I’m becoming a bee expert.
Last weekend I went to the intermediate bee class hosted by the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association to learn all the intermediate bee techniques.
After a couple hours of lecture, we went outside to check out the hives. These hives are managed by Rhode Island College and opened up every now and again for educational purposes. Namely, how to check for mites.
Varroa mites are horrible little guys who suck the life essence out of bees. Bees get along surprisingly well short on life essence, but the wounds where the mites bite through are a prime spot for disease to spread. Since bees literally live in a hot pile of bodies, disease is a serious concern.
Because of this, it’s important to check on your mite population numbers periodically. How do you do this? By scooping them into a jar of powdered sugar.
The ideal sample size is 300 bees, which is equivalent to exactly half a cup. Bees are more fluid than you’d think – you can scoop them into a measuring cup, level it off, and dump them in a jar just like sugar. We added some actual powdered sugar to the jar and screwed a piece of mesh onto the lid.
We shook ’em up good to get them covered in sugar. Varroa mites hate processed sugar. When they come into contact with it, they let go of their hosts so they can gesticulate better while explaining the benefits of stevia and other natural sweeteners. This means you easily shake them out through the mesh lid.
We got two! You can see the little legs of the guy on the left as he turtles them in the air.
We shook up three jars and found 3 mites in each. Out of a 300 bee sample, that means there’s 1 mite to every 100 bees in this colony. That’s a little on the low side for this time of year, which is good. The likelihood that you’ll have to treat for mites at some point is very high, but you never want to treat when you don’t need to, since it’s hard on the bees and there’s always a danger of the mites building up a resistance.
Another popular mite testing method is the alcohol wash. It’s the same deal, except instead of powdered sugar you cover your bees in alcohol. In this case the mites let go of the bees because they’re dead.
And so are the bees.
There were audible gasps in the audience when we doused the bees in alcohol. I find it helps to remember that I’m already making them work themselves to death for my benefit.
And also that they’re bugs.
All that aside, the reason we can get bees to work themselves to death for us is because they’d be doing it anyway. They store food they’ll never get to eat. If they get sick they fly away to die so the others don’t get infected. They reproduce by splitting their entire colony in two. In terms we understand, the colony is a single organism made up of constituent parts, and testing a sample of a few hundred bees is more like drawing blood anything else.
Even if we want to think of each bee as an individual, we can’t ignore the fact that they’re very into working for the greater good. Each bee is more than happy to sacrifice itself if it means making the colony better, and paving the way for magic human intervention is a pretty noble way for a bee to die.
These guys are going to Valhalla.
We didn’t actually find any extra mites from the alcohol wash, so everyone declared it an inferior method and swore never to take a life needlessly again.
And then we all went out for chicken sandwiches.
No we didn’t, but you get the idea.
We were all given our very own chunks of mesh, so I’m ready to shake some bees of my own.
Maybe I’ll even let them live.