Mite Keeping 101

For our June 1st meeting Morris Ostrofsky came to present “Mite Keeping 101.”

MorrisOstrofskyNow approaching his 47th year as a beekeeper, Morris, a retired biology instructor, says he learns something new every day about bees and beekeeping.

Since 2010 Morris has participated in the development and implementation of the Oregon Master Beekeeper program. He is both a mentor and an instructor. Morris is also an active member and past President of the Lane County Beekeepers Association.

In October 2013 Morris was awarded the Washington state Master Beekeeper certification. He is the first Oregonian to receive this certification and is among only a half a dozen who currently hold this title.

Morris is an occasional contributor to Bee Culture magazine; his last article, Glass Jar Beekeeping, appeared in the May 2012 issue. His newest article, Overcoming Barriers to Beekeeping: How to Continue Doing What You Love, appeared in the May and June 2015 issues of Bee Culture.

Morris’ passion for teaching and beekeeping becomes apparent when he shares his knowledge with others. An interest in genetics and queen rearing has led to a quest to breed locally adapted, treatment free bees using the Miller Method.

Afghanistan Delegation Visit

YOUR PUB in Action
Written by Linda Zahl & Dewey Caron

In August 2015, Portland Urban Beekeepers, PUB, received an unexpected invite. The World Affairs Council of Oregon asked us to host a delegation of visiting veterinarians and agrarians from Afghanistan. With enthusiasm, PUBs Board immediately formed a four person group to welcome the delegation and introduce them to Beekeeping. The group was comprised of Tim Wessels who is PUBs past president, Bill Catherall who is the current president, Linda Zahl who is PUBs board member for education and Dewey Caron who is a Professor Emeritus University of Delaware and a PUB honorary member due to his long-time service to the club. After a short email conversation we wholeheartedly agreed to host the Afghan delegation.

We sobered up quickly when we realized that we didnt know how to plan for this cross-cultural beekeeping visit. What would a delegation from Afghanistan be interested in? Do they know English? How much experience, if any, do they have with bees? Would they have allergies or suffer from “Honey Bee Anxiety” syndrome. In fact, we pondered if they would be interested in our Backyarder experiences at all. The World Affairs Council of Oregon was not able to answer any of the above. Luckily, one issue was easily solved. We all agreed that the allotted two hours would not be enough. Fortunately, the Council gave us a whole afternoon.

With a committee, a time frame, a vague idea of who the audience would be, and enthusiasm, we began to plan.

DSC00833Uniquely, PUB has its own dozen-colony apiary at Zenger Farm, an urban organization dedicated to the education of sustainable food systems. The club apiary, maintained by PUB board member Lauren Smith, is an excellent public face for our club. We concluded that we should take our visitors to the Zenger apiary. Then, since PUBs apiary is a non-chemical apiary, we decided to round out the event with a visit to Ruhl Bee Supply, a division of Brushy Mountain Bee Supply, in order to include beekeeping chemicals and view other beekeeping supplies. 

Ruhl graciously allowed us to borrow bee suits and gloves for our visitors. As far as the informational content, we decided to go by the seat of our pants. Open a hive, show how to make a hive inspection, and explain what is going on in the hive. After the opening lesson led by Dewey, with Bill acting as Vanna White showing everyone what Dewey was talking about, we agreed to invite the scientists to gather around any one of us they wanted. That way we could answer questions in small groups while doing hive inspections.DSC00837

Finally, the day arrived. Nothing is better than warm sunshine on a sweet smelling vegetable farm to show off ones apiary to perfection. Linda arrived first to make sure the apiary was ready and equipment was handy. Then, Dewey showed up and stood along Foster Avenue to help direct the delegations transport into the farm. Next, Portland being the bicycle city, Tim biked up in shorts with his helmet in hand. Bill arrived as did our visitors we were ready.

Our first surprise was the youthfulness of the nine person delegation. Most were in their 20s and early 30s. Linda surprised all by greeting them in, as she describes, her pre-school Persian. Immediately, the ice was broken as they all smiled and then began to laugh. Persian is a sister language to the national language of Afghanistan, Dari. Once Lindas Persian vocabulary was depleted, we learned that the majority of them spoke English passably well. In fact, it is always humbling to meet people from other countries who speak English while knowing that we Americans are overall so “language handicapped.” Their translators were hardly needed at all. Four PUB members, nine Afghani professionals, and two translators began beekeeping.

DSC00835After Dewey and Bills opening presentation, the fun began as each of us started opening hives in small groups. When Tim, in his biking shorts and T-shirt, found a Queen, everyone wanted to see her. Those with no beekeeping experience wanted to see the Queen because it was their first time seeing a queen, and those who had experience wanted to see her in order to see what race of bee she was. Throughout the afternoon, Tim amazed them by his calm demeanor while working with the honey bees in only biking clothes. The issue of swarming came up. How do we prevent it? The issue of feeding came up. What equipment do we feed with? The issue of Varroa mites came up. How do we treat them? Chemicals are expensive for the subsistence farmer so what non-chemical treatments are proven effective? The powdered sugar method was of interest since powdered sugar is inexpensive and readily available. Later, when Bill opened the Top Bar Hive, all wanted to talk to him and see the differences.DSC00858

Unexpectedly, the issue of smoker fuel came up. They wanted to know what material is best? Of course, we said all the things we use like pine cones and burlap. Soon we realized that we dont know what is available in their environment. We were stumped. Finally, the one delegation member who had extensive experience in Apis mellifera beekeeping said that he and his father used dried dung which burns with a lot of smoke and at a low temperature: perfect qualities for a beekeepers smoker. Further, the young professionals wanted to feel the weight of a healthy hive, to hold a frame correctly, to see brood and uncapped brood, and to identify honey and pollen stores, etc. Dewey was a great resource as he walked around the apiary answering questions.

DSC00842With keen interest, we learned about their Apis cerana beekeeping practices. Apis cerana is a good pollinator, is very Varroa resistant and AFB is not a serious disease (which is big problem there). However, Apis cerana does not supply much honey. As we talked we realized that the information was not just going one way- from us to them. But rather it was a two way exchange. We became equals sharing as friends do.

Two of the veterinarians who supervise womens backyard beekeeping programs along with other programs in their districts spent a lot of their time with Linda and Dewey. They explained that they have Italian bees. Each project participant gets a few Italian colonies, Langstroth hives, some equipment to go with beekeeping and are given some instruction. We discovered our visitors were not merely professional veterinarians and agronomists but function as a cross between government Ministers of Agriculture and as Agricultural Extension Agents. They have responsibility for both the regulation of farming and livestock (which includes beekeeping) and the dissemination of knowledge and skills throughout their district. Some of the visitors are also in charge of Rural Micro Finance. One of the men explained that he has responsibility for 35,000 people. He spoke of this with pride and with true and unabashed concern for each of his” people. This tour of American agricultural practices, of which Oregon was only one stop, was considered vitally important to him. “This visit,” he enthusiastically said, “will help me help my people.”

DSC00861The time came to leave PUBs apiary and we drove over to Ruhl Bee Supply, a subsidiary of Brushy Mountain Bee Supply. They were very helpful. Not only had they loaned us gloves and bee suits, but they allowed us to use the entire store as a classroom. Dewey and Bill took charge and explained the use of various beekeeping equipment. Also, Dewey covered the use of fungicides, antibiotics, and Varroa miticides. After the program ended, conversation continued.

As we said our good-byes, we felt good. Really good. The good feeling that comes from a warm, sunny afternoon with friends out on an urban farm smelling the ripe vegetables and fruits while doing what we like most—opening honey bee hives and listening to the sweet ladies buzz.

Photo gallery:

Treatment-free & The Beekeeping Spectrum

When new backyard hobby beekeepers are seeking out advice and learning how to keep bees, they are often confronted with various models of beekeeping. The 2 main schools of thought are either “natural” or “conventional.” Due to the usual practice of dosing chemicals into a hive, many hobbyists are turned off to the conventional method and instead seek to do things the “natural” way. Unfortunately, the “natural” way also has many sub-partitions. In fact, there’s a huge spectrum of methods and names outside the “conventional” way. Each having a subtle distinction that sets it apart from the others.


“Natural” – Since beekeeping involves putting bees in a man-made box, on the ground, with removable combs, there’s not much that’s really natural about it. But some people practice a mode of beekeeping where they just let the bees move into a hollow log. They basically provide habitat for the bees and don’t do any manipulations to the hive. This is as close to natural as you’re going to get, but it occupies a very narrow band of the spectrum.

“Organic” – This label is often used by many who intend for it to mean, “As nature made it.” It used to mean, “No pesticides.” But the name has lost meaning as “organic” pesticides have come to market and can be used in place of synthetic compounds. In other words, you can keep bees in a log, never touching them, or use naturally occurring, lab-purified chemicals in concentrations far higher than can actually be found in nature, and both can be called “organic.”

“IPM” – Integrated Pest Management. This covers a very wide range of practices, including pest control methods “to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.” (1)

“Treatment-free” – This is the principle in which no treatments are used. That is to say, nothing is introduced to the hive by the beekeeper with the intent to kill a pest or treat disease. Let the bees deal with it on their own. However, this doesn’t mean a treatment-free beekeeper does nothing. And this is different from “natural” for reasons I’ll get into in this article.

In order to fully understand what treatment-free beekeeping is all about, it’s important to understand the pros & cons of treating and not treating. There are benefits and risks to each.

Treatment: Pros –

Varroa Distructor
  1. Minimize losses
  2. Stop the spread of disease & pests

All beekeepers actually want to do this, but conventional beekeepers feel the best way to do this is with chemical intervention.

Treatment: Cons –

  1. Propping up weak genetics
  2. Treatment-resistant pests/disease
  3. Chemical contamination & synergistic affects with other chemicals (2)

Michael Bush goes into great detail about all the problems with medically treating bees and the reasons why this is a bad idea. But to sum up, it’s an unsustainable model. It supports weak bees and promotes stronger disease and pests. Also, many of the chemicals used in the hive can build up in the wax combs and/or magnify the toxicity of pesticides or fungicides used in agriculture that the bees are exposed to. (3)

Slightly off-topic sideline

Let’s take a quick diversion and cover the more popular treatment options and explore their problems from the perspective of a treatment-free beekeeper. Of course, they all promote bad genetics that rely on beekeeper intervention to survive, so we’ll just get that one out of the way.

Mechanical treatments:

  • Powder sugar dusting – Impractical with a large operation or for a beekeeper with a busy schedule.
  • Drone “trapping” or removal – Will this breed mites that seek out worker larvae?
  • Brood breaks – No major objection. It would be preferred that the bees do this themselves without assistance.
  • Screened bottom boards – Many don’t consider this a treatment, but some do. This has questionable effectiveness.

Chemical treatments:

  • Apiguard (25% thymol) – Lipophilic, meaning it builds up in the wax
  • ApiLife Var (74% thymol) – Lipophilic
  • ApiVar (amitraz) – Synthetic; strong synergistic effect with fungicides (3)
  • Apistan (fluvalinate) – Synthetic; mites are resistant to it now
  • Checkmite (coumaphos) – Synthetic; mites are resistant to it now
  • MiteAway Quick strips (MAQS) (formic acid) – no major objection aside from promoting bad genetics
  • HopGuard (hop beta acids) – shown to not be effective
  • Oxalic Acid – fumigation is hazardous; drip method is done in the winter and could freeze the bees in some regions
  • Mineral Oil fogging – causes fires
  • Essential Oils – inconsistent concentrations & formulations make kitchen chemistry difficult and hazardous to the bees

Back on topic

Treatment-free: Pros –

Making nucs
  1. Breed stronger bees

That’s really the ultimate goal. Instead of trying to help weak bees, the idea is to use natural selection to decrease losses over time with less beekeeper input. The key to treatment-free beekeeping is to artificially increase the natural reproductive process of the hives. This is what sets it apart from “natural” beekeeping. Instead of letting the survivors swarm and reproduce on their own, they are split or queens produced to make more offspring than they otherwise would have.

Treatment-free: Cons –

  1. High losses
  2. Spreading disease & pests

These are the criticisms often lobbed over at the treatment-free beekeepers. They are often told, “Your bees are just going to die,” or “You’re infecting our hives with your diseases.” Of course, treatment-free beekeepers fire back with something like, “Your inferior drones are mating with my queens,” and thus the battle rages on. But what can be done to deal with these arguably accurate claims?

Winter deadout

Dealing with loss

You’re going to lose hives. It’s inevitable. Of course, treating hives isn’t a guarantee of survival either, but at least doing something about it can make you feel like you tried. So if you aren’t going to apply treatments, then instead plan for the loss. Make more hives than you really want. Plan for about 50% loss, so double the number of hives you want before winter. If you want to have 2 hives in the spring then go into autumn with 4 or 5. Having more small hives is easier to manage than having a couple really big ones. If you luck out and more survived than you planned, then sell the extras. People in your area would love to have a strong hive that survived the winter.

Also, keep perspective on the whole thing. Losses can be hard if you are attached to them. But this is just nature’s way of removing the bad genetics from the area.

Dealing with disease & pests

So your hive gets over taken with Varroa mites, what do you do about it? Well, you can do nothing and just let them deal with it on their own. But there’s a great concern about pest transmission to other hives in the area. This is the main point of criticism with treatment-free beekeeping. It’s not so bad if your hive dies if the disease and pests are contained. But if you live in a densely populated area of beekeepers, the mites that got out of control in your hive might be spreading to the neighbors’ hives.

Can you isolate your apiary? If no other hives are within a 3-4 mile flight radius, you’re probably fine. In an urban area, this may not be possible.

So what can a treatment-free beekeeper do about this?

Treating the hives has a similar negative affect to the neighborhood by “infecting” it with bad genetics. Drones from the treated hives will spread their inferior genes. Is there a middle-ground that will satisfy both groups?

Mites on a sticky board

At the OSBA conference in Seaside, Oregon last November, Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, with the Bee Informed Partnership, gave a talk on “Management Practices that Work and Those that Don’t.” Unfortunately the content of his presentation doesn’t seem to be online, but in it he presented a plan that might be a good compromise that would settle the battle between those who treat and those who don’t.

  1. Take mite counts
  2. Treat the hives that have high mite loads
  3. Kill the queens in the treated hives and use the bees for something else

Wait a minute! But this requires treating, which goes against the treatment-free philosophy!

Right. But, the objections to treating are:

  1. It promotes bad genetics
  2. It contaminates the hive
  3. It breeds treatment-resistant mites

1) The queen is getting removed. Her genetic line ends. 2) If a suitable treatment is used that knocks the mites out without contaminating the hive, then no harm done. MiteAway Quick strips (MAQS), for example, may be a good option. It’s formic acid that evaporates away with no permanent residue and has shown to be quite effective at reducing mite loads. 3) If done infrequently or alternating with another type of treatment, there’s little risk to creating super mites.

Once the bees are relatively mite-free and the queen removed, these bees are available to be put to use in other ways, such as queen rearing or combining with a weak hive. Instead of just letting the colony slowly dwindle away and potentially infect your other colonies, the problem can be dealt with swiftly and the work force isn’t wasted.

If beekeepers that practice treatments can also follow the same practice of killing the queens with the high mite loads, then they too will be doing the neighborhood a favor of ridding the area of the weak genetics.

As a treatment-free beekeeper myself, I’m giving some considerable thought to this idea and keeping an open mind. I resisted it at first, but the more I think about it, the fewer objections I have. What do you think? If you are a treatment-free beekeeper, do you have any objections to this idea? Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think.

1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Principles
2. Drug Interactions Between In-hive Miticides and Fungicides in Honey Bees
3. Acaricide, Fungicide and Drug Interactions in Honey Bees

Other resources:
Michael Bush – The Practical Beekeeper
Kirk Webster – New/Old Beekeeping Discoveries
Dee LusbyOrganic Beekeepers
Les Crowder – For the Love of Bees
Laurie Herboldsheimer & Dean Stiglitz – Golden Rule Honey

Mite Counts

As Dr Dewey Caron mentioned at the meeting last night, June is a good time to get a baseline of your mite load. You may or may not be of the opinion to treat at this time. Or maybe you don’t want to treat at all, but knowing your mite counts and watching for the increase or decrease in the population may be important to you in other decisions you’ll be making. It’s also good information for diagnosing any problems you see or understanding the cause of death, should they not survive the winter.

In the following video, Dr Caron demonstrates 2 ways to get a good count: the sugar roll and the alcohol wash. Sticky boards might be easier and less intrusive, but they don’t give a mite count that can be used for comparative analysis throughout the year. Bee population changes during the season and this can affect the sticky board counts. The sugar roll and alcohol wash give you a more reliable percentage, or number of mites per 100 bees.

Record Keeping

Why? What? How?

Inspection SheetIt is often recommended to new beekeepers that they should keep inspection records. Upon learning this, some would-be-beekeepers set a goal to keep meticulous notes and journal entries. But once they start working with the hive and juggling everything that goes on during an inspection, plus dealing with the thousands of bees and the euphoria or panic that can bring, record keeping is often forgotten. Or, many beekeepers just don’t know what kind of records to keep. How detailed do these notes have to be and how do they get it recorded with a busy schedule? After a few months of not keeping records at all, they may even fall into the mindset that it just isn’t needed.

Let’s first tackle the why of record keeping.

When you have just one hive and you’re fairly new to beekeeping, it isn’t a very difficult task to remember everything that’s been going on with it. Unfortunately our memories can only recall that information for a finite period of time and then it is soon forgotten. Once you start accumulating more beehives, it becomes an even more difficult task to remember all the details. Or worse, you might get mixed up or confused about the various hives. Just ask my 3 children how good I am at keeping their names straight. So the reason we make notes is mainly to help us remember what we did and saw at each inspection.

These notes are important to helping us diagnose any problems we might see. They can be helpful when planning what to do next. Or when evaluating different methods or treatments, records become critical to understanding the effectiveness.

That brings us to wondering what we should be recording.

At the very minimum, the hive records should indicate the date of the inspection, the health and behavior of the bees, and any changes the beekeeper made to the hive. I recommend also going one step further and recording what needs to be done at the next inspection with a “to-do” date as necessary.

What kinds of “health and behavior” items should be recorded?

  • Signs of disease? Symptoms or diagnosis?
  • Brood health or laying pattern?
    • Any queen cells?
    • Eggs, larvae, capped brood?
  • Temperament? Calm, nervous, angry? (Usually the bees, but maybe the beekeeper, if appropriate.)

Optional, but recommended data to record:

  • Food stores – pollen/bee bread, nectar/honey
  • The weather – temperature, pressure, etc (software can automate this)
  • Hive equipment conditions

There are many actions a beekeeper would take during an inspection. Some of the most common would be:

  • Adding/removing boxes
  • Applying treatments or feedings
  • Switching out boxes or combs
  • Replacing the queen
  • Splitting hives
  • etc

But that’s a lot to record. How on earth do I do it?

This is really a personal preference and no one right way to do it. There are a few tools out there to help you, or you can create your own method. It can be as detailed or as simple as you want. Any effort is better than no effort. Here are some ideas.

Online tools or mobile apps

HT_exampleThese can simplify record keeping by prompting you with the things to record and organizing it in an easy to read way. It’s also nice to have the records available to you anywhere you are, whether at work or home. There are a couple popular tools.

Hive TracksBee Tight

Each of these have a simplified, limited free version, but otherwise require you to pay. This year PUB is getting a special offer to use the full version of Hive Tracks for a year for free as we help them test and improve the Groups feature of the software. If you would like to get a free year of Hive Tracks and help us test these new features, please email the PUB officers for details.

Notebook or Binder

If software is too complicated, or you don’t like the idea of getting propolis on your phone, you can just use a simple pen & paper. You can either create your own inspection check sheet or use one of the many that are available in books or online. This is even a good option with software if you can’t enter the inspection right away. (Hive Tracks inspection sheet)

Audio, Video, or Photos

Either a hand-held audio recorder or even a dictation app on your smartphone. Recording a quick sound-bite to send to someone else (a beekeeping partner perhaps) or to yourself for later recording is a great way to make some on-the-spot notes.

Taking photos or even video of the inspection can help in many ways. Digital photos would be time-stamped and can show things that are hard to put down on paper. Video can help us to see mistakes we might make as beekeepers and improve our technique.

From Gleanings in Bee Culture, Vol 46, Pg 408
From Gleanings in Bee Culture, Vol 46, Pg 408

Mark The Hive

Some people have even come up with clever codes or short-hand. You can attach cards or even dials on the hive for marking status. If you use a brick on the lid this can also be used to indicate the state the hive was in during the last inspection. The limitation of these methods is that they don’t indicate the date, but there are clever solutions to that. More importantly, it’s not a lasting record that can be referenced in the future. Part of beekeeping is learning year over year. Having records to review what happened the previous year (or years) can prepare us for the up-coming season. But this method can be good for quick notation or communication to other beekeepers who work the same apiary.

One very clever and simple hive marking technique used by Michael Palmer is using duct tape on the lid and writing on it, in his own short-hand, with a permanent marker.

Whatever method you use to keep track of your hives’ health and your interactions with them doesn’t really matter, as long as it works for you and is something you can keep up with. I recommend that beginners start with a check sheet of some kind. As you become familiar with filling it out, you’ll start getting into the habit of looking for the things on it. Once you become more comfortable with inspections and the check sheet, you can start scaling back and only record the things you find helpful and useful to get down on record. Eventually you’ll strike a balance that works well for you.

Other helpful tools:
Hive Tracks inspection sheet
“Honey Bee Calculator” Lifecycle Wheel