Using Powdered Sugar to Test for Mites

Using Powdered Sugar to Test for Mites

Varroa mites (or varroa destructor) are an external parasite that attacks honey bees. This mite attaches itself to the bee and feeds off its blood (similar to a tick) and can cause weakness and deformities in the bee population. A significant mite infestation can cause an entire colony to weaken and die if not treated.

It’s pretty likely that there are mites in your hive. The questions are how many and to what extent are these mites affecting the colony? There are chemicals, of course, to treat these pests, but we don’t like to apply such things to our hives. Researchers are trying to breed ultra-hygenic bees (who consistently clean the mites off of themselves), but in the meantime, varroa continues to be something beekeepers have to contend with. Recently, a researcher at Michigan State University (Dr. Huang) authored a paper in ABJ suggesting that the mites are able to adapt their odor and basically make themselves smell like the bees. This might explain why the bees are unable to detect them on their own.

We’ve always kind of ignored the likelihood of mites in our hives, but our winter loss rate has forced us to consider every variable. This year we vowed to make some changes in terms of mite control. The first step is determining if we even have a significant mite infestation.  For our first attempt, we tried out one version of the powdered sugar test. There are two ways to do this: one way is to apply the sugar to the hive itself and the other method is to take a sampling of bees and perform the test in a mason jar (directions HERE). We decided to try method #1 first.

How this works is you sprinkle some powdered sugar into the hive (on brood frames only, try to avoid honey frames) and then put a cooking spray-coated piece of card stock on the bottom board underneath.  The powdered sugar does two things: it prevents the mites from attaching to the bees because they are too slippery and it causes the bees to groom themselves and inadvertently remove mites. These mites then fall to the bottom board where they stick to the cooking spray. We can then get an idea of how many mites are in the hive based on how many collect on the bottom board. I’ve read some websites where people were able to see evidence of mites within an hour. Some beekeepers use this as a treatment for mites, rather than simply a test, as it forces the bees to clean the mites off every time you treat.

To do this, we used a box with a screened bottom like a sifter, basically. We placed this on the box we wanted to treat….

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Then sprinkled the powdered sugar over…

WP_20150623_20_34_34_ProWe kind of shook the box back and forth (the way you would sift flour) and then broke up the larger pieces with a hive brush…

WP_20150623_20_35_38_ProWe then removed the screened box and brushed the powdered sugar into the hive…

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We then applied cooking spray to a piece of card stock…

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laid it on the bottom board and slid it back into place…

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I wish I could have gotten some better pictures. After doing this we had white, sugar-coated bees flying around. They looked like ghost bees! We imagined neighbors sitting on their decks watching the bees working their flowers and then – all of a sudden – thinking, “What the heck is this WHITE bee!?” (we have overactive imaginations)

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The result?? Well, pretty anticlimactic. We didn’t see much evidence of mites. This should make us happy, but instead it made us question the method. We’ll try it again in a few weeks and maybe try the mason jar method, just as a comparison.

HERE is a great overview from Scientific Beekeeping of this method and some results as to whether or not powdered sugar actually treats mites.

More reading material on this method HERE as well.

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Breeding Better Bees

Below is my latest post to the Kalamazoo Bee Club blog. It’s a rework of a topic I wrote about previously:

Breeding Better Bees

Of all the things potentially killing honeybees (pesticides, poor nutrition, colony collapse), disease is one of the areas where the individual beekeeper may have some impact. Most commonly, hives are plagued with varroa mites. Varroa mites are external parasites that attack both adult honeybees and brood. They attach and suck the blood of the bee. In cases of brood infestation, bees often hatch with deformities and/or weaknesses. Left untreated, mites can ultimately kill a colony.  I recently watched a video on youtube and the man said, “Are you in denial about your mite problem? Repeat after me: I HAVE A MITE PROBLEM.” If you aren’t sure if you have mites in your bee yard, you probably do.  I think they are more responsible for weakened colonies than we perhaps give them credit for.

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There are various treatments (both chemical-laden and natural) and many, many opinions about the treatment of varroa mites. Dr. Marla Spivak has been one of the more outspoken members of the beekeeping community who has suggested that constantly treating for mites is basically just propping up weak bees. She and her team have been working to breed mite-resistant bees since 1994. And, simply speaking, this sounds like the best solution (in my opinion), but also the most difficult. I’m encouraged by some of the work researchers are doing around the country, but as a backyard beekeeper, I need to help my colonies now. Improving the genetics of any living thing requires several generations as well as access and a bit of know-how.

This raises an interesting philosophical question about beekeeping, however. How long are we going to play the game of, what Meghan Milbrath calls, “annual beekeeping”? Every time we lose a colony in the winter and replace it with packages in the spring, we are not doing anything to help the honeybee species as a whole. Beekeepers need to start making purposeful queen selections, whenever possible. Again, easier said than done, I realize.  One idea to consider is to requeen your packages with local queens – survivor stock being ideal, of course.

Another possibility is getting in touch with some of the universities who are breeding hygienic bees and see if they have queens for sale. Case in point, I signed up to be a part of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative through Michigan State University and Northern Bee Network.  Last week I received an email from Dr. Meghan Milbrath explaining that Purdue University has been breeding what they call ankle-biter bees. These highly-hygienic bees actually bite the legs off the mites.  They are selling queens for $150 each, provided you are willing to make upwards of 100 queens to sell or give away, so as to introduce these new traits into the local population.  I find this kind of work fascinating.

There are many books, classes, and youtube videos about queen-rearing and many beekeepers who would probably be happy to show you their system (you can find many of these resources on this website, in fact). I think those of us committed to beekeeping for the long-haul need to stop propping up weak colonies and start breeding for strength. My piece of advice to you would be, don’t be afraid to fail. Do your research and give it a try. It’s time for backyard keepers to start contributing to the problem of bee deaths as well as the university researchers.

Certainly solving the varroa mite problem will not solve all of our beekeeping-woes, but it will certainly help the bees immensely if they are not fighting environmental obstacles, while also suffering from problems within the hive.

Here are some resources to check out:

Queen-Rearing Essentials by Larry Conner (a great book to get you started)

Backyard Queen Rearing with Larry Conner – an extremely thorough video about queen-rearing on a small scale.

New Direction for the Minnesota Hygienic Line of Bees – an overview of Marla Spivak’s work

An overview of Dr. Greg Hunt’s work with ankle-biter bees (includes a video of a lecture he gave about the bees and his process)

Northern Bee Network – a link to the NBN in case you are interested in contacting Meghan Milbrath for more information about the purchase of ankle-biter queens.

happy beekeeping

New (to me, at least): Ankle-Biting Honeybees

ankle biter

This year my husband and I signed up to participate in the Michigan Pollinator Initiative.  Basically, as a participant, you have the opportunity to participate in various research projects.  I just received an email from the organizer, Dr. Meghan Milbrath, with the opportunity to order Michigan x Ankle Biter breeder queen for $150 on the condition that you are willing to make at least 100 queens available for sale.  Their hope is that this project will result in the addition of genetic material that yields desired traits to flourish within the honeybee population.

So, what’s an Ankle Biter bee?

Dr. Greg Hunt, at Purdue University, is breeding what he’s called ankle-biters. Now, I’m going to attempt summarize what this means and you’ll be nice because I’m not a biologist 🙂

Dr. Hunt and his team have been breeding from queens who come from colonies with significant grooming behavior. Bees are natural cleaners, but the researchers were looking for queens whose colonies were more “aggressively” cleaning. Specifically, Hunt’s bees bit the legs off of varroa mites – a pest that is devastating the honeybee population. Once legless, the mites eventually die.  His bees also have some of the Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) trait, but I think the leg-biting is the exciting new element here.

As a review, varroa mites are present in most hives. They feed on bees and their larva. The result of this is bee death as they spread Deformed Wing Virus through the colony. Typically a colony can handle a small mite presence, but in more recent years, mite presence has grown to epic proportions. As a beekeeper, a big part of what you’re looking for when you inspect a hive, is the presence of varroa.

There are ways to treat varroa mites. There are, of course, harsh chemicals and also some natural treatments (spices, essential oils).  We have never treated in any way for mites because we’ve never noticed a huge impact, however, we’re now starting to wonder if some of our weaker colonies have been this way because of mite presence.

Anyway, if beekeepers are able to introduce the ankle-biter trait into honeybee colonies, this might mean the bees can begin to solve the problem themselves. This is interesting and also makes me curious if there will be a consequence of this behavior.  Will bees who eat the legs off of varroa be more aggressive? Will it change their hygiene in any other areas of the hive? Will the death of the varroa lead to the increase in a different, new pest?  All the reasons why I love science. Any one answer only opens the door to 100 new questions!

I’m not sure we’ll spend the money to obtain a queen. Committing to raising a 100 queens is no small task and we have never attempted queen-rearing at that level.  It’s definitely going to be a conversation for the dinner table, however!

Here’s Dr. Hunt’s presentation about the ankle-biter honeybee (it also includes information about the effect of pesticides on honeybees):

Neonicotinoids and their Effect on Honey Bees

Neonics and Bees

Last week Morgan Spurlock’s Inside Man was all about bees. He did a nice job of skimming a few really important issues in beekeeping and bee population. He visited with small and commercial keepers, gave an overview of Colony Collapse Disorder, showcased commercial pollination, investigated honey imports, and addressed pesticide use and its effect on honeybees. Last weekend I attended the Michigan Beekeepers Conference at Michigan State University and specifically a class about the effects of pesticides on honey bees.  The man, a professor at MSU, who presented did not seem completely convinced that resolving the pesticide issue alone would resolve the bee crisis. While I do agree that it will not solve the bee problem, I certainly feel that it would help it considerably.  Additionally, as a human who eats food, I’d prefer to eat fewer chemicals, so there is that food safety component as well. The pesticides we’re talking about here are neonicotinoids.  These are insecticides and, since bees are insects, they can and will kill bees. The question is, are they? Certainly if bees are on a plant being sprayed, they will be killed, but what about plants, like corn, soy, or sorghum, whose seeds are coated with it?

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These seeds might be pretty to look at, but according to Walter Pate (the MSU entomology professor who taught the class I was in) just one insecticide-coated corn kernel contains enough poison to kill 80,000 bees. That’s in a concentrated form, of course. And most large-scale farmers use machinery to plant seed, almost blasting it into the dirt. The concern in this case, is the dust. Dust produced while these chemically-coated seeds are being planted settles on nearby plants, flowers, and in puddles – all places bees land and feed. So bees are then carrying insecticide residue back to the hive with them. Can this kill a hive outright? Yes. Can exposure leave lasting issues? Affect the brood? The general workings of the hive? The queen’s ability to lay? We aren’t sure.  That’s a lot harder to study. The other issue affects both bees and humans. If we are planting insecticide-coated seeds, and that insecticide is present enough in the plant and fruit that it kills insects, then it is also clear that we are consuming insecticides on a daily basis. The amount of neonicotinoid residue found in a tomato, for example, is safe for human consumption, according to the EPA. However, there have not been adequate studies recording long term exposure. For example, it might be perfectly safe to eat a tomato, but what about the cucumber also on your salad? What about the ear of corn you have with dinner? Or the many, many food products that contain soybean oils? And do these residues accumulate in your body? These are details that have not been researched in any great extent. There is some evidence to suggest that the excretions of plants does contain chemicals and in such a quantity that it is deadly to pollinators. This paper, published in 2009 by several Italian entomologists, explains how insecticides like neonicotinoids can be transferred from a corn plant to a honey bee.

Guttation is a natural plant phenomenon causing the excretion of xylem fluid at leaf margins. Here, we show that leaf guttation drops of all the corn plants germinated from neonicotinoid-coated seeds contained amounts of insecticide constantly higher than 10 mg/l… The concentration of neonicotinoids in guttation drops can be near those of active ingredients commonly applied in field sprays for pest control, or even higher. When bees consume guttation drops, collected from plants grown from neonicotinoid-coated seeds, they encounter death within few minutes.

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So what can we do? There is a website called Driftwatch that is just gaining momentum and is being utilized by some states more than others.  This site allows farmers and beekeepers alike to enter their information. This way, farmers and keepers can coordinate and help protect the bees when seeds are being planted and/or fields being sprayed. As a beekeeper, if I know a farmer within a 2-5 mile radius is planting corn Tuesday and Wednesday, then Monday night (after all the bees are home for the evening), I’ll close the hive up. This could help keep bees safe from direct spray and initial run-off and early residues, but the other way to get the insecticides out of the plants, is to stop using them. Also, the EPA recently released a new labeling for neonicotinoids that details how harmful they are to honey bees along with directions for usage. There has not been any information about enforcement, however.  

**To learn more and to donate to our cause, visit our fundraising page HERE

Dysentery in the Hive

I was thinking of writing a post about all the things that can kill off a hive in the winter. Then, yesterday, my husband was able to get out and check the hives (it was 45 degrees!) and discovered that two of them have died. So this post is suddenly very timely.  One of the hives was our original hive and, by far, the strongest of the four. We lost a nuc early on, so now we are down to only one small hive and it seems to be struggling.

I’m actually quite sad about the loss of the main hive, and not just because it means we have to shell out more money for nucs in the spring. That was our first hive ever and one we’ve been working for two years.  The queen seemed strong, and the hive’s disposition was very gentle. We were happy to be splitting this one and hoping to pass on the hive’s disposition and general hardiness.

Here’s a nostalgic look at the day we brought that first nuc home. It was five frames that, over the course of two years, we turned into 3 hives and one nuc.  We also raise chickens for eggs and food and I have to admit I’m quite sad over the loss of these hives, whereas, the loss of a chicken feels kind of par for the course.

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Thus, I present to you (read in loud, booming voice): Things That Can Kill Your Hives – Dysentery Edition

We are fairly sure dysentery is what killed our two large hives, so I’ll start with this. Dysentery isn’t so much a disease, but a condition that develops. The short version is that bees need some warmish days (45 degrees or warmer) to leave the hive and defecate. If they can’t leave, they hold it in. You don’t need a biology degree to know that holding in your poo for too long is unhealthy. In fact, it’s a concept I’ve been discussing with my 4-year-old quite a bit lately. Bees can only hold about 30 to 40% of their body weight in fecal matter, so if the weather doesn’t cooperate, they are forced to defecate inside the hive.

When I look back at the weather for the month of January, I see two days only where the projected high was 40, but the low for the day was 32. There was also rain/snow mix these days, so not an ideal day to be flying. December was worse. I found one day with a projected high of 38. The worst part about all of this is that, as a beekeeper, there’s really nothing you can do. We kept the entrance clear so that the bees could get out if they were feeling brave and also so they could deposit any dead bees, but mostly we just had to wait.

On one of those mild January days, my husband was able to peek inside and the smell immediately clued him in as to what was going on. He said the inside of the hives looked like they had been splattered with mud (it was bee poo). So now you have a scenario where your bees’ immune systems are compromised from being sick, they are living in unsanitary conditions, and also the food supply is splattered with fecal matter. It’s pretty easy to see how this can cause the quality of the hive to deteriorate quickly.

Dysentery can also affect a hive if the bees eat old or fermenting honey, or if they eat a lot of honey that is darker in color (like buckwheat honey, for example). This type of honey contains harder to digest particles and too much of this can cause dysentery, but this is not a condition of our hives either.

I’m hoping to get some pictures of our hive and the aftermath of this incident up soon, so be sure to check back!

Some Additional Resources

Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers’ Association, “Bee Diseases and their Management”

HoneyBeeSuite.com, “A great day for honey bees: down with dysentery”