Vita Bee Health Global Honeybee Health Experts

Blog – bees, beekeeping & other sticky subjects


We liked this in a newsletter from Betterbee,  a Vita distributor in the USA:

We put out a call to staff to bring in their own smokers so we could find the best ways to remove layers of creosote. After blocking off the parking lot and setting up fire extinguishers, we had a ball playing with fire. And we identified the two best methods for removing varying degrees of gunk…

My own smoker turned out to be the one most in need of cleaning. Perhaps one reason is that I’ve been using mostly use cedar shavings as fuel, which are very convenient and easy to light. But clearly, they are clogging up my smoker with thick residues and making it harder to use. My smoker is now clean as whistle, so I’ve decided to try some other fuels, particularly the Betterbee Cotton Smoker Fuel. Remnants of that fuel were found in the cleanest, least gunked-up, of all the staff smokers.

What are your own experiences?

Using and trialing the Bee Gym

Stuart Roweth, inventor of the Bee Gym has just released this pdf file about using and trialing the bee gym:


Using and trialing the Bee Gym – pdf download

Early signs of varroa

Turlough, Vita Bee Health’s Guest Blogger, writes:

On the first day this year that the bees were flying freely, I decided that it was time to do a varroa mite test. Two (centrally placed) colonies in an apiary of four had varroa screens and suddenly, after Christmas, the varroa drop on those trays looked ominously high. I didn’t expect to see any varroa but over a period of two weeks the weekly fall was in tens!

The reason for this unprecedented early season high drop rate is mysterious. The colonies appeared healthy and showed very little sign of varroa all last season. When treated with Apiguard in late summer, the varroa drop was surprisingly small. My best guess is that there was a late season invasion from bees fleeing one or more varroa-infested feral colonies in the area. Another apiary two miles away and treated in exactly the same way shows no such alarming signs of varroa.

About 200 bees after being anaesthetised by CO2 in the special jar

Action was clearly needed. Three weeks ago, one colony was treated with Apistan, the other (a stroppy bunch that were due for uniting with a nicer colony later in the spring) was left untreated for the time being.

The test for the presence of the mite with Sweinty’s varroa tester is simple. Approximately 200 bees are collected in a special container (see photo). Using a CO2 ‘gun’, the container is filled with CO2 gas which stuns but does not kill the bees.  It also seems to stun the varroa mites. While the bees are comatose, the container is shaken moderately and varroa clinging to the bees should fall through a metal mesh to be collected and counted in the bottom lid.  When the bees are exposed to fresh air again, they revive and can be left on top of the frames to make their way back down into their hive again (see photos).

Recovering, the bees descend into the colony to continue their work

Exposed to fresh air again the bees begin to revive

Today, the CO2 varroa tester results were illuminating.

The two colonies without varroa trays showed one varroa mite each. I have seen no figures of what is acceptable but this was not alarming.

The colony recently treated with Apistan showed one varroa mite, indicating that the treatment had been working well.

The untreated colony showed a drop of five varroa mites!

The untreated colony result was rather alarming — but expected. According to the suppliers of the tester, a drop of more than 15 mites in summer would indicate that the bees should be treated immediately. In a winter-sized colony in February just as breeding of both bees and varroa has begun, the figure seems alarmingly high. Apistan was immediately inserted in this colony.

In the USA, a widely accepted metric is that a drop of three or more varroa mites from 100 bees in an alcohol wash indicates that a colony is doomed. With my bees, that drop of five mites from about 200 bees suggests that the colony is teetering on the brink.

This apiary will be under very special observation this season.

Lid showing five varroa from the untreated and obviously infested colony



Bee Gym update

Stuart Roweth, inventor of the Bee Gym, writes:

Two Bee Gyms sitting above brood box

Trials have shown that adding a Bee Gym increases varroa mite-drop in the hive. The Bee Gym is a patented device to assist and improve grooming behaviour in honeybees to help them to control varroa mite populations.

The challenge for me as the inventor and developer has been to develop the Bee Gym methodology through experimentation and to increase its effect.

In 2018 the key questions seemed to be.

  • Where is the best place for the Bee Gym?
  • Which parts of the Bee Gym frame are most frequently visited?
  • Does adding more Bee Gyms increase the effect?

    Varroa mite fall over time when Bee Gym is put in place

Where is the best location for Bee Gym?

As the bees groom themselves and dislodge a varroa mite, it seems to make sense to place the frame as near to the mesh floor as possible, so that the mite falls out of the hive.

However, a counter-argument is that since the bees spend so much more of their time on the brood frames, especially in winter, why not place the Bee Gym on top of the brood frames where it’s warmer and more likely to be visited? Unfortunately, this means that mites knocked off one bee are free to jump onto another.

In March 2018, I inserted a Bee Gym on top of the brood frames in an untreated double nucleus hive (Hive PB1). Nothing much happened initially, but I noticed that after three months the mite fall was down to 0 or 1 per day.  That in itself is not that remarkable as the colony might not be representative.

Closer inspection showed there was plenty of brood and eight months later this colony showed no significant varroa build-up, even though mites have been present throughout the season at low levels.

This was exciting because they are the kind of results I’ve been looking for during the six years of the Bee Gym project. On a personal level, it’s fantastic to see such healthy bees that seem to be sorting out their own parasites. They are the first to fly on mild days and always in greater numbers than the other hives.

I started looking at the condition of the Varroa mites that had come through onto the sticky board in Hive PB1. More than 50% had been damaged. Using a low-power microscope, you can see the damage: the mites have missing or severed limbs, damage which is known to be inflicted by bees. Observations like these might help answer the question of what happens once the mites are groomed off.

Which parts of the Bee Gym frame are most frequently visited?

Key to the Bee Gym design are the shaped pieces (flippers) attached to the plastic frame and the ways bees interact with them. Therefore, my next experiments tried to ascertain which of the flipper designs was the most effective.

Although Hive PB1 was a 12-frame colony, it was arranged as six frames on top of six in a polystyrene nucleus.  I started thinking that its success might be due to the tall thin shape of the hive. One Bee Gym is just enough to cover the area on top of six brood frames.

Does adding more Bee Gyms increase the effect?

I have given many talks on the Bee Gym and a question that often comes up is:  why not use more than one Bee Gym?

My thinking had been that there seems to be a voluntary element to the bees using the Bee Gym, so why would you need more than one if the bees are going to make their own way to the Gym?

I experimented with various configurations of Bee Gyms over the next few months. The results led me to try placing two or more Bee Gyms into a shallow eke (shallow upward hive extension) on top of the brood frames in the four strongest hives in the apiary. This has produced some very interesting results. (Since the Bee Gyms need a gap of only 16 mm, an alternative to an eke is to place the Bee Gyms on top of a framed queen excluder [bottom space hive] or under a framed queen excluder [top space hive]).

Although there were plenty of varroa mites around, none of these hives had the kind of build-up in mite-drop levels I’m used to seeing in untreated hives throughout previous autumn periods.

The hives are doing well and the coming spring will confirm whether or not these bees are controlling their own mite levels and whether low levels can be sustained during the 2019 season.

Aims and purpose of the Bee Gym Project

  • Year-round varroa protection to produce healthy bees
  • Chemical-free varroa control to create sustainable colonie
  •  Simple solution for beekeepers

Preparing healthy bees for world’s biggest managed pollination

The world’s largest managed pollination event is beginning. Demand for bees to pollinate California’s almond orchards is high and shows no signs of lessening. The area of almond orchards is growing but the availability of bees is declining because of bee disease.

Almonds are big business and the statistics are impressive. California produces about 80% of the world’s commercial almond crop. The 2018 harvest was forecast to be 2.3 billion pounds (more than 1 billion kgs) in weight and it grows year on year. Pollination costs are $400 per acre ($162 per hectare), although the beekeeper is likely to receive up to $200 per colony.

Bees are trucked in from many states to start their annual pollination tour of the country and the economic incentive to have bees ready for this early spring pollination is very high.

A curious way of overwintering bees is developing in California taking ideas from Idaho where bees have been stored over winter in cool, but not freezing, potato sheds.

Idaho produces lots of potatoes and much was stored in large excavated caverns below ground until sold.  Since the Idaho winter temperatures can plummet to 20 F, anywhere a constant temperature in the low 40s F can be maintained is valuable. In the winter beekeepers stored their colonies in unused below ground space. Today,  huge insulated storage buildings above ground that are temperature- and humidity- controlled have been built

At temperatures in the low 40s F, bees will not attempt to fly, therefore conserve energy and food stores, are less stressed and will have a better chance of emerging healthy and ready for spring pollination

In Bakersfield, California, near the almond orchards, they are learning from Idaho with new-style potato-shed overwintering, but beekeepers there are trying to cope with quite a different climate. Central Valley winter temperatures can fluctuate considerably (but mostly above freezing), so potato-shed style overwintering can lessen unproductive activity in winter warmth and help prepare the bees for the almond orchard pollination in February. There can be as many as 40,000 colonies stored in a temperature-controlled shed. Rental is about $20 per colony.

One bee farmer is renting out 15,000 colonies this year. It’s big business and healthy bees are key.


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