Catch and Release Powdered Sugar Roll Varroa Mite Test

Try the Sugar Roll Method for Varroa Mite Testing (No Bees Killed)

Catch and Release Powdered Sugar Roll Varroa Mite Test

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Let’s face it. Most beekeepers aren’t too keen on the idea of sacrificing their honey bees to check for varroa mites. Too often, this idea alone is the main excuse given for not conducting mite checks. However, knowing what a hive’s mite load is can mean the difference between a colony surviving the winter and an almost guaranteed untimely death from the viruses and diseases contributed to high varroa loads. So what’s a tender-hearted beekeeper to do? Try a quick and easy powdered sugar roll test.

Before we get into the how-to’s of the sugar roll, let’s discuss why mite counts are so important. In a nutshell, the tiny Varroa destructor mite kills bees. Not just a bee here and there, but entire colonies in a short period of time. Varroa mites transmit viruses, weaken both the individual bee’s and the entire colony’s immune system, making the colony more susceptible to otherwise latent viruses and disease. Because the colony is weakened, foraging and honey/pollen storage are also significantly reduced causing poor nutrition and starvation. Bees’ navigation systems get skewed resulting in lost bees and drifting which further spreads varroa. While this is an oversimplification of the deadly results of varroa infestations, it is recommended that mite counts be on every beehive inspection checklist a minimum of four times a year with more being better to ensure bees are strong and healthy year-round.

So you’ve decided not to sacrifice the girls to check for mites. That’s totally okay and very doable. Just be aware that while the sugar roll is effective at providing fairly accurate mite counts, it’s not as accurate as the golden standard alcohol wash. However, as long as you keep a few rules in mind and are consistent in how you conduct the test, you’ll still be well informed as to how high or low the mite levels are.

To get started, here’s what you’ll need:

~ wide mouth quart jar with band, no lid is needed
~ #8 screen cut and fitted to slip snugly into the jar band
~ powdered sugar
~ white plate
~ water mister bottle
~ white tub with rounded edges
~ ½ c. measuring cup

Add about two tablespoons of powdered sugar to the jar. Then, select one to two brood frames covered in nurse bees. Alternatively, select frames of pollen and nectar that are located close to the brood. These frames will still be covered in nurse bees as they work to feed the brood. Check closely for the queen and if found, replace that frame and select another.
Firmly tap the edge of the frame into the tub to dislodge nurse bees. Or, gently rub the measuring cup downward on the frame to drop bees into the cup. The advantage to tapping the frame is that the queen is easier to spot in the tub in the event you overlooked her the first time.

One word of caution with the sugar roll. During the honey flow and times of high humidity, bees will be covered in nectar (or moisture) making them rather sticky. Tapping the frame makes them even stickier which tends to make the counts less accurate as mites don’t dislodge from sticky bees as easily as they do dry bees. This would be a time to either run the measuring cup down the frame or select a different method such as the alcohol wash.

If you tapped the frame(s) into the tub, foragers will fly away leaving behind the nurse bees. Again, double check for the queen. Even though this method usually causes no harm to the bees, no queen needs to be rolled and risk injury. Once the foragers fly off, tap the tub on its corner to move the nurse bees to the edge. Gently run the measuring cup along the wall and collect ½ cup of bees. Use your finger to level the cup.
Quickly dump the bees into the sugared jar.
Secure the mesh fitted band snugly, making sure no gaps exist between the mesh and the band.
Firmly shake or roll the bees around in the jar — hence the name — for at least one minute to completely coat the bees in sugar. Make certain to roll for the same amount of time with each test to ensure consistency.

***Don’t overlook this next step: Let the jar of bees sit for 3-5 minutes to give the bees time to remove the mites and for the mites to let go of the bees.***

Firmly shake the jar over a white plate or into a clean white tub. On breezy days, you’ll need to do this over a small tub as even the slightest breeze wisps the sugar away taking any mites with it.
Before releasing the bees, mist the plate of sugar to melt the sugar to make the mites more visible. Because this method saves the bees, it also saves the mites so work quickly as those tiny monsters can crawl faster than you’d expect! This is why you wait before releasing the bees so you don’t miss the runaway mites. Record what you see as mites per 300. For example: you see 3 mites so you’d write 3/300. This translates to 1 per 100 or 1%.
Now it’s time to release the bees. But before you open the lid, be aware the girls won’t be happy so make sure you have at least a veil on. Gently dump the ladies at the entrance of their original hive or onto the top bars.

And that’s all there is to a sugar roll! Takes a little longer than an alcohol wash, but it’s much easier on the bees and the beekeeper’s heart strings.

Once you have your mite counts — or preferably before you conduct the tests — study up or refresh your memory on how to treat varroa mites to ensure you give your colonies the best chance at survival. Proper testing and treatment for varroa go hand in hand with every other item on the inspection checklist, which is really a tool we use for preparing honey bees for winter. Because ultimately, that’s all a honey bee is doing all spring and summer long — preparing to survive the next winter. So don’t let a tender heart keep you from testing for mites. The sugar roll is the perfect alternative to other methods and gives the girls a sweet treat during their checkup.

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