment is not to be used during “honey flow” (active nectar collection periods) or prior to honey collection for human consumption.

Farmers and beekeepers should always check with their local Agricultural Extension Service Agent for assistance and recommendations to control tracheal and varroa mite populations in their beehives.


“Bee Inspection”. State of New Jersey. Department of Agriculture.
Accessed 14 OCT 2011

Bessin, Ric.”Varroa Mites Infesting Honey Bee Colonies”. University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.
Accessed 13 OCT 2011

“Tracheal Mite”. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
Accessed 13 OCT 2011