Mite Count Misadventures and Hive Inspection

Honey bees suffer terribly from varroa mites: parasites that feed off adult bee bodies and even invade their cocoon to feed on them.

There’s plenty of other pests and viruses and whatnot out there trying to get the bees, but the varroa mite is the first to pay attention to. It’s also almost guaranteed to be in your hive. That’s why they say you can’t eradicate it, you can only manage it: keep its numbers down.

That’s why beekeepers do mite counts. There are several methods for doing such a count, one of which is the powdered sugar roll. This one appealed to me most because (1) it gives a pretty reliable result, (2) it doesn’t kill the bees that you do the test on and (3) I had all the necessary tools and ingredients handy.

I found this powerpoint slideshow on the net. It made it seem pretty simple.  The first step is to find a frame with lots of worker bees on it: a frame with open (uncapped) brood. Then you shake the bees off this frame into a bucket, from which you can then scoop half a cup (about 300 bees) into a mason jar with a mesh screw cap. It’s best to collect workers from 3 frames. Through the mesh you push 2 teaspoons of powdered sugar. Then you shake the jar to coat the bees with the sugar, during which process whatever mites are there are dislodged from their bodies. Then you you shake the sugar and mites out onto a white sheet or bowl, and count the mites. You return the shaken but still living bees to the hive. Et voila.

Well, let me tell you, it wasn’t that simple!

The bees were hard to shake off the frame, and boy did they get MAD. The moment they hit the bucket, the whole hive rose up in anger. I forged ahead, bees swarming all around me. There were still bees on the frame, so I returned it to its place in the hive.  By the time I had done that – as quickly as I could – most bees had flown out of the bucket. I shook down those still in it, so they balled up at the bottom, but then scooping up half a cup wasn’t so easy either, and all in all I got less than 2/8 cup into my mason jar.

Then I thought, well, I’ve gone through this much trouble, and the hive is in turmoil anyway, and they anyway recommend collecting bees from more than 1 frame, let’s shake another frame. This was even more difficult. The bees were all over me. And opening the mason jar again to add the new scoop allowed bees already in it to get out. Altogether I had gathered only 3/8 cup, perhaps even less.

Calm was quickly returning to the hive, and I didn’t have the nerve to do it again, so I aborted the attempt. I released the captured bees and had no trouble closing up the hive again. And I didn’t get stung, which is miraculous I should say. I just prayed I hadn’t enervated the bees into “balling” the queen (a theory is that they get so protective of her that they hug her to death). And I hoped that all those bees that I shook all over the place onto the ground and into the grass would find their way back.

This happened yesterday morning and I felt really bad about it the whole day and throughout the night. I guess this was one to learn the hard way. Next time I attempt it, I hope to have an extra pair of hands helping me, preferably the hands of an experience beekeeper. In the meantime I will buy some sticky board and mite screen, to do easier counts.


I felt much better after I did a normal hive inspection  this morning. It was good to get right back on the horse, and to see that the bees bore me no grudge. A hive inspection calms me, as all my movements are slow and flowing, and it feels like a meditation. I am so concentrated on the bees, I forget everything else around me. I hope the pure wonder of it will not go away as I get more experienced.

And the bees are so docile. They were going about their business as if nothing had happened. The queen was alive and well, the patterns of brood, honey and pollen beautiful. Some of the caps on the brood (brood caps are yellow,  honey caps are white wax) had been broken open, which means the first new bees must have hatched, but I have yet to see a major jump in population. There were still two frames that were entirely empty of comb: I moved one of those closer to the where the activity is. Once they’ve drawn out 7-8 frames I can add the second brood box.

I also added 1/2 gallon of homemade syrup (1 part sugar, 1 part water by volume). What was not nice was scooping all the drowned bees out of the frame feeder. Note to self: add a small teaspoon to my hive kit.

As for the mites, I decided to start mite treatment anyway. I use a natural product called Apiguard, which is a thymol fumigator that will also help against tracheal mite and chalkbrood. Usually two treatments of Apiguard are used in the Fall, but my bee teacher uses one in the Spring and one in the Fall. I am following his advice.

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  1. Interesting. I didn’t know about mite counts. I think I would have done the same as you, abandoned the project and treated anyway! I’m glad to know about the Apiguard. I much prefer natural products and will have to remember this when we get our bees (hopefully next year.)

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