So I’ve mentioned doing a mite check for a while now and finally did my first one over the Thanksgiving weekend. It was an epic fail that might be better described as a series of what not to do. I had read about the method I had selected; I probably should have looked online for a YouTube demonstration of the technique prior to attempting it myself. Perhaps I will remember that the next time I attempt something. Knowing me, I will not.

Varroa destructor, Varroa mite, is a common parasite of the honeybee. I’m not going to post any pictures because I think they’re pretty icky looking. Wikipedia has a good close-up image though, if you’re curious. This particular mite is a vector of multiple viruses that are passed to infested honeybee colonies. Serious infestations can result in death of the colony unless beekeepers step in with a variety of tools to protect their bees. The mite is native to Asia and so European honeybees, the most common honeybee in North America, have not evolved with this parasite and do not have adequate defenses against it. Beekeepers breed queens from selected stock with genetics that are more resistant to the mite, mainly through increased cleaning behaviors that are more likely to remove the mites. Africanized colonies are also thought to be more resistant to this threat. From what I’ve read, the mite is found throughout the United States. There is a citizen science project, Mite-A-Thon, to track mite levels across North America, but it is dependent on voluntary participation so a high reported mite level could mean that mite levels in the area are higher than other areas, but it could also mean that there is a high level of participation in the area.

There are a few methods to determine the mite level in a colony: alcohol wash, sugar roll, and a sticky board. The sticky board is a passive method that requires a layer of some sticky substance on a board placed under the hive. After three days, one looks at the board and counts the number of mites. This is not the most accurate method to use because it depends on the mites falling off or being cleaned off the bees for them to then land on the sticky board to be counted. The other two methods count the mites actually found on the bees. The alcohol wash is likely the most accurate, but it also kills all the bees used in the sample since they are swirled in alcohol to remove the mites, and then the mites are counted in the alcohol. The sugar roll is a similar method where the bees survive since they are only swirled in powdered sugar and can survive this level of abuse. So that was my preferred choice. Both the alcohol and sugar methods require collection of a sample of approximately 300 bees from different frames in the hive. Ideally the sample is composed primarily of nurse bees from the brood combs as these are the youngest bees and most likely to have mites since the mites attach to baby bees in the brood cells and emerge with the newly hatched bees already attached to them. The video is a great demonstration of how not to collect bees.

Besides my troubles with collecting bees, I also missed a key step in the method. After coating them, I was supposed to let the bees sit for a couple minutes to give them time to heat up in response to the sugar, which then causes the mites to release from the bees. You’ll see in the video my other error.

So after all that, the answer is that I still do not know if I have a mite problem or not. It has been so cold lately that I haven’t felt like disturbing them again so I may wait until spring to try again. Plus, I need to find a finer mesh screen to use that keeps the bees safely inside. My hope is that I won’t have a large mite problem yet since the colony was so small to begin with and I started with a queen known to have more hygienic behavior who will pass that on to some of her offspring. This may be wishful thinking.

I’ll leave you with a photo of my favorite assistant doing what he does best: enjoying the sun. I love this guy more than words can ever begin to express. He’s snoozing next to me now as I type this, hogging the entire chaise lounge and leaving only a small section of the sofa for Marc and I to share.