Origins of the Bee Gym Project:
The idea behind the Bee Gym came around by observation (like so many simple ideas). I noticed how flexible bees were, I saw one with a Varroa mite on and was shocked because the mite looked huge to me. I wondered if it was possible to encourage a bee to bend up and over a ridge so that any mites riding on top would be vulnerable to being knocked off. This developed so that the first invention had a blade above this ridge, which knocked off the Varroa mites.
The first Varroa trap I made was met with some scepticism from those who saw it, but when I showed it to an experienced local beekeeper, he was the one who said let’s try it out. Without his support the idea would have got off the ground.
The Varroa trap worked well on a hive in September when the hitchhiking (phoretic) mites are abundant, but less well on a rainy day in March when the bees weren’t flying. It only targeted mites on bee's backs but, as I soon learnt, most Varroa mites actually attach themselves under a bee’s abdomen.
This first version of the device forced bees to go through a tight gap to enter and exit the hive. I noticed that some bees would go through the gap repeatedly, while others went through upside down. That seemed strange, so I changed the entrance leaving only half of it with the restriction in place. Lots of bees carried on using the tight gap with the strings, even when it was switched around so it was not the usual side they entered the hive. After suspecting that the bees were grooming themselves I was able to move the ‘trap’ inside the hive and make it voluntary, this led to the Bee Gym.
However the first Bee Gym was not the answer to Varroa troubles either. I was going to abandon the idea due to poor results, but when I removed the frame I saw an interesting pattern of 8 mites directly below one of the brushes on the mesh floor itself. I was curious enough to make other versions, so Mk 2, 3 and 4 came along. It wasn’t until I started filming inside the hives that I was able to see what was actually going on. I saw which devices were effective, and so the subsequent versions of the Bee Gym developed.
The initial films stirred up interest locally, and the first kind of external testing began. My own detailed mite counts and tests with the North London Beekeepers suggested that the Bee Gym had dramatically increased the amount of mites falling out of our hives after just a few days.
So far it has taken five years to develop the Bee Gym, in which time statistics have been recorded in more than sixty colonies, eleven versions of the Bee Gym have been developed.
Using the Bee Gym means that in time bees can reduce their own Varroa numbers to a safer level. The process takes a long time because mites are still reproducing in the cells of the unborn bees. Using the Bee Gym, bees can only remove the mites that are attached to the bee’s bodies. In small infestations the bees can get the upper hand within a few weeks, as we are seeing at the moment. In larger colonies with a lot of Varroa, using 2 or more Bee Gyms (above the brood frames), the bees can start to control the Varroa level within a few months.
Each colony of bees will probably react to the Gym in a different way. Some colonies are naturally more aggressive towards Varroa mites than others. Some are more hygienic in the sense that they will actively seek out the developing mites and remove them from brood cells. This idea relies on the nurse bees (who are more likely to have more of the mites on them), making their way to the Bee Gym and damaging or scratching off the mites.
There have been several studies into the effects of adding a Bee Gym to a hive. Each of the long term studies have found that the Bee Gym increases the amount of Varroa mites dropping out of the hive onto the counting boards below. This is positive for the honeybee colony as it reduces the mite population within the hive.
In 2018 we have seen hives that have been so successful in this process that the Varroa mite levels have crashed down and are no longer a threat to the bees.
The eleventh version of the Bee Gym started production in 2017 and has been supplied to hundreds of beekeepers already. All of the parts on this version can be easily replaced. Beekeeper’s feedback suggests soaking the frame in a washing soda solution cleans it up ready to go back into the hive.
The way forward:
The 2018 trial results will move the Bee Gym project onto another level altogether, these need to be built upon with more substantial research in 2019.
When all the data from the 2018 hives is in, I will release an update and inform Bee Gym owners of the improvements and how to use the Bee Gym more effectively.
I have learnt that the Bee Gym idea and practice isn’t quite as straight-forward as I envisaged back in 2013. I have given numerous talks on the subject and am more than happy to visit clubs and associations to talk about Varroa control using the Bee Gym.