Why did it take so long? That’s a question that comes to mind when contemplating the newest technology to determine the number of Varroa mites in a colony. The powdered-sugar shake is taking Florida apiculture by storm. The technique separates Varroa mites from honey bees, as is the case for the ether roll, but the bees survive the procedure. This was first reported by University of Nebraska graduate student Paula Macedo according to the January 2000 edition of Bee Tidings, a cooperative publication of the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service and the Nebraska Honey Producer’s Association, written by Dr. Marion Ellis .
Varroa mites have a sticky pad called the empodium that helps them adhere to their host. The presence of powdered sugar could make it difficult for the mites to adhere to their host. Powdered sugar stimulates the bees’ grooming behavior as well.
To use the technique as described in Bee Tidings, one needs the following:
A wide-mouth canning jar with two-piece lid.
#8 mesh hardware cloth or any other mesh that will retain the bees while letting Varroa pass through.
Window screen or any other fine mesh hardware cloth that will let the sugar pass through but retain the Varroa. The mites can be separated from the sugar by pouring the mixture through the window screen. The bees can be returned to the colony where their hive mates will lick them clean. Various examples of this technique can be found on youtube.com.
When Varroa was first detected in Florida, Dr. William Ramirez of Costa Rica described to me his experimental treatments using dust to control Varroa. I believe he used flour, but he said anything would do, including crushed, dried leaves. Again, his reason was that any dust would prevent the mites from hanging onto the bees via their empodium.
Unfortunately, Dr. Ramirez’ studies, conducted I believe in France, could not be replicated to others’ satisfaction and so the idea never really caught on. Dr. Marion Ellis in Bee Tidings writes that the powdered-sugar technique cannot be used as a treatment. It only dislodges a few mites, and those Varroa that fall off simply crawl back onto the bees. In addition, mites in brood are protected from dust treatments. Other research generally confirms this conclusion. Contributor Randy Oliver has looked at this in great detail.
Since being first published, the “sugar shake” has had a checkered reputation. Some in the beekeeping community recommend and use it; others do not, mainly based on the efficacy, which is controversial. Here’s one take; about seven minutes from the Kiwimana beekeeping site.