A varroa mite is a small reddish-brown creature which looks like a tiny crab. It is about 2 mm in length, therefore visible to the naked eye, though I do like to use a magnifying glass to see them better. They attach to the backs of bees and feed off their blood. During the summer they attach to brood, particularly drone brood in order to reproduce. The number of varroa then increases exponentially. The danger of this increase is that it is likely to lead to colony collapse disorder.
I conducted a varroa count earlier in the year using the “drop count method”. It is a means for assessing the health of the hive when it is too cold to conduct an inspection. Beneath our hive is a mesh, which allows the mites, which drop from the bees, to pass through and not return. It is a means for keeping the count a little lower. By placing a varroa board beneath this mesh, it is possible to catch these and count them. My first varroa count was very low even for the time of year, but the warmer and earlier spring appears to have started the reproductive process and this week’s count is worringly high. Left unmanaged, this may lead to colony collapse.
As the weather was good and the bees were engaged in large scale foraging activity, we decided on our first full inspection of the year. The bees were well-tempered throughout the inspection, and only seemed to object to our presence as we were closing up the hive. There was plenty of honey; much of the top box remained untouched over the winter. This is something I had read about before the winter – it is possible to leave them with too much honey. As a queen excluder within the hive prevents her from accessing the top boxes, her pheromones are not attracting bees around her. This means that feeding from the top layers is less likely to occur, hence our top layer of honey was intact. To provide them with more space, we may remove it, but we don’t like to make rash decisions in the middle of an inspection and have found it often more productive to wait before interfering.
There was evidence of larvae and capped brood, both worker and drone. Due to the varroa, we removed as much of the drone brood as we could. It is one measure for keeping the number of mites down by preventing further reproduction. However, in the brood we looked at, there was no sign of even a single mite. Curiouser and curiouser. I spotted the queen; not an easy task due to the sheer number of bees in the brood boxes. Finally, we checked for queen cells, but only found a couple of empty cups.
An interesting and generally worry-free inspection, although we will need to keep a very tight eye on the varroa count.
Lesson learned today: Avoid a sting in the nostril, even if you don’t normally have an allergic reaction or oversensitivity to bee stings. I’m grateful that I wasn’t the one to experience this.