As you know, varroa mites are one of the biggest challenges that bee colonies face. The mites weaken the bees and make them susceptible to viruses and other diseases. Beekeepers use multiple techniques to manage the mites in a hive including the integrated pest management (IPM) method of “drone frames”.
First a little honeybee biology…. A drone is a male bee that develops from an unfertilized egg that the queen lays. Drone bees are bigger than worker bees so the cells they develop in are larger than those used for workers. Drones have 1 purpose in life – and that is to mate with virgin queens. They do not help “run” or do any chores in the hive. The queen can tell the difference between the honeycomb cell sizes, and if she encounters a cell that is “drone size”, she will lay an unfertilized egg. Drones go through the same stages of development as worker bees (egg, larva, capped brood), but they stay in the “capped brood” state 3 days longer than workers. Bees will naturally create drones in the colony as a preparation for swarming.
A drone frame, as its name implies, is a frame that you insert into a hive that has characteristics that cause the worker bees add beeswax to the frame & draw it into drone comb. When the queen starts to lay eggs on the frame, she will note the larger cells & lay unfertilized eggs.
Why does having a drone frame help you manage mites? Mites feed on both adult bees as well as larva, but they prefer larva – especially if it is in the “capped brood” stage. The wax capping covering te capped brood protects the mites from being “groomed off” the larva. Mites are attracted to drone larva over worker or queen larva because it is in the “capped brood” stage for the longest of the 3 types of bees. By having a frame of all drones, you attract many of the mites in the hive to this larva, so when it is capped, you can remove the frame from the hive and freeze it to kill the mites. It does also kill the drones – but unless you are raising queens to sell, this won’t affect your colony.
Once the frame is frozen for 24 hours, you can put it back into the hive & the bees will clean out the dead larva – but that is alot of work for them. So I’ve been using these larva as bird food – and they love it! I first tried this late last year when a friend of mine mentioned that is what she did with her drone frames to clean them out before giving them back to the bees. I found an old turkey lifter which fit my frame perfectly & tried it:
It took a little while for the birds to figure out what this new fangled thing was.. but a few tried it and figured out this was good stuff!
Mike didn’t like the looks of the turkey lifter… so he built me a very fancy frame holder complete with perches & wire for the birds to hold on to.
The birds love it! We have birds on the frame all day long.
We’ve seen woodpeckers, sparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, titmouse (mice?), and rose breasted grosbeaks all enjoying the high-protein food. It takes them about 3 days to clean out a frame. I have the drone frames on a ~3 week rotation for being pulled from the 3 hives so the birds get to enjoy this treat a good part of the week.