Save Lives, Monitor Your Hives!
The main goal of beekeepers is to keep their bees healthy and safe. Naturally, beekeepers are concerned with the health of humans who consume the bees’ honey and the environment as well. Consistent monitoring of hives is important for a variety of reasons, including to minimize the risk of spreading to neighboring colonies or even native bees, and measured, or reduced reliance on chemical inputs is important for the quality of the honey and to be kinder to the environment — more on that in another blog.
I’m Matthew Davies and welcome to my blog! Today I will be discussing the reasons that beekeepers and beekeepers in training should be monitoring their hives regularly. We’ll discuss monitoring candence, best practices and red flags to watch for.
In terms of red flags, if you are new to the world of beekeeping, you may not have heard of the primary disease that is plaguing the bee community. This disease is called Varroa destructor, or Varroa for short. This plague to the bees is just as bad as it sounds. Varroa destructor is an external parasitic mite that attacks and feeds off honeybees. While it is only a problem during the early Spring and Late Autumn, it is something that must be monitored year-round. The battle beekeepers are waging with Varroa is on two fronts. Not only are we are attempting to make better bees for future generations, we are also trying to stop the spread of disease through our hives and the hives of others.
Years ago, we were fighting this battle in many different ways. None of the options were perfect. The first involved not treating the hive and simply hoping that some of the bees would somehow turn out better as a result. The second was to treat extensively and for long periods of time (an approach that has its drawbacks as well). Both of these solutions are outdated. We now use monitoring as a means to an end. Below, you will find the steps you are going to need to take to make sure that your bee colony is healthy and safe.
How to Monitor
Accurate monitoring can only be achieved with a baseline of accurate calculation regarding the breadth of your infestation – in short, we need to calculate the number of mites and the potential mites per bee in a colony that may be impacted. For this, you will need to know the number of bees that are in your hive as well as the number of bugs. The process is lengthy, but it will provide us with accurate numbers.
To start, you are going to measure ½ cup of bees. This will give you approximately 300 bees. Following this, you are going to need to get rid of the mites. That can be accomplished in many ways. Applying powdered sugar, alcohol, or in some cases, windshield cleaner have all been reported strategies that can work for killing the mites and having them detach from the bees. Add the bees to a jar with a screened lid and then use the method of your choosing. The mites will fall through the screened lit and subsequently be counted. Take the number of mites you have and divide by 3. That will account for the 300 bees you have. This number is your percentage of infestation.
On a side note, if you are using anything but powdered sugar, you will likely end up killing your sample of bees; there are pros and cons to each method sited, but for the health of the bees it is recommended that you consider using sugar first. If this does not achieve the desired result, trying the other methods will and while losing a sample of bees is not optimal, it is much better than losing the entire colony to mites. They will be replaced during the next breeding cycle. Using the powdered sugar technique will save your bees but may give you a less accurate number of infestation. I leave the choice up to you.
On a final note, make sure that you wash your bees more than once. Sometimes when you are washing the bees, all the mites will not fall off. The second washing will confirm if you have counted all the mites. Continue to wash the bees until you are sure you have knocked all the mites off.
What to Do with the Number
Now that you have finished washing your bees and counting the mites, you need to know what to do with this number. There are several tables that you can consult, but I will give you the rule of thumb. If the infestation number is less than 1% of your hive, then you are doing fine. Should that number jump to over 2%, then you are going to want to take some extra steps. Infestations that climb above 2% means the mites are going to take over the colony eventually. That will lead to complete decimation of the colony, and you will need to start over.
When to Monitor
As a general rule, you are going to want to start as early in the season as possible. The reasons behind this are twofold. First, measuring the infestation early will allow you to get a baseline for the number of mites. Second, starting early will allow an appropriate amount of time for the queen to produce additional workers to your colony.
After you have completed your first washing, you will want to continue to do this once a month. As I said above, you are going to want to pay special attention to the counts during the early Spring and late Autumn when the risk is the highest.
Remember, the number one focus of beekeeping is to make sure your colony is healthy and safe. The worst mistake that beekeepers make is to start monitoring too late; finding this problem in its latter stages and your hive (and possibly all your hives) could be wiped out. Attacking this problem early will allow you to head off any spike in infestation before it becomes a real problem.
Another common mistake is assuming that once you have treated your bees, you are safe. Quite the contrary, this is the time when you need to make sure the treatment is working. If you don’t see a drop in the infestation percentage, you will need to treat the bees again. Be on your guard and don’t stop until you reach an acceptable infestation level.
Finally, make sure the information that you have is up to date. Working will old data can be hazardous to your bees. By far, the best site that I have found to keep up to date is https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/varroa/.
Beekeeping can be a rewarding experience. Make sure that you are adhering to the goal of beekeeping by monitoring your bees to keep them safe and healthy. Monitoring saves hives!