The Bee Gym
Quite a long post, this one. You might want to get a cup of tea first.
OK then, here we go.
The Bee Gym is a grooming station for honey bees, intended to assist the bees in ridding themselves of the varroa parasite.
I photographed this one at a CBKA evening talk given by Jonathan Pattrick*, who had studied its efficacy.
*his CBKA talk was a double bill: (i) The Bee Gym and (ii) Pads and Claws.
The bee gym is shown above in its box. It was about the size of the palm of my hand.
There are thin wires held taught across the frame at bee height, and little moveable plastic discs on other sides of the frame, for the bees to scratch against. Its creator, Stuart Roweth, believed that bees would use the gym to detach varroa mites, which would then drop through the open mesh floor of the hive, reducing the mite burden on the bee colony.
This grooming behaviour may be an adaptive trait that is rising among honey bees as a response to parasitism by varroa mites. Varroa is a relatively new problem for the Western honey bee - in the UK, it was first reported in 1992. Chemical treatments have been the first line of response by beekeepers. However, in the longer term it is hoped that our native bees will evolve ways to keep the mites at bay, like the Eastern honey bee does, for example through "varroa-sensitive hygiene" - nurse bees casting parasitised brood out of the hive - or even "entombing" the parasitised brood. Effective grooming by the adult bees, assisted by the bee gym, would be part of this picture.
That's where Jonathan Pattrick enters the story. Back in the summer of 2014, he tested out Stuart Roweth's idea that adding a bee gym to a hive would promote the shedding of mites from bees. Jonathan counted the mites dropping from 26 beehives for a fortnight. (Well, that's the point of zoology students, isn't it? Somebody has to count the mites.) After that first two week period, a bee gym was placed in half the hives, and the other half got a control object, which was a bee gym that had been sanded down to remove the flippers and strings so that it was just the bare yellow frame with none of the scratching accoutrements. Then Jonathan counted mites for another two weeks, blinded to whether hives had bee gyms or controls. If the bee gym had worked as Stuart hoped, there would be significantly higher mite drop from hives containing bee gyms compared with the mite drop from control hives during that second two week period.
But it didn't work out that way.
Jonathan counted a total of 21,781 varroa mites that summer: 9,337 in the first 2 weeks, and 12,444 in the second. Both the treated and control groups showed an overall increase in mite-drop in the second two weeks compared with the first two weeks. Crucially, there was no difference in the amount of that increase when comparing the treated hives with the control hives. The mite-fall increased just as much in the control hives as it did in the treated hives. Cutting the data every way, the bee gym made no difference in this study.
Perhaps grooming is not generally an effective way for bees to control varroa, since a mite that has been prised off in the hive may get back on another bee soon enough. It would've been great if the bee gym had worked though.
I have invested in some altogether bigger anti-varroa equipment - a new type of beehive designed and built in the Czech Republic, the Thermosolar Hive. This hive can be heated by the sun to a temperature that kills varroa but that the bees can withstand. So, beyond the gym, this is the sauna! It's on order and will arrive for the 2017 season. I'll report in due course!
Update February 2017
The Bee Gym research described here has now been published in the Journal of Apicultural Research and the article can be read at http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00218839.2016.1260388.