Friday, November 20, 2015

What do conventional beekeeping and toilet cleaners have in common?

Walking through the supermarket, this label on a bottle of bathroom cleaner jumped out at me.

According to this label, the active ingredient thymol "Kills 99.99% of germs." Though it's unclear whether that number refers to % of germs total or % of germ strains, either way, that's a lot of sanitizing power. Also, it's amazing to me is how little thymol is needed to destroy 99.99% of these germs -- only a teeny fraction of a percent by volume in a 26 oz bottle that will get used over and over again.

But what does this have to do with beekeeping? Derived from thyme, thymol is the active ingredient in a few mite treatments. (Apiguard, Apilife Var, and Thymovar I believe.) Many beeks use it to knock down varroa mites because it's supposed to be less harmful/disruptive to the colony than other chemical treatments (e.g., fluvalinate & coumaphos).

From my perspective, though, here's where things get sticky. Bee colonies are superorganisms that rely on thousands of microbes, including bacteria, yeasts, and molds to maintain a healthy balance. Scientists, it seems, have only begun to uncover the tip of the iceberg regarding the role of microbes in honeybee colonies, but they do know that they're important. For instance, bees need various bacteria and yeasts to turn indigestible pollen into the nutritious beebread they feed to their young. Bacteria in the bees' guts allow digestion to occur. Bacteria help increase survivorship of larvae. Microbes prevent uncapped honey from spoiling. Certain bacteria and viruses are necessary to keep worse actors (think AFB, EFB, chalkbrood) in check. The list of benefits goes on.

Thymol, like the bathroom cleaner label clearly advertises, is an indiscriminate killer that doesn't limit its powers to varroa mites. It goes after a whole range of things. So while I like the idea of thymol in my toilet, I'm not so keen on it inside my hive. (BTW, did you know thymol is also used in Listerine -- which I also avoid -- and can cause honey to smell like Listerine?)

Now that fall is here and the bees are "in bed," you might feel like some winter reading. Here is a small list of articles on thymol and on beneficial microbes:


  1. Thanks for posting this. I know beeks who use essential oils (like thyme) in their water to "help" the bees, thinking that it's organic, so what harm could it be? When I took my beekeeping class before I started, one of the instructors told how she had planted thyme around her hives and that had solved her mite problem. I can see how that would have helped, but I now wonder if the bees are able to adjust for that in their hive. Would a swarm set up shop near a field of thyme if given the chance? The more we tinker with what goes on in the hive by introducing foreign substances, the more we doom our bees, IMHO. It's the same with the chemicals people use in their yards to kill bugs/weeds - that throws everything out of balance.

    1. I agree. Nature balances itself so beautifully without our help. Also, we try to reduce the beneficial parts of plants to a few single attributes, forgetting how complex they are and how all the parts work together to produce an effect that is greater than the sum of their individual parts. Just look at nutritional data. If it were to be believed, you'd think that carrots were a good source of Vit A/beta-carotene, but not much else. But in reality, it would probably take a whole page to list all the chemical compounds in a carrot.

      The anecdote about the instructor who set her bees up in a patch of thyme is really interesting and raises so many questions. In nature, it's doubtful that bees would set up in a patch of thyme given how they prefer to live high off the ground away from predators in trees. On the other hand, she must not be experiencing issues with brood, etc. that she would have gotten if she'd used concentrated thymol. So I wonder if the other components of thyme work synergistically to provide benefit rather than harm.

      Also, it's sort of curious because I always thought mites got a ride in on other bees. In other words, they don't crawl into the hive on their own. So what would be the mechanism that limits mites in her hives? How does it work? That would be an interesting study (except nobody would sponsor it because there's no money to be made.)

  2. Just found your blog (love it) and this is the first thing I read. May I add that another thing they have in common is that they both breed super parasites by killing the weakest 99% and ensuring that the next generation of parasites are offspring of the most vigorous 1%. They do this either unknowingly or they are just in denial.

    1. Great to hear that you enjoyed this post. Good point about breeding super parasites. The more I watch my bees, the more convinced I am that they can take care of themselves. Our interventions are not always as helpful as we like to think they are.


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