Stinking Bees Biting Mites

by Erik Osterlund

In the December 2002 issue of ABJ there was an article by me named “Bees Biting Mites”. Maybe the title should have been “Stinking Bees Biting Mites”.

Bees that smell during late summer doesn’t sound nice, but that’s a reality with the Elgon bees described in the named article above. Those bees reacting so strongly on varroa mites close to the entrance of the beehive, on recently hatched bees put there, and when a mite was put on a guard bee.

Already 1999 Sven-Olof Ohlsson had registered a strong odour from his bees during late summer. It was the year varroa mite was confirmed in his area in western Finland. At that time he thought that the smell came from outside the hives, the result of some male cat marking its territory with urine. But now he has found out that the smell originates from inside the hives. This fact has made him speculate if this odour may have a role to play in connection with varroa mites.

Why do the bees smell? Why those bees, that actively wanted to get rid of mites, and not those that didn’t react much at all on the mites’ presence? That’s actually how it is.

Ohlsson has also got reports from the southern part of Finland, where they have bought queens from him, that those colonies with Elgon queens stink. Actually one beekeeper got so worried that he thought his bees might have developed American Foulbrood. But that was not the case.
A female beekeeper bought an Elgon queen from him. In late summer she complained of a strong smell from the hive with that queen.

Still another example. A beekeeper with mostly Italian bees winter his bees in a cellar indoors with a constant temperature of +39°F (+4°C). He puts netting in front of the entrance. In some of the colonies he had in late summer he introduced Elgon queens. He phoned Ohlsson in the beginning of December telling him when he recently checked his colonies the place was really stinking. He tracked the smell from the Elgon colonies. In those colonies he found just inside the netting a pile of dead mites. He promised Ohlsson to collect them and send them to him to be checked under microscope.

Of course these stories are anecdotal. But they are still based on real observations. And enough many observations, though not made under what we call scientific circumstances, are valid as a base for making hypothesis as a base for further investigations to get verifications or falsifications.

I have asked around a little in Sweden and on Bornholm if those people having Elgon stock have noticed any odd smell. Most hadn’t, but yes one had in a couple of couple of colonies. Actually he thought too that one of them had AFB, which it didn’t. These people asked haven’t either used any kind of drugs for a number of years. Maybe they hadn’t been nosing around enough, or the mite population wasn’t high enough, or their bees simply didn’t develop this odour.

Why this odour with Ohlsson’s bees (and maybe others)? Ohlsson can’t stop speculating he says. Could it bee that when brood is diminished and finally stops, which it does where he lives in early autumn, more and finally all mites are residing on the bees instead of a lot of them in the brood. Could this fact start a process in the colony of some kind, diminishing the mite population. The bees groom and bite mites. They pour out this stinking odour, which may cause the mites to drop, like the Thyme extract (Thymol, an essential oil) does. This defense activity is known from other creatures and insects, for example from minks, polecats and skunks, and from berry lice.

In his notes Ohlsson says he sees that colonies of common bees, not Elgons, those that didn’t bite mites, but got new Elgon queens, later in summer, some time after the introduction of the new queen, developed a very strong smell. Were they then in a mood of “demiting”, getting rid of mites. Ohlsson says he would very much like to have this researched.

Have we missed something when breeding our bees these late 50-100 years, Ohlsson asks? Have defense qualities in our bees disappeared, such as hygienic, grooming and smelling pheromones? He also thinks that most probably the size plays a role (smaller bees from smaller cells in earlier times, both directly and as a parameter in the selection process). These are things Ohlsson will concentrate on in coming years in breeding his honeybees.

Blood tests from wild animals have shown that a number of wild animals in their natural environment have survived serious virus and bacterial infections which are deadly for domestic animals and animals kept in zoos. So what have gone wrong with our breeding Ohlsson asks?
He thinks that the smell he and others have recognized is positive for decreasing the number of mites in a colony. Not all colonies of Elgon bees smell. You could of course ask why. Do they not have enough high population of mites? Have they already actively got rid of mites in some way or the other? Maybe by the help of odours, pheromones? Ohlsson thinks this may well be the case.

Maybe even putting your nose into the hive may be a good tool selecting breeders says Ohlsson, plus putting mites on guard bees and just hatched young bees with a mite on the landing board. There at the entrance, bees should start their defense, and hopefully they do.
Ohlsson is waiting eagerly for the next season to arrive. He will continue his selection and breeding work. He is confident he will not have to use any drugs, organic acids, essential oils or anything else other than the bees own ability to keep the mite level low enough to survive and thrive. Anyone wanting to contact him may do so through this mail address: