Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?

Varroa mite on bee.   (Image credit: Piscisgate)

A friend (Thanks, Thomas!) sent a note this morning about a new mite treatment. It was developed at the University of Hohenheim, Apicultural State Institute, Stuttgart, Germany. Findings were published in Nature.  So, I am guessing that the science – as presented in the paper (Lithium chloride effectively kills the honey bee parasite Varroa destructor by a systemic mode of action), is probably solid.  Nature is offering the paper as “Open” which means that you can read it freely. So, take a look.

Lithium chloride powder: LiCl

The researchers may be on to something.  Rather than fumigating an entire hive to kill varroa, bees uptake lithium salts. Later, when the mites suck honey bee haemolymph, they get poisoned.  (The research paper calls varroa the “haemolymph-sucking ectoparasitic” mite.)  This treatment is a different approach to controlling mites.

There may be some advantages.  If we feed a miticide to bees via sugar syrup, the hive contamination might be reduced. (Except, of course, if the bees are allowed to actually store the syrup!)  And, of course, this could be another tool in the battle against nasty ectoparasites.

A big drawback may be worker bee mortality, which increases significantly at LiCl doses high enough to be effective against mites. We don’t know what will happen in actual hive conditions.  With long-term feeding of lithium chloride to bees, the researchers tell us:

“…different concentrations of LiCl were continuously fed until the last caged bee died to investigate response to long-term exposure. Here, the treatment significantly reduced the average lifespan of freshly hatched worker bees from 26 days in the untreated control cages to 23 and 22 days for 2 mM and 10 mM LiCl, respectively (n = 60 bees, P = 0.024, log-rank test; Supplementary Table S6). In bees that received the highest concentration of 25 mM LiCl the lifespan was significantly reduced to 19 days on average (Fig. 3a).”

With this in mind, overdosing might be easy, resulting in dead bees.  Beekeepers will have to learn to curb their sloppiness. (Always a big problem.)

Lithium chloride is harsh. It’s used in industrial chemistry. It’s toxic to mites, bees, and beekeepers:  “Acute poisoning in man reported after 4 doses of 2 g each of lithium chloride, causing weakness, prostration, vertigo, and tinnitus.”  [To repeat:  Beekeepers will have to learn to curb their sloppiness. (Always a big problem.)]

However, I can see this – or something similar – developing into an effective treatment.  Maybe someone could correct me, but I don’t think we have any current treatment that works from the inside of the bee out (like lithium chloride does) but instead, all miticides work within the bees’ exterior environment (the hive).

For me, the concept is interesting. On the other hand, I’d keep my distance from lithium chloride. And, effective and clever as this idea might be, you are feeding bees a poison which then poisons varroa.   Though lithium chloride may have a role to play as other miticides lose their efficacy,  it makes sense to wait. Over time, will repeated use of lithium chloride kill your bees? Will it contaminate your equipment?  Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet? I hope not.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a geophysicist who also does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and is based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has written two books, dozens of magazine and journal articles, and complements his first book, Bad Beekeeping, with a popular blog at www.badbeekeeping.com. Ron wrote his most recent book, The Mountain Mystery, for everyone who has looked at a mountain and wondered what miracles of nature set it upon the landscape. For more about Ron, including some cool pictures taken when he was a teenager, please check Ron's site: miksha.com.
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8 Responses to Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?

  1. Erik says:

    I’m not sure that powerful poisons are the answer. We’d prefer not to injure the beekeepers.

    By the way, and totally unrelated, do you listen to the podcast Pollination from Oregon State University? Recent topic is about beekeeping in Saskatchewan, and I thought of you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet? | Raising Honey Bees

  3. susan rudnicki says:

    A much more effective, sustainable and viable way is to only keep honey bee survivor stock that, through the concepts Darwin wrote about, develop resistance through selective pressure. Thousands of beeks in the Americas, and probably millions worldwide, are keeping these venerable bees—NOT treating with chemicals that foster pest resistance.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet? | Beginner Beekeeper

  5. We are sure the notion of toxifying bees against varroa while keeping the bees themselves healthy has occurred to many but we know of no one achieving it.
    For ourselves Samuel Ramsey’s work showing varroa feeding on fat bodies rather than hemolyph has us musing about polar bear liver, which contains sufficiently concentrated amounts of vitamin-A to be quite toxic to a consumer, and wondering if there is some such substance a bee could harmlessly concentrate in its fat body to the detriment and demise of hungry mites.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Thanks, interesting idea. We could kill polar bears for their livers and feed that to bees, maybe as a spring protein supplement. (I know that’s not what you wrote. I’m just reporting another interesting idea.) But I remain confused about what the mites are actually eating – the paper in Nature about LiCl calls Varroa d the “haemolymph-sucking ectoparasitic mite” but some folks are saying the mites eat lipids and fats.
      An interesting element from the study is that lithium chloride was a serendipitous discovery. The experimenters began with an RNAi method and realized that the curing chemical was the agent of action, reminding us to always, always run a control as similar to the test as possible.


  6. susan rudnicki says:

    Yeah, this came up on BeeSource last year,
    “Samuel Ramsey, a PhD student working with Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp at the University of Maryland, gave a presentation at the Maryland State Beekeepers’ Association meeting titled: “Varroa Mites: What are they Really Eating?” He also spoke at EAS this summer. While his research does not appear to be published yet, his persistence (with the help of undergrad students) in creating experiments to determine that varroa actually feed on the vitellogenin in bees’ fat bodies, not on the hemolymph, is impressive. His research clarifies why colonies with high mite counts crash in the fall and winter as the bees do not have the fat body reserves to overwinter (and explains why guanine deposits are found in hives that crash from mites).

    Not only was Sam’s research novel, but Sam was an engaging presenter, and I hope those on the list get the opportunity to hear him speak. Unfortunately, his research emphasizes what an efficient parasite the varroa mite is. We can only hope that Sam will build on this research to find a way to limit varroa reproduction.”

    and Randy Oliver has written some fascinating stuff about vitellogenin (fat bodies) stores


    Liked by 2 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      Wow! That really helps a lot! Thanks, Susan.
      I was hearing mixed messages so now I know where it’s coming from. We’d need to see his work published and replicated – enthusiastic self-expression is great if it’s a supplement and not a substitute for good science. This new finding explains a few things I was wondering about. Ramsey is likely right.


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