Varroa Mite & the Sugar Shake Method

Varroa Mite & the Sugar Shake Method

Whether your beekeeping journey is well on its way or you recently received your first nucleus colony, you've probably heard a fellow beekeeper utter the words ‘varroa mite.’ Although what is the varroa mite and why is it such a big deal? 

The varroa mite or Varroa Destructor, is a common pest of the honeybee. These tiny pests, red/brown in colour and about the size of a freckle, pierce the honeybee’s exoskeleton of the adult honeybee and release thousands of viral loads into the honeybees’ body. The honeybee is first weakened by its now perforated exoskeleton and even more so when pumped full of viruses. One of the telling signs of a high infestation of Varroa mite in the colony is the presence of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). As its name suggests, DWV, leads to deformed wings on young emerging bees. With large numbers of the emerging population unable to develop functional wings, that next generation of foragers are unable to fly and collect food for the colony- eventually leading to the honeybees slow decline and subsequent collapse. 

This all sounds extremely devastating (and it is), although the Varroa mite is treatable and can be detected prior to reaching unmanageable levels. Integrating mite checks into your beekeeping practices is going to be the best way to stay on top of these pests. Mite checks should be done every 3-4 weeks- which can easily be integrated into your monthly practice! Although, how do you check for mites? There are a few options- my favourite method is the sugar shake test. Now, with everything in beekeeping there are many ways of doing a sugar shake test. One technique goes as follows:

  1. Choose a frame with open larva- this is where you are going to find the most varroa mites since they reproduce in brood cells
  2. Check that the queen is not on the frame. We do not want to sugar shake the queen- she is very, very precious
  3. Hold the frame of open larva on its side over the hive and run your mason jar down the frame. This way the bees will backflip into your open jar. You want to collect approximately 1/2 a jar of honeybees in a 500ml mason jar with a grated lid.
  4. Once the bees are in the mason jar, add some icing sugar, close the lid and shake the jar for approximately 2 minutes- you want to ensure all the bees are coated in icing sugar.
  5. Once you have rolled/shake the bees in icing sugar, flip the mason jar with grated lid upside down and shake the jar of bees over a clear container with water. This is where you will see the mites shake out.
  6. When you cease to shake any more icing sugar out of the mason jar, it is time to open the lid and pour the bees back into their hive.

The concept of the sugar shake test is that when coated with icing sugar, the mites are unable to tightly latch on to the honeybees and will therefore fall off. This technique is wonderful because it leaves the honeybees intact, returning back to the colony with a sweet consolation prize. The amount of mites that fall into the water off the 1/2 jar of honeybees (which is approximately 300 honeybees) is a representative of the mite loads in the colony. If you take the number of mites found, let’s say 12, then divide by the sample size which is approximately 300 and multiply by 100, you will get the approximate percentage of mites in your colony. For this example, the mite percentage would be 4%. It is common practice to suggest that below 3% mite load is a manageable level.

It is always important to read up on diseases within the hive and if you suspect disease in your colonies, reach out to your local apiary inspector which you can find through this link: