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Reduce varroa mites by culling honey bee drones

Drone trapping is a method of reducing the number of Varroa mites in a hive that is based on the mite’s life cycle and preference for drone brood. Mites can sense the presence of drone brood—probably by smell. They prefer to lay eggs in drone brood because they can raise more mites per cell than they can in worker brood.

The mite life cycle

It works like this. A female mite enters a brood cell 1 to 2 days before it is capped. About 60 hours later, she starts to lay her eggs at a rate of one egg every 24 to 30 hours. The mite eggs take somewhere from 3-9 days to mature, depending on their sex. Whereas worker brood remains capped for about 12 days, drone brood remains capped for 15 days. The difference in timing means that an average worker brood cell will yield 1.7 mites, but an average drone brood cell will yield 2.4 mites. According to the Dyce Laboratory for Honey Bee Studies at Cornell University, mites are found 2-30 times more often in drone brood than in worker brood.

If you are keeping bees in a top-bar hive, you can simply cut away portions of the comb that are filled with drone brood. The drones are often found at the perimeter of the comb and, if you’re careful not to apply lateral pressure to the comb, you can just cut away the portion you don’t want.

Drone frames keep the drones together

In Langstroth-style equipment drone frames are used to entice the bees to build the majority of the colony’s drone comb in one place. Once the drone larvae are capped, the beekeeper can remove these cells and destroy them. In so doing he removes a large proportion of the total mite population. By using two drone traps per hive, and cutting out the drone larvae once a month/frame, mite populations can be drastically reduced. I recommend putting one in the #3 position. Two weeks later put a second one in the #8 position. Remove and replace each one every four weeks (You end up cleaning one frame every two weeks.) If you have double or triple brood boxes, use two frames per brood box.

Once the brood is capped it can be cut away, or the entire frame be frozen overnight and returned to the hive the next day. Freezing kills both the brood and the mites. The comb can then be cleaned using the pressure of a garden hose, or the cappings can be scratched and the frame returned to the hive where the bees will remove the dead. Or, if you like, you can let the local birds pick out the brood for a snack.

Timing is everything

There is one extremely important point to remember if you decide to try drone trapping. If you don’t remove drone frames before the brood hatches, you will be raising bumper crops of both drones and mites. If you are going to use this method, you need to keep up with it.

Different types of frames can be used for trapping drones. Plastic frames embossed with drone-sized cells are available for purchase and work almost flawlessly. Alternatively, beekeepers can make simple frames that work equally well.

Randy Oliver’s drone-trapping frame

My favorite drone-trapping frame is the one designed by Randy Oliver http://scientificbeekeeping.com. This frame is easy to build and it is much easier to empty than the plastic frames. I just cut out the bottom portion and feed it to my chickens. I cut out the top portion and use it for comb honey. I don’t have to worry about freezing and cleaning frames—which is both messy and time-consuming—and I don’t have to put a lot of dead stuff back in the hive, which I find unappealing.

I build my frames exactly as Randy describes except I use thin wax foundation in the top portion. Either plastic or wax works fine, but since I have a penchant for comb honey I prefer the wax. I buy extra top bars and shorten them, just as he does, insert the foundation on top, and I even paint the tops green so I can find the frames easily.

For a much more detailed explanation, you can read Randy’s original text at http://bit.ly/97ekd7. The pictures below, and more, can be seen on his site.

Oliver drone trap frame. Photo by Randy Oliver
Oliver drone trap frame after four weeks. Photo by Randy Oliver

Comments

jess
Reply

crap, i have to learn to BUILD THINGS now??

Rusty
Reply

You’re funny.

Jeanne
Reply

I built the drone trap and she laid lots of eggs. I looked and found the trap built out with drone larvae. I removed the trap and destroyed the larvae, but it wasn’t capped! Have I done any good? Arghh!

Rusty
Reply

Hmm, maybe not. It depends on how far away the cells were from being capped. If the female mites had already crawled inside the cells, then you got them. If they hadn’t, then you didn’t. The females usually enter the cells a day or two before capping, so it is impossible to say at this point.

Ellis
Reply

Hi Rusty!

Your blog is amazing! Sooo much well written information for new beekeepers like me. I can hardly tear myself away. Thank you!

I have two new hives, started from packages in April here in Oakland, California. I am using all medium boxes and pressed wax foundation strips as starter strips. I have 8 actual frames and 2 follower boards in each box. I’m wondering about how to start using drone traps. Can a trap like Randy Oliver’s be made on medium frames? Since I only have 8 frames per box, would you still recommend 2 trap frames?

It seems with Oliver’s design it would make sense that the bees would use to open space in the bottom of the frame for drones if it was sandwiched between two frames of comb, but I have a hard time picturing it working in a new box with mostly starter strips. I bought some pressed wax drone size foundation to make the traps. My plan was to use that drone foundation across the whole frame and take the frames out to freeze and replace in the hive, but the Randy Oliver style traps sound good if it’s possible with all mediums.

Thank you again!

Rusty
Reply

Ellis,

I don’t know if I can answer. If your question was simply about the number of drone frames, I would say that 8 medium frames is about half as much comb as 10 deeps, so one drone frame would be fine. That part is easy.

But bees on foundationless frames, regardless of starter strips, produce many more drones than bees on foundation, and they put them anywhere they want. I don’t really know how effective drone frames will be in a foundationless hive. They will probably put drones there, but they will put a lot more drones everywhere else.

The major reason foundation was invented was to limit the number of drones. If I recall, regular foundation yields about 7 to 10% drones, whereas foundationless frames can yield 25-50% drones, especially early in the year. You can cut off your drones cells periodically, if you want, but I don’t think you will find them in any one convenient place. You will probably have some on every comb.

Ellis
Reply

Trade offs! Well, perhaps it’s back to the drawing board on mite control. Thanks so much for the info.

Ellis

Dennis
Reply

Hey Rusty,

I love your site and check it every day. I sure miss you when you are away. Thanks for maintaining such an entertaining and informative site.

I made a couple of Oliver-style drone frames. I put the first one in the upper of two brood boxes in position 3. I checked it in 2 weeks and they had barely started drawing it out. So, I opted to hold off on the second frame. In 4 weeks, there were no capped cells, so no action was taken. I have checked it each week since so I can catch it before any drone cells hatch. I’m now at week 7 and this week I am beginning to see a few capped cells, but not many. I’m wondering if I should remove it and freeze what is there so far, then scratch off the cappings, clean out and return it or wait for a week longer and see if I can get more. I guess I will not get a nice full frame all at once that I can cut out and feed to my chickens. Like all of beekeeping, it never seems to be as easy as it sounds. That reminds me of your story about loving bees but beekeeping, not so much. Keep ’em coming. I read them all.

Rusty
Reply

Dennis,

If I had just a few capped drone cells, I would open them up and pull out the larvae. It is a good opportunity to count mites and see what going on in there. It’s hardly worth freezing just a few. I don’t know where you are, but it’s late in the year (here) to see a lot of drones.

Andrew
Reply

After reading the comments to your otherwise excellent post, I think it is important to note the seasonality of drone frame mite trapping….

Do not add the half-frame to a new hive until most of the other frames have been drawn out. The bees will not want/need to build drone comb if they are not already well established with a growing population.

Like any new frames, the half-frames will only be drawn out when there is a nectar flow or if you are feeding. They should also be added only when the bees are motivated to raise drones. This means early Spring to early Summer.

The bees also will not be interested in building drone comb in the Fall. By fall, the bees have greatly reduced their drone raising, and are much more likely to fill the half-frame with stores, if it is filled at all.

When I notice the Fall reduction in drone population, I rotate the half-frames to the edge of the brood nest, then to the outside position in the hive box. Into winter, the bees will tend to empty and abandon the outside frames. The empty half-frame can then be removed until Spring, and replaced with a feeder or frame of stores if needed.

I’ would also emphasize the inspection of the drone brood in the half-frame for mites, as an indicator of mite-level. I use an uncapping fork to pull out a section of drone brood from the half-frame when the drones are at the purple-eye stage. At that stage, the larva do not turn to mush when removed, and mites can be easily counted against the white larva bodies. If I find no mites in my sample, I do not destroy the remaining drone brood, letting it hatch naturally.

Thank You.

harold meinster
Reply

I loved reading some of your ideas. I have one hobby hive with Italian queen on Long Island NY. The one hive allows me the time to diligently watch my bees and carefully monitor the mites.

I have the screen bottom with removable board covered with Crisco shortening. I dust the bees every three weeks with confection sugar and remove drone brood at this time as well. There are some mites but they have been controlled.

Rusty
Reply

Harold,

Stay vigilant with the mites. Treating with powdered sugar less than once a week has been found to have no effect on mite populations. See Scientific Beekeeping.

Harold Meinster
Reply

I could move up the schedule and dust every week. I monitor every day to every other day the bottom board beloq the screen. The number of mites found are few in quantity. The hive is active and I have yet to see any mites on the bees.

I have one problem and that is pesticides. I live in a surburb and I am unable to control what people put on their gardens other than my immediate neighbors.

Rusty
Reply

Harold,

Good! As long as you remain vigilant, you should be fine. Sadly, pesticides are a universal problem. And when you realize how far honey bees can forage, and far pesticides can move, it is overwhelming.

Kellie
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Thank you so much for your posts. I am learning so much!!

I have 3 hives that were new in April of this year. Currently, they each have 2 brood boxes and 2 honey supers on them. We are planning on inspecting them this Saturday and I have 2 questions for you:

1) Do we need to inspect the bottom brood box? If yes, can you explain what to do with the brood box that’s on top?

2) I want to use the green drone frames. I’m assuming there’s a trick to using them and that I just don’t exchange the #3 frame in each of my 2 hive bodies with the green drone frames. It seems like that would be very disruptive – and what about the brood and honey that would be on the frame I’m replacing?

Thank you so much!

Kellie

Rusty
Reply

Kellie,

You should have a plan before you inspect, then you will know whether you need to check the bottom box or not. In other words, you should have a clear idea of what you are looking for before you start looking. Are you checking for brood pattern, honey stores, disease? Or maybe you are just trying to learn what it looks like in there. I think we as beekeepers tend to err on the side of over-inspecting, especially in the first year, which is why I suggest having a plan.

In any case, I always lay the cover upside down on the grass and place the brood box across it at a 90-degree angle. Then only four small points on the brood box are touching anything, which lessens the chance of squishing bees. You can also place the honey supers on the grass and do the same thing.

I’m just guessing, but it sounds like the two honey supers and the second brood box where a bit premature. If they were started from nucs, maybe not, but if they were started from packages, I don’t expect you will see anything in the supers and maybe not in the second brood box.

Just remove an empty frame from each brood box (I’m sure there will be empties) and replace the empties with the drone frames. Slide some other frames to the side and put the drone frame where you want it. My preference would be to stagger them, put one in position three and in the other box, put it at seven.

Again, I don’t know if these are nucs are packages, but with a new hive I usually go with one brood box until it’s about 70-80% full before I add a second box. Then I wait until that is 70-80% full before adding supers. You are highly unlikely to get much honey in your supers the first year, especially if you are starting from packages. However, it depends on your location. I’ve seen people take off forty pounds in the first year, but it is uncommon.

Kellie
Reply

Hi Rusty,

Being a new beekeeper, I feel like I am a sponge, absorbing so much information, but I can only absorb so much, and I tend to focus on the information on a “need to know” basis. I’m at the mite information stage now. I did have a plan for today’s inspection (I don’t know if it was a good one or not) which was to inspect all 4 of the supers on each hive, taking good pictures of each so that I could study them later – I’m worried about mites and swarming.

We started our hives with new bees – not nucs. They populated very quickly. The 2 deep hive bodies have been full of brood, honey and pollen for at least 6 weeks now. 6 weeks ago we added 2 honey supers – using a queen excluder after the first 5 days.

When we inspected today we were so excited to find that in 2 of the hives, both of the honey supers had at least 8 full frames of capped honey. The 3rd hive had honey, but not so much of it was capped. We totally weren’t expecting that! Unfortunately, in today’s inspection, we didn’t get much farther than looking at the honey supers. We only looked into one of the top deeps, by taking a frame out and peering down and I didn’t get the pictures I was hoping to get.

But back to my original question, I did not think that I should replace a frame that is filled with brood, pollen and honey with the green drone frame… but I don’t know…… We don’t have any empty frames in any of our hives to be able to swap out a drone frame. What do we do? Did we miss that opportunity by not starting with drone frames? I think right now, more than worrying about mites, I need to be worrying about getting an extractor and figuring out how to extract. The mite worry may have to wait another couple of weeks.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts!

Kellie

Rusty
Reply

Kellie,

That is excellent; I’m glad they are doing so well. You said, though, that you didn’t get into the deeps to look at them. I’m sure you will find some frames without brood. If you can find a frame of just honey and/or pollen, you can pull that out and replace it with a drone frame. Later in the year, once drone rearing stops, you can take out the drone frame and replace it with the frame you removed. In the meantime, take the frame of honey and pollen, wrap it in plastic, freeze it overnight, and then store it in a bug-free place until you need it again.

Be cautious about extracting, at least until you have some experience. Your bees will need somewhere between 70 to 90 pounds of honey per hive to survive the winter. If there is not that much in the two brood boxes, they will need some of the honey in the supers. It is a common new beekeepers error to take everything in the honey supers before examining the brood boxes to see how much honey the bees have for themselves.

Remember, the bees don’t understand the concept of supers. They think that everything they store is for their own use, not yours. So, if you have as much brood in the brood boxes as you say, then I doubt they have anywhere near what they need for the winter in those boxes. Maybe by fall they will, but certainly don’t extract until you know for sure that your bees have enough.

Especially in your first year, extracting should be your last priority. Mites are always an issue, winter stores are an issue, although I don’t know where you live, the coming nectar death with robbers and predators can be an issue. After your bees have stored everything they need to survive, then you can extract. Many experienced beekeepers even keep a few frames in reserve throughout the winter in case it’s needed for some unforeseen reason.

Kellie
Reply

Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. I see what to do now. We did open the 2 brood boxes last night upon the advice of a beekeeper in the area and we shuffled the capped honey. Out of the 2 honey supers, we had only 4 frames that were not capped so I’m on my way this morning to buy an extra honey super for each hive. We live in the country outside of Chicago and the beekeeper who we turn to occasionally says that the area is just now coming into its nectar flow. Thanks for the advice on not taking all the honey. We’re heading out on our motorcycles to California on up to Washington on Highway 1 for two weeks (you don’t give tours do you?) and when we get back, we’ll try to determine how much, if any, honey to extract.

When we opened the brood boxes, I was so worried because I didn’t see any larva. We got through the top box that had honey on the outside frames and the inside frames were a jumble of some capped brood, pollen, and a lot of cells that had liquid – but wasn’t capped. I was getting more and more worried because I didn’t see any brood. I told my boyfriend that it was like the first time we opened the hive – we didn’t see anything until we brushed some bees out of the way and took a picture. Later on the computer, we could see the actual larva and eggs. Well, that’s what we did – we brushed some bees out of the way and finally we could see larva. We ended up switching the 2 brood boxes (again under the advice of our mentor – I don’t really want to call him our mentor just because we grabbed onto him – but he is good about answering questions). The top brood box was so much heavier and had more going on in it, so we put it on the bottom.

Anyway, thanks for listening/reading. And I’m serious about tours – if you give them, we would love to come see your operation. Thanks again!!

Rusty
Reply

Kellie

Sorry, no tours, but thanks for asking. It sounds like a fun trip, though. Be safe!

Chris Gredler
Reply

Rusty, Thanks for all your writings, I have learned so much from them. I have been reviewing your comments on mite management using green and Randy Oliver drone frames. My April nuc has a serious mite problem and I have started to eliminate them using drone frames, two per deep. I wish the bees would draw more foundation than the width of my hand but every little bit helps. This hive is slowly drawing out a R. O.frame. My second nuc took to a R.O. frame and turned it into worker brood right away. I assume this is not common happening but to be on safe side I guess I should go back to green frames. Have you seen this problem? Thanks! Chris

Rusty
Reply

Hey Chris,

I can’t remember where you live, but I’m not surprised that your bees are not drawing out drone comb this time of year. Throughout North America, brood production is declining, nectar is scarce, and winter is coming. As for putting worker brood in an Oliver frame? No, I never saw that happen. Did you not post instructions for them?

Seriously, though, it is almost time for the drones to get thrown out, so your bees probably thought there was no point building drones cells if they’re not going to raise more drones. Remember that high drone production is a spring activity that happens mostly during swarm season and then tapers off. At this time of year, your bees will just ignore the green frames as well.

I usually see the drones get thrown out in August, and I saw one get tossed this morning. When the drones are gone all those mites will move over to the worker brood, so you will have to use a different control method at this time of year. Your location does matter, so the timing may be different where you live but the principle is the same.

Just think of drone trapping as a spring activity and save your drone frames for next year.

Chris Gredler
Reply

Rusty, Thanks for information, it was real helpful. I will look into a different mite program. I do not want use chemicals but I may have to change my mind. I showed an experienced beekeeper in our club the green drone frame and he confirmed my suspicions. The May nuc is now drawing out a 2nd RO frame with worker brood so I intend to leave it. Can’t win! Thanks again. Chris in Va.

Louis
Reply

Just read this article, I think this is a great idea (can’t wait to try it).

But would it not be just as easy to use a couple of 3/4 frames in a full depth box then cut the drone comb from the bottom of the frames.

Rusty
Reply

Louis,

You can do that, but 1/4 of a frame, even multiplied by 2 or 3, isn’t much space. Maybe just give them a couple of completely foundationless frames. I don’t know how Randy came up with his proportions, but those frames never miss. I made a pile of them once and have used them ever since.

David
Reply

Funny thing is, you mention to put the drone frame in the #3 and #8 spot. However, in your picture you can clearly see a vacant 4th frame ; )
Cheers!

Rusty
Reply

David,

I recommend putting the frames in the #3 and #8 position. However, the photos are courtesy of Randy Oliver (as stated), and he puts the frames in a different place than I do.

Dinah Phillips
Reply

You are such a wealth of information! I am in Santa Cruz CA and have two top bar hives. They have been doing great, but…

I went into my hives two weeks ago, and one of the two had drones all over the place! There was what looked like a queen cell that had emerged, but we didn’t see a queen. We didn’t see any eggs or larva either. I am assuming the old queen is gone and I had a laying worker. But hopefully they had raised a new queen.

I moved a bar with larva from my other hive to give them an additional chance, in case there isn’t a new queen in there. (Also, the other hive is much better tempered, so I would prefer her genetics, but I will take what I can get!)

Also did a sugar shake test and found high mite count, so I did an oxalic dribble (thanks to you!).

I’ve been out of town and headed home tomorrow. Would it make sense for me to remove any capped drone cells when I go into the hive in the next few days? I can’t quite work out the math…

Thanks

Rusty
Reply

Dinah,

I’m not sure why you want to remove the capped drone cells, unless for Varroa control. Top-bar colonies or any colony without foundation will have more drones than those on foundation. If you had laying workers, you would have seen eggs, but you say you saw no eggs or larvae, so I doubt you had laying workers. Of course, you could have had a drone-laying queen. But more likely you just had a lot of drones.

niki
Reply

I’m interested in building these but when I clicked on the link (http://bit.ly/97ekd7) to read more, but I didn’t see the instructions on there…although I’ve been having trouble finding anything on his site. I’m sure he has a lot of good projects to make, but I can’t find where they are!

Any advice?

Colleen
Reply

Can mite trapping with drone frames be done in an establishing colony? I’m a new beekeeper, due to receive my package bees at the end of April.

Rusty
Reply

Colleen,

Yes. As long as you have drones, you can trap them.

John Vowcicefski
Reply

Drones are not living and should not be made to “help” the bees. We need to push a movement to help repopulate the bees the right way, this can be done by beekeeping at your own home. We all need to do our part into also stopping companies from spraying pesticides on our food crops, that’s a big reason why the bees started to die off in the first place.

Please everyone be aware of this.

Rusty
Reply

John,

“Drones are not living and should not be made to “help” the bees.” This is beekeeping, not technology. Drones are very much alive, and they don’t just help bees, they are bees. Beehives contain three types of bees: queens, workers (females), and drones (males).

James
Reply

I just bought 4 of these drone frames. What’s the timing? I have 1 hive with 2 deeps so i put in 2 of these frames in the bottom box, then exactly 14 days later i take them out and clean them off and places them back in the box?

Rusty
Reply

James,

It will take a few days for the bees to build comb and the queen to lay eggs. After the eggs are laid, drones are capped at day 11 and emerge at day 24. So you want to pull out the frames between day 11 and day 24 after egg laying. So, if it takes three days for eggs, then day 14 or so will work. But you should look at the frame first. There’s no point in pulling them out before they’re capped because the mites hop in just hours before capping occurs. And you certainly don’t want to wait until emergence because the mites will come out with the drones. Just pull them out when most cells are capped. You can start checking at about day 14.

Trigger
Reply

I’m very new to beekeeping and just ordered my first hive. While purchasing gear I found the Green foundations on Ebay and wanted to know more about them. This leads to a lot of rookie questions and answers will be greatly appreciated. I live in North Texas. Should drone traps be used upon the start of a new hive in the summer? Do you only trap mites and cut drones if you find mites during an inspection or is this a general practice to start right away to prevent mite infestation? With a new hive the colony will be trying to grow, how do I know how many Drones to cut so not to hurt the hive growth? Thanks for all your help.

Rusty
Reply

Trigger,

1. You can use drone traps when you first start. Just use one, I think.
2. You don’t have to wait to find mites; you can trap them to prevent mite build-up.
3. You won’t hurt colony growth by taking drones. Drones are necessary for mating with queens from other colonies, but having very few drones will not harm your colony.

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