If you have ever been to Whitby on the North Yorkshire Coast, you will be familiar with its literary history as the beach-head of British vampirism. In the form of a black dog, the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s novel sprang ashore from the Russian schooner “Demeter” and mounted the 199 steps to the graveyard of the Church of St. Mary, perched below the ruins of Whitby Abbey. Cue a century of black cloaks, bat puppetry, fake fangs and heaving bosoms.
Indeed, from the melodramatic technicolor gore of 1960s Hammer Horror films to Hollywood’s mellow-dramatic, baby-faced mannequins in “Twilight“, vampires have never had it so good. Yet thanks to Buffy, we can sleep safe in our beds, secure in the knowledge that Dracula, vampirism and all that blood-sucking lark is just rollicking good fiction….. Or is it ?
On the science (Renfield’s syndrome; porphyria) and mythology (Vlad “The Impaler” Tsepesh; cult of the undead) of the vampiric condition, I defer to gothic master – and great friend – Sandy Crole. But I can reveal that, in the world of the honeybee, vampirical behaviour is epidemic. Meet the varroa mite…or varroa destructor, to give it its full, ghastly nomenclature.
And it is the female which is the more fiendish of this species. These oval vamps, the colour of dried blood, sink their fangs into the pale, defenceless larval bee. Consider if you will, a dinner-plate-sized succubus bolted with sharp claws to the middle of your back, sucking your life-blood. That is the human equivalent of what varroa-infected bees experience.
And not only does the varroa parasite gorge on haemolymph (the blood of the bees’ circulatory system), depleting the protein values of the residual fluid, but it also acts as portal for other diseases to enter the bees’ system. Weakened by the loss of vital nutrition and with its exoskelton breached, the bee is vulnerable to varroasis (spotty brood, disfigured and deformed wings) and is dramatically more likely to succumb to viral diseases such as Acute Paralysis Virus and Chronic Paralysis Virus.
Like vampires, varroa delight in the coffin-dark environment of the bee-hive, either living on the bee itself (called the “phoretic” phase, which is like the “hanging off your neck” phase) or in the brood cell (called the “reproductive” phase, which is “I thought that they only showed that sort of thing after the watershed” phase). Indeed, varroa mites can only reproduce in honeybee brood cells. So they have to bother honeybees that way that vampires importune virgins.
Let’s assume that varying levels of varroa exists in all bee-hives. The problem then arises that we need to diagnose the varroa “load”, before deciding on appropriate steps to combat it. The first thing to do is to place a varroa tray under the mesh floor of the beehive (a mesh floor alone is said to reduce varroa load by 14%, relative to a solid floor). This catches debris, including live and dead varroa mites, falling out of the hive. Morbid, maybe, but it’s a simple job to tot up the number of mites and note the number of days for which the tray was in place.
Step forward the Van Helsing of the varroa-world: the Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) varroa calculator website. Just load your varroa data into this black box and it will tell you the level of infestation and suggest a treatment strategy to deal with your Varroa Count. I am reliably informed by Dedva (Department for Dracula & Vampire Affairs) that this calculator is also a pretty good rough-reckoner for assessing the level of vampire infestation in your neck of the woods. Just substitute “Vampire” for “Varroa Mite” and hit “Calculate“.
By a spooky coincidence, one of my hives is called Abbey Hive. So I took two 3-day readings, which I averaged and entered into the varroa calculator:
Natural Mite Drop
1 Mites detected over 3 days
Drone Brood level: Low
Average Daily Mite Fall = 0.3 varroa mites
Estimated number of adult varroa mites in the colony = between 16 and 130
Treatment is recommended in about 4 to 7 months time
That’s the equivalent of a clean bill of health (thank goodness that the garlic, crucifixes and wooden stakes have staved off the vampires and my Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques have done the job on suppressing the varroa). Whatever else may happen, Abbey Hive is unlikely to be vampirically challenged until the honey harvest in August.
So I can relax for the time being (uh-oh, as any seasoned horror film aficionado or beekeeper knows, that’s almost invariably fatal!) and recommend that, if you do happen to be in Whitby – yes, the Abbey and its the Church of St. Mary are superb, but the Fish & Chips from the Magpie, eaten on the harbour wall, mobbed by greedy gulls, ain’t half bad, either !