A few weeks ago, my Saturday morning was devoted to learning how to check a bee colony for mite load. It's considered a given that a colony will have varroa mites - disgusting little things that suck their host's blood and can overtake a small or weak colony - and a certain level of mites is considered manageable.
Let's take a moment for a group shudder. I despise parasites like mites and ticks. When our dogs had fleas thanks to a bad boarding experience a few years back I went psycho on my house and disinfected, Boraxed and bleached for weeks. If I ever had bed bugs, I would just have to move and buy all new things. So how is it that this girl now inspects tiny bees for wee little mites? Life. Crazy.
Back to bees.
Don (bee mentor extraordinaire) started our day with a lesson on mite control. He is against the use of miticides, yet another reason we get along so well, as it leads your hives down the terrible pesticide cycle of working...not working as well...needing more poison...working again...well, not so much anymore...etc. The mites that survive the poison are the ones who show a resistance, and these ones are left to breed. Don wants to turn this cycle on itself and instead of breeding stronger mites, skip the poison and breed stronger bees. Darwin say wha???
Rather than using miticides, Don allows for a "survival of the fittest" situation within the bees. If a whole colony is lost to mite load, then it wasn't strong and he starts over. But, if a colony is able to survive with mites, and overcome mites, and shows a resistance to mites and an ability to thrive in their presence, then these bees are able to continue to live and flourish and reproduce. (In my own hives, the Great Grand Girls have a queen who was bred specifically to produce workers with an ability to detect and destroy larval mites in the hive - here's hoping! Colorado residents interested in such a queen should look into Highland Honey Bees.) Don also naturally disrupts the mites' breeding cycles by doing splits, but that is a lesson for another day.
If you aren't planning on using a miticide, then testing for mite load is more a practice in knowing what's happening in your hives and reaping the benefits of that age old axiom of knowledge being power. And, it's kind of grossly fun. We used the Powdered Sugar Test. If more than 10 mites are detected, a serious infestation is present.
First, gather all of your equipment. We used an old light colored dish tub, a makeshift plastic bee funnel (the black plastic thing in the picture), powdered sugar, a 1/2 C measuring cup, a TB measuring spoon, and a Mason jar with a wire mesh lid. And the smoker of course. These are post-Solstice agro bees and we are not crazy people...just odd bee people.
Then we went in to the hives to find a brood frame with a solid amount of bees, but NOT THE QUEEN! It is fairly important that the queen not be a part of this test. A few bees will be lost, and you don't want it to be that one. There are thousands of others to put to the task, so taking the time to ensure the queen isn't on your brood frame of choice is well worth it.
The next steps came really quickly, so line up your supplies and if you can, use a buddy. The bees get super pissed.
Shake the brood frame over the funnel (any long v-shaped piece of plastic or whatnot will suffice) so that a bunch of angry bees fall off. Quickly pour the funnel of bees into the wash tub. Gently scoop a 1/2 cup of bees, pour them into the Mason jar, and put on the lid.
Dump the remaining bees that are left in the washtub away from where you are working so that they find their way back to the hive without deciding to take a detour up your pant leg. Next, add a TB of powdered sugar to the top of your mason jar and gently force it through the screen and in with the bees.
Now, turn the jar on its side and gently roll the bees for the next two minutes. This part is interesting since the sugar makes the bees body temperatures rise (which in turn makes the mites fall off, which is why this works) and it looks like the jar is smoking. Watch the video below and sample a mini lesson from Don as well.
Next, shake the jar over the dish tub. It should fill with powdered sugar and dislodged mites. If this proves slow or annoying, you can do what we did and just pour the bees into the tub.
Time to look for the bloodsucking little assholes who are trying to eat your bees alive. It helps to have a magnifying glass on hand to separate the mites from random little specs of dust. In this pic, there is one mite right in the middle, and another on the bottom left.
Don was lucky this day. Of the 3 hives we checked, the highest mite count was 3. His girls seem to be doing quite well without the use of poisons, thankyouverymuch. So make whatever choice you will, but know that good results are possible with minimum interference.
Wondering what we did with the sugary bees after the test? Dumped them back on the top of the hive so that their sisters could lick them clean. Not a bad way to end this day at the fair.