The Bee Martini: Alcohol Tests for Varroa Mites

Aug 4, 2013 by

You're probably going to watch this video and think: What the heck? That beekeeper isn't wearing a bee suit! Why isn't he getting stung? And then you're going to think: Wait a second, why is he killing all those bees? Killing bees to save bees? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE??? Allow me to explain. This is Randy Oliver, pro-beekeeper, author of many articles in the American Bee Journal and posts on his website, Randy is a respected beekeeper and scientist who has been keeping bees since 1967. His data collection has been instrumental to other researchers trying to understand CCD and honeybees in general, and when he's working on his commercial beekeeping, he spends his time reading scientific papers and interviewing scientists to disseminate the information to everyday beekeepers. Basically, he's awesome. So let's chat about the video and mite testing. Mites are a real problem for bees--they lower bees' immune systems and leave them susceptible to pathogens and disease. Beekeepers have to keep a constant check on mite levels to make sure their population isn't getting out of control. If you can manage your mite levels, chances are you'll have a pretty healthy hive. But if the mite populations spiral out of control, your bees could collapse in a matter of weeks or days. Most mite treatments are harmful if done proactively or on a large scale, so--like antibiotics or any other medicine--mite treatments are best applied in small amounts as needed. Knowing what's needed takes monitoring, and one method of monitoring is to conduct an alcohol test (i.e. one Bee Martini please, shaken not stirred). I don't want to explain the whole method, as Randy does a great job (with photos) on his blog here: But I'll do a quick outline here:
  1. Pull out a frame of brood (baby bees)
  2. Inspect the frame, make sure you don't have a queen on it. Remove her if you see her.
  3. Shake the frame into a Rubbermaid dish tub. Give time for older bees (who have less mites) to fly back to the hive.
  4. Scoop out a level half cup of bees--about 350 bees
  5. Pop those bees into a jar and then empty the jar into a sieve immersed in rubbing alcohol
  6. Shake them vigorously to dislodge mites (they are "swirled" in the video, but it's in a different contraption)
  7. Mites will fall off into alcohol--keep shaking until no more mites fall off
  8. Count mites. 6 or less is a good percentage of mites to bees. 7 or more and you should treat.
Make sure you go super light on the vermouth. Now let's get to your questions: Why is he killing bees to save bees? Seems counter-intuitive. You've got about 30 to 50 thousand bees in a hive and bees live about 3 to 4 weeks, so every 30+ days you have a whole new set of bees. If mites take out your colony, you lose hundreds of dollars in time and money spent on a colony, not to mention 30 to 50K bees. This method kills 350 or so, but could save the rest of the colony. As Randy put it: when you get a blood sample to test for disease you don't cry over the blood cells you just lost--and this is the equivalent. Or, let's invoke some logic and rock the Spock:
"Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."
Why isn't he getting stung?  Randy has been beekeeping since 1967--he knows what he's doing. According to him, nothing we're doing really aggravates bees (even though we're killing about 300 in alcohol). What really upsets bees is messing with their queen, messing with the brood, and harvesting honey. If you don't believe me, watch this CRAZY video where Randy scoops up some bees and puts them in a guy's bare hand: Lots of beekeepers work with minimal gear. It's only newbees like me who wear veils and jackets--this is also partly because I can have bad reactions to stings. But most experienced beekeepers say you should be able to work with just your hands for most beekeeping, you just have to learn to move slow and smooth and what will aggravate them. But all that said--I still don't really know why they don't sting him. For those of you who don't want to kill the bees, there is another method. It's called the powdered sugar shake, which Randy outlines below. I love this method, but it's more time consuming, which is an issue for a commercial beek, but perhaps more appealing to the hobbyist like myself. You can check it out here: Powdered sugar test: Final Thoughts: Monitoring and treating for mites is actually a pretty controversial issue among hobbyists, and quite a few beekeepers don't like to do it. I personally don't think that's the most responsible approach, since your mites will be hanging out and hopping onto my bees (an everyone else's in a 5-mile radius). I personally think that if you're going to have a hive, it's your responsibility to learn to identify and monitor for mites and other diseases regularly, and to treat them as they pop up. What are your thoughts? Responses to this video? Approaches to mites? I'd love to hear about it.

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