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Rolling Bees In Powdered Sugar


How To Make Your Bees Really Angry, Yet Really Popular In The Hive!

Hey, I found a way to soothe a bee sting. Make an apple pie from apples the bees pollinated. That puts you in a forgiving mood.

So, periodically, I have to check the bees for varroa mites. They have actually been a problem for the last 15 years or so and could be part of the problem with Colony Collapse Disorder. They can seriously weaken your colony. And if you’re wondering why I don’t talk about CCD much in the blog, here’s why: every few years, the media likes to find some disease and use it to scare the pants off of us, “this could wipe out the human race” ie SARS, West Nile, Bird Flu, and now CCD. I want to wait and see before I run around like Chicken Little. Anyway, in some recent photos, I thought I was seeing mites on a bee or two. Case in point, check out the bee just emerging from the cell in the above photo. See the brownish spot on top of the head coming out? I’m fairly certain that is a varroa mite.

So, I have two ways for testing for mites. One is getting 250 bees, soaking them in alcohol (killing them), and sifting the dead mites from the dead bees. The other is to fill a jar with 250 bees, put screen over the lid, drop in a tablespoon of powdered sugar, roll the bees around in it (not killing them), and letting them sit for a minute. Apparently, the powdered sugar causes the mites to fall off. After a few minutes, I shake the jar and sugar and mites fall through the screen and I return the sugar coated bees to the hive, mite free…although a tad angry. I decided to go with the powdered sugar method, I’d rather have angry bees than dead bees.

I took out some frames to gather the bees. You’re probably wondering how you know when you have 250 bees in a jar? Apparently, one fluid ounce roughly equals 100 bees, so we poured in two and a half ounces of liquid in a jar, marked it with tape. Then we took a bee brush and used that to brush bees into the jar. Once we had them n the jar, we slammed on the lid with the screen, and bonked it to make the bees fall to a pile. Fortunately, we estimated well, and the pile reached the 250 mark. For the record: bees REALLY do not like this at all. I’m pretty sure if someone could translate the buzzing coming from the jar, they would have recorded much profanity and threats of bodily harm.

It’s at this point where you pour in the powdered sugar and roll the pile of bees around to get completely coated. Boy, if I thought they were unhappy before, that’s nothing compared to this.

You let them sit in there to give the varroa mites a chance to fall off. Isn’t this just the coolest photo? It’s like you’re looking into a tunnel of ghost bees. It’s like what you might find in the closet of the movie Poltergeist. It’s even freakier when you see this image moving around each other.

After a few minutes we shook the sugar out onto a white plate and we found about three or four varroa mites in each hive. So, we have an infestation, not a bad one and I am choosing not to treat it this fall, but next spring we might take some action, I want read up to see what the latest is. In some areas, the mites are developing a resistance to antibiotics, but there are some other options to look into. So, after the mites are counted, we have to release the sugared bees back to the hive, here’s a video, it reminds me of when the ghosts joined the battle in the Lord of the Rings series:

Isn’t that freaky. The other workers swarmed around the sugared bees to lick of the sugar. Here’s a photo:

The bees get cleaned off fairly quickly. Here’s an up close shot:

Now, you may be wondering if powdered sugar causes the mites to slide off, why not dump a bunch all over the hive from time to time? Some bee experts say that powdered sugar gives the bees too much starch and can cause problems. Although, I hear there are some beekeepers who do it with good results. Again, I have all winter to research our options before I make a decision.

Something else interesting we noticed in the Kitty hive, a few of the bees had a yellow mark on them. We did not see this on any of the Olga bees, just Kitty. NBB and I found about four bees with the yellow mark. It almost looks like someone took a tiny paint brush and slapped it down the thorax a la Pepe Le Pew cartoons.

I watched one of the marked bees for sometime, and I’m guessing that it’s just some sort of pollen dust pattern. Maybe from going inside a hibiscus? I don’t know, any experienced beekeepers have any input?

And I’ll end with one more bee video that NBB shot of some workers trying to clean off a bee. It’s a really sweet video, the sugared bee almost falls over and the others rush in to lick off the sugar. Maybe they are trying to help or maybe they are taking advantage of the food, but either way, it’s cool:

34 comments to Rolling Bees In Powdered Sugar

  • Treeplanter

    Cool video guys. While I’ve never heard of the rolling method it makes more sense than killing in alcohol. Smoe might argue that you don’t get an accurate count bacause not all the mites fall off or try to escape like they do with alcohol, but it sounds like you were just trying to confirm presence and not count.

    I wont preach but we tend to not go for the chemical pesticides. They’re not as effective as they used to be and only seem to be helping the surviving mites breed more resistance. Read up, but don’t wait till winter to try to address them. They say rabbits breed fast, but bunnies got nuthin on mites.

    Since they like to breed in drone cells (supposedly more room), culling your drones cells is one of a multi-faceted approach I recomend this time of year as it’s too late for any of the emerging drones to do their thing before they get pushed out by their sisters anyway.

    On a side note, I thought during your hair/sting post, “I know it hurts, but the hysterical dramatics is a bit much”. At least that’s what I thought till this morning when I’m in a full run trying not to scram as I frantically swipe the buzzing out of my hair. Sorry.

  • Yoga Gal

    Amazing photos and I’m enjoying learning so much about bees! Thanks Beautiful Bird Chick!

  • Lynne

    Cool, cool, cool.

  • birdchick

    treeplanter –

    I understand about the sting. I thought that a sting won’t be so bad, but I think it’s the angry buzzing and the possibility of more stings that throws you in a panic, or maybe there’s something in the venom that not only is painful but causes you wriggle like a crazy person.

    And I appreciate any and all advice about mites from other beekeepers. My book for northern beekeeping does not recommend chemical pesticides for the exact reason you mentioned. It did say that if the infestation was low in the fall, that it wouldn’t be a big issue since there wouldn’t be as much brood in the winter. I’ve read about removing the drones, I think I may take your advice and give that a go. I have noticed some of the workers removing drone larvae.

  • a progressive crank

    fascinating stuff (that famous author guy sent me). I found some (I guess) wild bees this morning, flying in and out of a hole in a rockery. I didn’t know they did that: I thought they must be yellow jackets but they looked and flew like bees, upon closer, but not too close, inspection.

    On the counting of bees: unless you liquefy them, I’m not sure measuring against a quantity of water will be super accurate (I realize as the other commenter noted that you were looking for the presence of mites, not counting). But if you have something about the size of a bee, like a large bean or something, count how many of those you want into the jar, and mark that.

    I like bees, though I have never been stung, when I see and hear them in my lavender or sunflowers, it’s the best sound. We live near a large community garden and local beekeeper has some hive boxes in there. Maybe the ones I see are some of his.

    Thanks for sharing this: it’s neat stuff. And we all liked Clan Apis as well.

  • bluesaffron

    You are a trooper to go back in amongst the bees and powder them up for their own good. It’s so cool that the sugar did what you hoped it would, who knew!

    Anytime you can used natural remedies is always best, even though some of the techniques are peculiar. Chemicals tend to cure one thing but may cause problems down the road somewhere else.

    The videos are fabulous and funny. You must be quite the sweet talker to get NBB to go with you to lend a hand and take pictures after the last adventure.

    It’s so unexpected, how the bees take care of each other in everything that they do. What’s even better is how you are able notice these little things that most of us (until now) would pass by without a second thought.

    Way better veiwing than Lord of the Rings (the musical) which wasn’t very good really and had no ghosts.

  • pam

    My husband is an entomologist & he mentioned that scientists will mark insects similar to the way in which your bees were marked for catch & release studies. A known amount of insects are caught, marked & released. Then the insects are collected a 2nd time. The number of marked bees are counted & a formula is used to determine insect populations based on numbers of marked bees released & recaught.

    keep up your awesome work. I look forward to reading your posts every day.

  • sumo

    ‘Treats’ of bodily harm? Ha Ha! The kids must love your house at Halloween!

  • detritus

    im not usually mr holistic!
    but is there any trials to use essential oils? such as teatree or likewise, i just seem to remember ticks beeing not liking some smells
    maby its teatree or cederwood or something. anyay i was just wondering if there was anything in what im saying(prob not:P) but maby you would have the best smelling bees in the world otherwise! they look like dangerous hard sweets at the moment!

  • melissah

    I’m really pleased that you poured yummy powered sugar on your bees rather than killing them. It would be devastating to know that 250 living things died to check for the presence of mites, especially as there is a safer alternative.

    Thank you for being so conscientious and just plain nice.

  • dguzman

    Way to NOT kill the bees, though I daresay you were risking some bodily harm by pissing those guys off so badly! But it’s for their own good, even if it did make them look like Turkish Delight bees.

    I LOVE your bee posts; so informative!

  • Kitt

    Now I’ve got that song stuck in my head! “Oh sugar, dadadada da da, oh, honey, honey … “

    Great post.

  • K

    you mention someone sayong that powdered sugar would supply too much starch to the bees… just wondering how? Given that powdered sugar is sucrose or glucose… no starches involved.

  • wendolen

    K, IIRC powdered sugar contains cornstarch in addition to the sugar, to keep its texture fine and to keep it from caking.

  • Anonymous

    You’re one concientious beekeeper, I salute you! Now, as far as the powdered sugar goes, it’s made from finely ground sugar and cornstarch. Almost all cornstarch made in the USA and NAFTA-approved trade centers is from GMO corn. I’ve heard that GMO corn could be associated with hive collapse, and although I don’t think I believe it, if I were going to dust my entire colony with powdered sugar I’d spend an extra dollar on organic non-GMO products. Keep in mind that I live in California, so I’m a bit adamant about the nice food thing, but I thought I’d give you the info at least :)

  • life on the road

    I originally came to your site for the birds but I love the bee posts! And this one was fascinating.

    I’ve been told by complete strangers that I need to be a beekeeper…I don’t really understand why this keeps coming up but it does. So I’m taking notes and following your beekeeping efforts with zeal. Good luck with the mite problems.

  • Anonymous

    your bee videos are great! I feel like I am watching The National Bird/Bee chick channel! I hope you will be able to address the mites in a timely fashion. Nat Geo has nothing on you and NBB!

  • Anonymous

    over a decade ago a beekeeper I worked for informed me that an acid based on red ant venom was highly effective in treating mite infested bees, but these were the tracheomite and bronchiomites, and the us fed gov would not allow for the acid to be used as it was leathal around 1 ppm when airborne.

  • Trixie

    Ghost bees! This was a very interesting post. Thanks to NBB for the great shot.

  • contrarycrow

    Hooray, I’m learning things! But I was wondering if you might be able to fix the mite problem by breeding with ‘hygienic’ bees? It’s possible you’ve blogged on this before, but if not, here’s a link to an article about it:

  • Lauren

    Someone else already mentioned this, but my first thought when I saw the bee with the extra yellow stripe was also a scientist tagging.

    Our university has* a bee hive on the roof of the 14 floor library, and every last one of them has a color and number painted on it. I think they started with the colors, then realized they wouldn’t run out of numbers nearly as quickly. Regrettably, I couldn’t find any photos! It’s an amusing thing to see, bees with colors and numbers on their backs, as though they were racing bees!

    I’m told they’re fairly easy to catch and paint, and that it’s lightweight enough not to hurt them. Some more specific experiments** even call for attaching tiny transponders to the bees!

    The presence of stripes on some of only ONE of your hives is interesting. How far apart are your hives, and how many/what proportion of your bees are marked? I wonder if your marked bees are going somewhere the other hive hasn’t discovered, or if some rouge scientist is using your hive for his experiments without permission!

    That amazing author, universe bless him, sent me here as well. The stories you craft are a bit more believable, but no less interesting. I’m glad I came. :)

    *or “had.” The bees are somewhat controversial, as no one wants to be stung and understanding is somewhat limited. The last time I paid attention, the bees were allowed to live on the roof, but their hive was always shut up during football games. It’s possible they’ve since been removed. The university is ultra-paranoid about lawsuits, and it only takes a hint that someone allergic could be stung and cause a fuss to shut such a thing down.


  • Susan Gets Native

    Just as most of your posts go, this one was gross, yet fascinating.
    *still scratching my scalp, thinking about mites*

  • Merridew

    I know very little about bees, but the local university has a very active entymology department that’s done some research on the Varroa mites. Here’s the article:

    The important bits:
    Mites also are acutely temperature sensitive. For years European beekeepers have removed the frames that house the cells of drone larvae, stuck them in a freezer and exterminated the mites. Killing the drones as well isn’t a problem in honey colonies. … He has invented the Mite Zapper, which is a patented battery-powered heating grid for the incubating cells. Beekeepers heat the cells enough to kill the mites, but not so much that it melts the wax from which the cells are made. Beekeepers don’t have to remove the frames.

    The technology is licensed by a Detroit company called The Mite Zapper.

    Don’t know if that’s helpful, but it sure beats chemicals.

  • T

    I am avidly following along with your bee posts (I’m another one following the breadcrumb-trail from that author guy), and I’m learning an incredible amount from them. You give us not only updates and gorgeous images but a wealth of information, too, and it’s much appreciated!

    My mother and I keep bandying about the idea of purchasing property and getting back into small-farm agriculture… from reading these posts, I’m positive that if we do this, I want to include beekeeping in the list of What We’ll Be Doin’ On The Farm.

    Thanks so much for sharing. :)

  • KatDoc

    This last bee post has definitely decided me AGAINST beekeeping, which at one time I thought I might be interested in taking up on my little bit of country property.

    Oh, don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by the bee posts, especially the macrophotography and the stories of their behavior, but there is entirely too much work involved. And, when it comes to dumping 250 bees in a jar, shaking them up with powdered sugar, and making them all mad -

    Well, better you than me, Beechick. I’m very impressed by your desire to check for mites without killing the bees, especially after your sting, but damn – you’ve got guts, girl!

    Still, the purpose of educational posts like yours is not only to ENcourage people who might like to try something, it is to DIScourage those who realize it’s not for them, and what better way for me to learn that beekeeping is not for me than to read about your efforts.

    Keep ‘em coming!


  • Maureen

    Fascinating! I love reading your blog. I’m learning a lot. Thanks for sharing your experiences with beekeeping and the cool videos too.

  • birdchick

    I’m glad you guys are enjoying the bees.

    According to my beekeeping pests book, I can get an idea of how bad the infestation is based on the amount of bees I put in the jar and how many mites I find. I double the percentage and that gives me an idea. Right now, we have less than 1% infestation.

    We found four marked bees while we were checking the Kitty hive, and didn’t find any marked bees in the Olga hive. I sent emails to a university near the hives and no one there is doing any insect tagging, although, that’s not to say there isn’t a rogue entomologist out there tagging the bees.

    We actually do have MN Hygenic bees, and they do help with the varroa mites, but they are not going to get rid of them completely.

  • mirdreams

    To avoid the cornstarch you could try what I do when I don’t have any powdered sugar for a recipe, namely take a CLEAN coffee grinder and grind regular sugar into powdered. I guess it would take a lot of sugar to do a whole hive and I’m not sure that just plain sugar’s great for bees but I thought I’d throw it out there as an option. Great blog btw!

  • Kitty Cat

    Shazz & NBB! thanks for sugaring the kitty hive, as i am feeling the effects all the way out here in the west. the yellow stripes, that is a mind bender. war paint perhaps? missing you both & i am home until halloween, hope the tour brings me to your area this winter. I know my crew would love to see you as well!

  • spacedlaw

    In the last movie there is a bee in the bottom right corner that looks like it is trying to tell the ORDEAL it just went through to its fellow bees who are blissfully ignoring it all.
    “I’m telling you guys: they just droped us into this thing and shook us and shook us again!”
    “yeah, yeah… Come here, we’ll give ya a clean up, mate.”

  • Parke County Queen

    The yellow stripes may be coming from Jewelweed. It leaves a mark as the bees back out of the flower. I powder sugar my bees once a week to control mites. I do use regular sugar that has been powdered in a blender. I use 1 cup per box. It seems to work well on the mites. I am only treating one of my hives this year. The rest have acceptable mite levels.

  • fran

    Ditto on the comment re GMO cornstarch in the powdered sugar. Unfortunately, organic powdered sugar tends to clump quite a bit, so I don’t know how useful it might be for a mass bee de-miting.

    GMO = pesticide reside, no? This is what I’ve come to believe, possibly erroneously. Nevertheless, until proven otherwise, it’s probably healthier to be sceptical.

    Hilarious bee-sting post, esp Dog photo. “How Can I Help?” is always such a good expression!

  • Anonymous

    This story ran in a small paper in california. It tells of a solution one of their apicultors came up with. Here are some excerpts:
    Gridley Herald, Gridley CA April 2008

    Mystery of the Bees, Karen Duncan

    … Apicultors, (bee keepers), in several countries are reporting their colonies diminishing by the millions, a trend starting about four years ago.
    An intriguing theory circulated the internet in 2007. Supposedly the
    United Kingdom used genetic engineering to make a new strain of Brassica, (cabbage). Scientists modified the plant by adding a gene that upon ingestion, would kill specific insects. The new cabbage named Brassica bt, kills diamond-back moths and white cabbage caterpillars within forty-eight hours. By making
    their primary food source poisonous, an entire insect species dies off but what
    of the birds dependant on those insects for their food source?
    Brassica bt is now grown worldwide. It is thought that the introduction of the
    plant coincides with the disappearance of bees…
    One of the most popular pesticides used today is fipronil. Consumers
    know it as the active ingredient in any one of several household names: Combat, Chipco Choice, Max Force, Parathion, Regent, Termidor (for termites) and of course Frontline for fleas. Fipronil can also be found in agricultural use as Icon
    TM, in Captan and Javelin, in organoposphate sprays and some fungicides.
    To expand on fipronil’s dominance in pest control, it is registered in
    California for use on golf courses, on soil, lawns, shrubs, may be
    used in dairies, soft drink bottling plants, creameries, eating establishments,
    zoos, on planes, buses and ships, in processed food and feed storage areas
    and the home. Seventy more countries use fipronil for pest control but France banned it. Fipronil killed bees.
    From the National Pesticide Information Center, “Much of fipronil’s success
    is that it is slow-acting. When mixed with bait, an insect, (an ant or roach for
    example), carries it back to the colony, and for the next three days, the kill rate is 95%. A low dose, (half the normal strength typically used), is toxic to bees.
    Given its longevity on plants and pollen, it is suspected as a primary reason for dead bees. It [fipronil] ends up in honey and royal jelly.”
    Excerpts from the Environmental Protection Agency report that a similar
    neuro-toxin, Indoxocarb, (marketed as Steward and Avaunt), used to treat
    pears, apples, cotton and corn is “highly toxic” to bees…
    Most of what we know about “why” our insect friends are moving toward
    extinction, is speculation. It’s hard to fault an industry that helps farmers bring
    in economical, pest-free crops but if there’s the remotest possibility that “best
    intentions” may someday culminate in crop failures, we might want to consider taking a step back.
    Incredibly, an apicultor right in our area has found a way to make hives thrive.
    Biggs resident, Malcolm Baker lost ninety percent of his bees last year – a devastating blow. After purchasing all new stock, he did alot of research and
    came up with a two-prong system. First, Baker uses a fifteen second “machine” treatment that kills mites. In addition to this, he feeds his bees with a product
    called Fuminol. “One pint costs $135.00″, he said, “but it makes one hundred gallons of syrup. My bees are all healthy now”. When asked what the insects
    ate in the past, Baker said their food source was nature, eating honey created
    by gathering pollen. It’s odd to think that when all is said and done, bees may
    be dying from malnutrition – from the very plants we are growing to feed

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if you were to feed your bees garlic after the honey flow it would make there blood taste nasty to the mites? Mix it in with some syrup. Anyone tried that?