Struggles for the survival of honey bees


SB is a relatively new and dedicated beekeeper in southern Germany. She is interested in different kinds of bees and their place in the ecological system. I asked her to tell her story and her struggles helping her bees to survive and thrive on their own as much as possible without chemicals. She writes:

After watching wild bees for some years I wanted to have honeybees and took lessons given by an organic beekeeper. In the year 2014 I bought my first colony from him. It was a Carnica cross on natural comb, built by the bees without the help of wax foundation. They had been treated with oxalic and formic acid against the varroa. But they were sick anyway!

S Natural comb My first colony was a Carnica (Carniolan) colony on natural comb.

I tried to find a way out of this chemical strategy that seemingly didn’t help. I got some information on internet and started watching how bees defend themselves against illnesses. I don’t want to have them close to other bees. I tried to help them with sugar powder dusting to rid them of the mites sitting on bees. After treatment with formic acid in summer, they had a natural downfall of 30 mites per day. After sugaring the whole hive ten times with 2 days in between the natural downfall of mites were 5 per day. This involved a lot of work and still didn’t do the job. The bees had chalk brood too!

I measured cell size on their natural comb. It was 5.0 mm in the brood area, 5.4 in food area and drone cells began at 5.6. All honey was taken when harvested, so they lived on sugar syrup for a long time of the year. They died in february 2015, not having enough bees to warm the hive!

S AMM queen The AMM queen

I had found some contacts through internet and was able to get 4 hives in 2015 which weren`t treated with chemicals for some years. One was of the dark bee Apis mellifera mellifera (AMM) , three were Carnica (Carniolans). I made some splits and wintered 3 of the AMM origin and 5 of the Carnica origin.

The former owner had a crisis being the victim of a migratory beekeeper whose hives most probably caused reinfestation bringing a lot of mites into his hives. He overcame this crisis combining the weakest of his hives, so they became strong enough to defend themselves. Some survived. In some of these he introduced a AMM variety of queens that had a reputation of being more resistant.

My aim was to follow Dee Lusby`s in Arizona way of beekeeping as much as possible ( Using small cell foundation, leaving with the bees enough honey for food, using so called housel position of the combs, what she calls unlimited broodnest and using no treatment (if possible).

S Carnicas Now I have 11 colonies and high hopes.

All 8 hives survived winter, but in spring 2016 I had to eliminate one of them because its bees were too susceptible to virus (another than DWV). I have made some splits and have now in May 11 hives and high hopes. The bees are my teachers. I want them to survive.

S hygienic The AMM I have are showing hygienic behaviour against mites in the brood. Now I have seen it also in my Carniolan crossings (the picture).

I don’t do drone brood cutting as I want the mite to continue being a drone parasite in first place and not a worker bee parasite. I’m happy to see more and more of hygienic behavior against the mite, also in drone brood. Now also in the Carniolan crossings.

At last I want to quote Kirk Webster (

“Beekeeping now has the dubious honor of becoming the first part of our system of industrial agriculture to actually fall apart. Let’s stop pretending that something else is going on. We no longer have enough bees to pollinate our crops. Each time the bees go through a downturn, we respond by making things more stressful for them, rather than less – we move them around more often, expose them to still more toxic substances, or fill the equipment up again with more untested and poorly adapted stock. We blame the weather, the mites, the markets, new diseases, consumers, the Chinese, the Germans, the (fill in your favorite scapegoat), other beekeepers, the packers, the scientific community, the price of gas, global warming – anything rather than face up to what’s really happening. We are losing the ability to take care of living things.”

We are at big risk losing the ability to take care of living things. Thank you everyone who is helping me to improve myself as a beekeeper.

Only real treatment tell real mite population

Marco Moretti made a valid comment to the sugar shaker post. It doesn’t surprise me that Antonio Nanetti found checking mite populations besides a real treatment is unreliable. It is many factors making the results uncertain. Why beekeepers want to do this anyway is to get an idea when it’s time to treat against the mite.

If you do an oxalic dribble, or trickling, you make a real treatment. And that’s okey with me, if you choose to do that. Before making a real treatment the most reliable mite test is said to be alcohol washing like with the bee shaker described in this blog. The sugar shaker might do well for others. According to findings in USA described by Dennis van Engelsdorp those beekeepers that checked mite populations with alcohol wash, thus keeping track of the mite population had the lowest winter losses, of those beekeepers treating regularely.

John Harbo and his collegues at Baton Rouge lab found in the early 1990:s when they took help of a statistican to find out that checking mite population increase during a period of time was not a good way of testing mite resistance. That’s why they finally ended up checking  infertility of the mites, which finally became the VSH method. (Information from Harbo)

That’s also one of the resons I don’t count mites. I check for virus problems in the hive before treating. The easiest virus and the one most common when mites are becoming many is Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). Maybe that’s too late normally to save the colony. I don’t know. But fortunately I don’t have ”normal” bees. Also a reason for me not counting mites, but looking for DWV, is that I want my bee stock to develop strong varroa (and virus) resistance.


Sugar Shaker


Larry Garret uses the powdered sugar shaker method to count mites. The method works well for his smaller number of colonies at each apiary and the tools are very easy to transport and store. Although there may be a slight difference in the actual counts provided via sugar shaker from those provided via alcohol wash the key is that the method and counts are consistently reproduced for comparison, he says. Above is a picture with his tools, below a result.

Ssugarshake2 Ssugarshake3

After each “shake” he writes the results on the back of the hive. The photo below shows a “hive log” of 2.3% mite infestation on 4 October with an oxalic acid dribble on 1 November.


Randy Oliver tells us: The alcohol wash methods have the drawback of killing the bees, and possibly the queen if you’re not sharp eyed. Paula Macedo and Marion Ellis came up with a bee-friendly jar test (Macedo & Ellis 2001). Set up a jar as for alcohol wash, with a 1/8” screened lid. Shake in 300 bees from the broodnest, put on the lid, and sift 1 rounded tsp of powdered sugar through the lid onto the bees. Roll the jar until the bees are all white, then let them sit for a minute. After one minute, invert the jar over a white surface (or better yet, a white pan of water so wind doesn’t blow the mites away), and shake the sugar and mites out for a full minute (continue if mites keep falling). Macedo recovered about 80-90% of the mites; in my own tests, we recovered about 65-70%. The bees can be returned to the hive unhappy but unharmed.