beekeeping honeybees varroa mites

Ghostly Bees

Without a doubt, one of the worst things to happen to honeybees of late is the varroa mite. There are pages and pages of written studies on these parasites and I highly encourage anyone interested in the sport of beekeeping to read as much as they can on the matter. Suffice to say, they are bad and beekeepers are struggling to keep them under control.

What are Varroa?

Varroa mites, also known as Evil Incarnate, are essentially minuscule bee-ticks. Oval shaped, reddish-brown, and about a millimeter in diameter, they are similar to normal ticks in that they physically latch on to bees in the wild and hitch a ride back to the hive. Once inside, the female mite finds an open cell with larvae and hides out until the bees cap the cell. Once capped, the female lays eggs and then the babies hatch and suck the blood of the developing larvae. By the time the bee emerges, it is deformed and weakened and usually has a much shorter life span. Emerging along with the mutated bee is a handful more adult mites who then find new cells to infect. From there, the process repeats itself. Left unchecked, an infestation of varroa will weaken a hive to the point of death.

I have no idea why Mother Nature would create such suicidal parasites, but they exist and can lead to hive collapse if you, Keeper Extraordinaire, don’t treat for them. And you’ll have to because as the saying goes, it’s not if you’re hive will get mites, but when.

So what can we do to deal with them? Enter IPM.


As newly minted beekeepers, we were encouraged by the BANV experts to learn the ways of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  IPM is a layered offense against pests/mites/evil and keepers monitor and treat them in increasing levels of intensity as needed. You start with passive methods (like screened bottom boards), then move to “soft” methods for treatment (like powdered sugar, essential oils, etc) and eventually work up to hard chemicals (stuff that comes with bio warnings, hand grenades, etc).

When I’d first purchased my hive, I made sure to buy a screened bottom board. According to books and “sea stories” from other keepers, the screened bottom board was my first line of defense against the dreaded varroa. Even they cling to bees, a certain percentage get knocked off or cleaned off inside. The screened bottom board allows the mites to fall through and, since they can’t fly and require direct contact to latch on, they die. Good riddance, too.

Screened bottom boards also allow for mite counts. Most beekeeping supply companies sell bottom boards with removable plastic boards that catch whatever detritus falls through. A typical mite count is conducted over three days and it is important for a keeper to have thresholds for when/if to treat. In the Spring mites will likely be fewer, but by Fall, with the winter population on the rise, most hives will see an explosion of mites. Conducting monthly counts will keep your finger on the pulse of mite levels in the hive and, if things are looking like they are getting out of hand, gives you the tools do decide what your next course of action will be.

Discovering the Mites:

The first month of owning my hive, I was blissfully happy because the bees were foraging like mad-women and the mite count was zero. Everything changed the second month when I conducted my count and discovered 15 of the little twits on the mite board. They were small and hard to pick out among the fallen pollen, bee parts, and other junk that fell through the screen, but once seen, it was clear what they were. My hive had mites and it felt as if someone had stabbed me in the gut with a icicle. The honeymoon was over.

I monitored the mites over the next couple of months and thankfully the numbers stayed low. Even so, there was the knowledge that as the population boomed, so would the mites, so I made sure to keep an eye on things. Good thing I did, too, because during a brass-tacks inspection in late-July, I discovered a total of 81 mites over a 3-4 day drop. That went over my 20-mite-per-day threshold, so I decided it was time to treat.

Sugaring the Bees:

The first “soft” layer of treatment I chose was the infamous Powdered Sugar method. The theory behind this is that the bees hate the feeling of powdered sugar and will clean themselves like mad to get it off. In doing so, they knock off mites that are clinging to them. Unfortunately, it does nothing to treat the mites inside the larvae cells, so you have to hit them three more times, each a week apart, to ensure you get a full generation of girls (there’s a three week life cycle from egg to hatched bee). It’s a fairly safe method that doesn’t harm the bees and many keepers like this for the first layer of offense against the mites.

The GF, being the sport that she is, agreed to help me, so we made our trek to Costco, bought two HUGE bags of powdered sugar, and then headed to the apiary for treatment.

The process was relatively quick and easy. The GF and I smoked the girls to drive them inside, removed the honey super, and then spread the sugar all over the brood supers. We attempted to use a sifter and we’d also built a “spreader” from an empty can of oatmeal (complete with holes punched in the top), but in the end we found it was easier to just pull the top off and shake the sugar all over the bees. P recommends that we use about a cup of sugar per hive, but the GF and I hadn’t talked with her at that point and we may have used a few cups more than necessary. Once coated, we buttoned everything up and beat feat back to the house.

I learned two very important lessons from the treatment. First, bees haaaaaaate powdered sugar. My hive, which is normally very quiet and gentle, went bonkers the second we shook the stuff all over them. White, ghostly looking bees rolled around on the ground cleaning themselves while others zigzagged in the air trailing powdered sugar. I think I even heard a few make some disparaging comments about my mother. The sugaring was for their own good, so I let the comments go.

The second lesson is that ghostly bees are hilarious. There were thousands of these powdery insects flying around trailing sugar. If they weren’t so ticked, the GF and I may have hung around to watch. Instead, we beat feat and let the girls deal work out their issues alone.

And to think, we get to do the same thing again for three more weeks. . . .

beekeeping honeybees

Installation Day

I was an excited mess the two weeks before my bees were ready for pick-up. Having purchased a nucleus colony (aka nuc) from one of the BANV members, I was fairly certain they would be well maintained and cared for until handed over to me. Until that time, the GF and I busied ourselves with getting everything ready for their arrival. We built/painted the hive and assembling the frames (by the way, I recommend using a frame jig and nail gun. It speeds up construction). Then I cleared a space in the drain field at the family homestead, set the hive out, and planted several bee-friendly plants. After that, it was a long waiting period with a lot of reading and pacing.

About two weeks before they were ready to come home, the reality of what I’d done suddenly set in. No longer was my dabbling in beekeeping an interesting icebreaker at parties, but a no-kidding, actual event. There was more than one night where I stared at the ceiling wondering what in the world I’d gotten myself in to.

The call that the bees were ready for pick-up came on a warm Friday in mid-May. I was at work when our Education Guru phoned me, so I jumped in the truck and zipped out to her house. It was quite the eye-opener to arrive at her home and see several cardboard boxed sitting in her carport, all zooming with honeybees. Since I’d just come from the office, I was still in my business suit and realized that I had been so excited, I’d completely forgotten the keeper outfit at the house. The EG smiled as I stood frozen in her driveway and said not to worry; the bees were extremely gentle. Her words fell on deaf ears because it suddenly dawned on me that there was no going back. These bees were going home with me with or without a keeper suit.

The EG sealed the girls up and then handed over the cardboard box. It was about four times the size of a shoebox and you could hear all 15,000 some-odd girls buzzing inside. There was a ventilation screen on both ends and it was fascinating to watch their proboscis (tongues) sticking out, feeling around for food and water. We loaded them into the back of the truck and then Pat told me to drive straight home and put them in a cool place. It was warm outside and with the box sealed, there was the threat of them overheating. The best thing to do, she said, was to put them in a cool, dry place as soon as possible.

The drive home was slow for fear of disturbing the girls, but eventually all 15,001 of us made it without incident. I left them in the truck bed, but kept the truck in the garage (which was easily 15 degrees cooler than outside), and went in to change. P and the GF arrived shortly behind us and we collected all our gear/tools while the girls cooled down. P sprayed some water on the vents and then we loaded the ladies into the wheelbarrow suited up. Once set, we all headed to the apiary.

Funny anecdote: the tape on the bottom of the nuc came loose so when we started moving the wheelbarrow, the box got bent just enough to allow a couple bees to escape. We closed/taped the hole immediately, but had a few followers the whole way. What’s interesting is that after a few laps of the three keepers, all of them landed on the nuc and held on for dear life. Must have been the queen pheromone. Or the raw terror of realizing who their new keeper was.

The Actual Installation was. . . . .

. . . . pretty easy. Having helped P install packaged bees, the nuc truly was a walk in the park. Once we got to the hive, we popped the top off and removed all the frames out of the bottom super. Then we removed the top of the nuc and slowly extracted each of the five frames, installing them one at a time in the empty super. I’ll admit to being tentative and slow, more out of fear than anything, but between the three of us, we got all frames into the hive quickly. Then we added three more frames (8-frame gear) and buttoned everything up. Start to finish, it took us maybe 30 minutes which included some whimpering on my part.

Soon after the installation, the air in front of the hive was swarming with bees. P claims this was due to orientation flights and it was an impressive sight to see. By evening things had settled down, but for a while there, things were pretty active.

A good lesson learned from this experience is that for a new beekeeper, nucs are a very good way to go. Packages are fun to install and usually a little cheaper, but for the money I think a nuc is easier to install and a lot safer for someone ignorant of the sport. Packages can run the risk of not accepting a queen and there are debates about the speed it takes for them to build up foundation and populations, so starting off it can be a lot for a newbie. That’s not to say it isn’t worth it and those that choose packages can certainly be successful, but nucs are basically ready to go. That being said, below is a bulleted pro/con for each and you can decide which you prefer.

Summary: Packages vs Nucs for a new beekeeper

Packages Pros:
– Usually less expensive.
– Very fun to install. You get to spray and shake bees as well as see up close what the queen looks like (markings and all).
– Can be mailed through the postal office. I’m not sure how the workers feel about a shoebox full of buzzing bees sitting in their offices, but some companies will mail them.
– Very educational. Proof positive how gentle “installed” bees can be.
– Considered by some to be a “rights of passages” for a new beekeeper.
– Normally inspected for health. A reputable dealer will do this, but just make sure to ask.

Packages Cons:
– Bees sometimes do not accept the queen. This is often because the queen and bees are from different hives, so it takes a while for them to accept her as “mom”.
– Can take a while for the bees to adjust to the new home. This includes drawing foundation and building brood which can slow production down initially. Queen is not laying yet.
– Packages tend to come from southern states because they get a jump on warm weather. This can be an issue for cold weather states since they are not adapted to the temperatures. Some experts encourage buying local bees and there are companies/individuals all over the place, but as mentioned above, make sure they are inspected by the state for health. (Disclaimer: warm-state bees can be just as successful as local ones. I only mention this as a con since there are debates about cold vs warm weather and honeybee adaptability).

Nuc Pros:
– Bees are ready to go. You usually get 5 frames of them with a laying queen they have accepted. It’s basically a mini hive with drawn comb and bees ready to forage.
– Extremely easy to install.
– Inspected for health. The box should have a sticker from the state.
– Great for a new beekeeper (my opinion).

Nuc Cons:
– Usually have to buy and pick up locally. Beekeepers are all over the place, but finding one that sells nucs made be difficult depending on where you are.
– Run the risk of killing the queen if you’re sloppy (i.e. slamming a frame, etc). This can happen with packages, but I note it since it is a con.
– Risk of unhealthy/infected bees. Again, ensure your wrangler is inspected by the state.
– Tend to be more expensive.
– Tend to be in high demand and limited supply. If you want to go this route, let your seller know early.

In the end, the choice is personal and both can be very effective/successful. The best thing you can do is educate yourself and decide which fits you best. But no matter what, either one is very enjoyable.