While living in Western Massachusetts in 2012, I started a business called Golden Goddess Honey. The business entailed infusing honey with different herbs and spices. Dried plant material such as cardamon, cinnamon, lavender and star anise would be combined with raw honey. After a period of time, the honey would be strained off and the infused honey ready to bottle. However, not all of the honey would drip off the plant material and I would be left with a mat of honey and herbs. Coming from old yankee stock, ingrained with the mantra “waste not, want not” I could not bear to see the honey covered herbs go to waste. I began to place the “honey mats” on top of the beehives’ inner cover and let the bees take back what I had stolen from them. During this time, I was often checking the bottom boards for fallen varroa mites. I noticed that when I fed a hive the star anise honey mat, significantly more mites fell onto the bottom board compared to the other herb honey mats.
Delighted and curious, I started experimenting with feeding the bees sugar water made with star anise. Method of choice being a top feeder because I found it the easiest and least time consuming to apply. I found that compared with the other mite treatments I was using, for example products derived from thymol and oxalic acid, the star anise sugar water worked just as well and sometimes better at dropping mites. The bees naturally love the smell of star anise and are instantly attracted to it. This attraction can also be seen in the tradition of bee lining; a method of tracking bees back to their nest in the wild in which anise extract is used to bait the bees .
Alternately, I noticed that the bees would become agitated after the thymol or oxalic acid treatments and it seemed disruptive to the hive. I also disliked exposing myself to the toxicity of these treatments, especially the oxalic acid. Once while treating a hive for varroa mites with the vapor form of oxalic acid, the wind shifted and could have easily given me a really bad chemical burn. I got away with a little bit of a sore throat but after that, I decided I didn’t want to take the risk of poisoning myself anymore. Since then, I have only been treating my hives with star anise sugar water and have had excellent results. I have counted over 100 mites at a time fallen on bottom boards, after a 24 hour feeding period of 500g/hive of star anise sugar water. Plus, the added bonus of no toxic side effects and less money spent on commercial treatments.
After doing some research I have concluded that one reason star anise may work so well at treating varroa could be the presence of organic compounds called anethole and anisaldehyde. Anethole and anisaldehyde are the compounds that give licorice and anise it’s characteristic smell. In China and India star anise have been used traditionally to control insects such as cockroaches and a variety of mites for generations. Anethole and anisaldehyde has been shown to be effective against Tyrophagus putrescentiae (mold mite or cheese mite) at a better rate than DEET . Anisaldehyde seems to work synergistically with anethole in its level of toxicity to varroa creating a powerful miticide.
I have since moved to Cape Clear Island in Southwest Ireland to be with my partner Brennus. I continue to keep bees and treat them for varroa using star anise sugar syrup. The star anise syrup has been extremely effective at dropping varroa mites but the other half of its success is due to screened bottom boards with removable inserts for counting mites. Without screened bottom boards the mites would not be able to fall from the hive and therefore have the ability to stay in the hive and crawl back onto a bee. Screened bottom boards also allow the beekeeper to monitor how many mites have fallen in response to the treatment and assess varroa mite loads within a hive. Leaving screened bottom boards on all year continuously lets mites fall from the hive and provides beneficial ventilation.
I find that treatment timing has a significant impact on its effectiveness. Regularly treating hives going into winter when the queens stop laying and again in early spring when the queens resume laying strengthens the colony for the active summer months. If I see a mite on a bee in the summer during an inspection, I know that hive has high mite loads and I treat them. Treating after a swarm or a split is also an effective time to treat because the brood cycle has been interrupted, making the mites reproduction more vulnerable. To reduce the risk of robbing from other bees, feeding sugar syrup in the evening is ideal. I restrain from treating hives during honey flows because I don’t want to harvest honey from sugar water. However, if I did, it would be completely harmless and edible.
While star anise may not be the solution to all the problems surrounding varroa destructor it’s a great asset in the beekeepers tool box. Star anise has significant potential to do the beekeeping community and most importantly the honey bee, a lot of good and I hope to see more research about it in the future. It is appealing because it is a non-toxic, all natural and easily accessible treatment for many beekeepers. I encourage beekeepers to do some of their own experimenting and would be eager to hear about the results.
Happy beekeeping and I hope you have mitey results.
All the best,
June 20, 2020