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Monitoring mites with a sugar shake

It seems that every beekeeping group has its own way to monitor Varroa mites. I keep hearing variations on the sugar shake (or sugar roll), the alcohol wash, and the soap bath. But one thing remains constant: most hobby beekeepers don’t want to kill bees in order to count mites.

The powdered sugar shake does not kill bees. The sugar-coated honey bees are easily added back to the hive and the sugar consumed. Both the alcohol wash and the soap bath give a slightly more accurate count, but both kill the bees. Soap and alcohol give more accurate results for two reasons: they better separate the mites from the bees and they allow an actual count of the bees in the sample instead of an estimate.

However, it is my opinion that beekeepers are more likely to monitor if they don’t have to kill bees in the process. I also believe that the easier it is to do, the more likely it is to happen. Furthermore, I don’t think the last scintilla of accuracy makes much difference. Your decision to treat or not treat will probably be unaffected by the one or two mites you missed.

If you are uncomfortable with the difference, you can try this at home: Do a sugar shake and count the mites. Next, use alcohol on the same group of bees and count the extra mites. In most cases, you will find that the sugar shake dislodged at least 90% of the mites.

If you want, you can assume you are getting 90% of the mites with your sugar shake, and then you can adjust the estimate by  dividing your count by 90%. For example, if your sugar roll yielded 8 mites, then 0.9χ = 8, so χ = 8.8 mites. Let’s call it 9. But do I think this is a necessary step? No.

In the interest of simplicity I have distilled a number of sources that describe how to do a sugar shake and tried to make it as easy as possible.

Simple Instructions for a Sugar Shake Test (Sugar Roll)

Equipment Needed:

  • A mason jar with a marking at the 1/2-cup level. Some mason jars come with embossed measurements, or you can draw a line with a marker.
  • A mason jar ring fitted with a round disk of #8 hardware cloth. This lid must fit on your mason jar.
  • Confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar or icing sugar)
  • A spoon
  • A container for counting mites. It should be white or at least very light colored so the mites can be seen.
  • A bucket, bowl, feeder, Tupperware container, or something that you will shake your bees into.
  • A small amount of water

Prepare all this equipment in advance. If you use a 5-gallon bucket to catch the bees, you can put the rest of your equipment in there for transport. Once in the apiary, lay out your equipment.

Now, here are the steps:

  1. Remove 1 or 2 frames of bees from the brood nest. Ideally, these frames will contain open brood and nurse bees. Make sure the frames you shake do not include the queen.
  2. Shake the frames over your bucket. Don’t bang the frames, just shake.
  3. Take your bucket of bees, tap it so the bees collect on the bottom, and then pour them into your mason jar up to the 1/2-cup line. This will give you approximately 400* bees.
  4. Quickly screw on the modified lid.
  5. Pour the rest of the bees back in the hive.
  6. Spoon some confectioners sugar onto the mesh screen and work it through with your fingers.
  7. Shake the bees in the jar for about a minute to completely coat both bees and mites, using as much sugar as necessary.
  8. Invert the jar and shake it into your light-colored dish. Keep shaking until mites and sugar stop falling out.
  9. Add a small amount of water to your dish of mites. This dissolves the sugar and makes the mites easier to see.
  10. Count the mites.

This concludes the actual test. Next you will need to consult a chart in order to decide if you should treat for mites. Recommendations vary depending on the season and where you live. Also, recommendations may be given based on the number of mites per bee, in which case you will have to divide your mite count by the estimated number of bees in your sample.

None of the methods mentioned above—sugar, soap, or alcohol—count the mites under the brood caps, but most of the charts available take this into consideration. If you are uncertain, but sure to read the fine print.

Although this system is not perfect, it will give you a lot of information for a very small amount of effort. Give it a try and see how your mites are doing. One way or the other, you might be surprised.


*Estimates vary. According to Marla Spivak at the University of Minnesota, there are approximately 100 bees per fluid ounce.

Moisture quilts should be dry

Every now and again someone wants to know what happens when my moisture quilts become saturated. One beekeeper wrote, “I can’t believe you keep a soggy pillow over top your bees.”

The short answer is simple. I don’t.

Here’s the issue: if your moisture quilts are soggy, they are not made correctly. Moisture quilts are designed to regulate moisture, not store it. As I’ve said before, nothing improved my overwintering more dramatically that moisture quilts. My hives remain dry inside, the quilts are never wet, and the bees thrive. Since using them, I’ve routinely overwintered 80% to 100% of my hives.

Remember, moisture quilts are not a new concept. They have been in use for decades by Warré beekeepers with great success, and they are easily adapted to Langstroth hives.

Built correctly, moisture quilts never become saturated. Never. In fact, before I tried them for the first time, I was convinced I would have to replace the chips mid-winter. But I never have. I’ve used the same chips year after year.

Here are some important points:

Water vapor from the hive does not condense on the bottom of the moisture quilt—that’s not how they work. Warm water vapor from the bees’ respiration (water in the gaseous state) rises. Still in the gaseous state, the vapor finds its way through the wood chips, moving between and around the pieces as air does. At some point, the vapor reaches the cold under surface of the hive cover where it condenses. That condensation rains down and is collected on the TOP surface of the wood chips—the side away from your bees.

The wooden frame of the moisture quilt contains a number of ventilation ports which allow the wood chips to dry out and also provides a source of ventilation for your hive. At most, I have seen the top ¼-inch of the wood chips become damp (and I live in an extremely wet climate). I can’t actually see the moisture except for the fact that the wet chips are slightly darker than the dry ones.

But humidity varies from day to day. So while the dampness collects on the wood chips during certain combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind, it disappears during other combinations of temperature, humidity, and wind. Basically, the top layer collects and then releases moisture over the course of the winter—some days it is damp, some days it is bone dry. But you never have a “soggy pillow” in your hive. And since the water that does collect remains on the top surface of the quilt, your bees never touch a damp surface.

Another benefit of the chips above the bees is that they provide good ventilation. Since the air must find channels or pathways between the chips, it travels more slowly than if it had a straight shot from the entrance to the ventilation ports. In other words, you get good ventilation without creating a wind tunnel through your hive.

If you want even more insulation, you can make thicker quilts which will slow down air movement even more. The ventilation ports can be restricted to the top of the wood chip layer since that is where the moisture collects.

I keep a feeder rim beneath my quilts in case I want to feed hard candy or granulated sugar. This is easy to do, and since the feeder rim is below the quilt, enough moisture will collect on the feed to make it palatable for the bees, but the rest of the moisture will go up through the quilt and then be caught by it.

The moisture quilt is such a slick system and works so well that if I were selling them, I’d give a money-back guarantee. I have complete faith in them. That said, they have to be built properly. Simply put: if you’ve got soggy pillows, you’re not following directions.


Hourglass bees

These bees have white hourglasses stenciled on their thoraces. Public domain photo.

What looks like an hourglass-shaped paint splotch on the thorax of some bees is actually pollen. In the past I often saw these stripes—usually in yellow—and wondered what they were. The bees look like they squeezed through someone’s freshly painted woodenware.

But according to Rosanna Mattingly in her fascinating book, Honey-Maker, the design occurs when pollen-covered bees groom. The honey bee uses her two midlegs to clean pollen from her forelegs and the back of her thorax. However, there’s a place she can’t quite reach, right down the middle of her back.

She swipes each side of her thorax and the pollen is removed in an arc, much like the sweep of a wiper blade on a car. The hourglass design remains after she’s reached as far as she can on each side.