The idea behind the Bee Gym came around by a simple observation (like so many 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 the ridge to groom off the 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 floundered. He now has eight Bee Gyms and is not using conventional chemical treatments in his hives any more.
The Varroa trap worked well on a hive in September with lots of mites, but less well on a rainy day in March when the bees weren’t flying. It only targeted mites on bee's backs, but most mites actually hide 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, make it voluntary and make it much smaller.
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 three years to develop the Bee Gym, in which time statistics have been recorded in more than fifteen colonies and eleven versions of the Bee Gym have been developed.
A pattern is now starting to emerge. When the Bee Gym is first put into a hive with a discernible mite population, the natural mite drop level seems to double or triple after a few days; in one case it has quadrupled.
This means that in time bees can potentially 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 could potentially get the upper hand, as we saw in three colonies last year (2013).
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 the mites on them), making their way down to the Bee Gym and damaging or scratching off the mites.
If a hive has deep frames or a double brood box, the nurse bees are further away from the hive floor. We are investigating this potential problem by installing a camera into a test hive to gather data on which bees are visiting the Bee Gym.
So far there has been no conclusive scientific study into how effective this approach is, however a trial is being carried out in England this summer. Four of the eight hives involved in the 2013 tests came through the winter without any further treatment and are now strong colonies. These are all hives in which significant mite levels were recorded earlier in 2013. Where the mite populations are small in many cases the bees seem to be able to hold them in check using the Bee Gym.
In hives with a substantial mite population adding a Bee Gym begins a battle, with huge numbers of mites coming through onto the counting boards. In 2013 there were some fascinating results. I have been closely watching 2 colonies which have never been treated with chemicals, their Bee Gyms went in last Summer (2013), although both colonies had high mite drop at certain times they are heading into their next summer in good condition.
The eleventh version of the Bee Gym is being produced and has been supplied to hundreds of beekeepers already.
Further filming I hope will lift the Bee Gym idea to the next level. The project has been self funded for nearly three years and my belief in its effectiveness is still very strong.
We see the way forward as follows:
— We are supporting the scientific trial of the Bee Gym.
— We are currently seeking funding and offers of interest to carry out further scientific investigations.
— We would like to encourage beekeepers to buy a Bee Gym and try it out, sales will help to sustain this important project.