Alcohol wash test to detect honey bee parasites

Alcohol washing is a quick and effective method for detecting the presence of Varroa and Tropilaelaps mites, as well as monitoring mite levels in a bee colony. Alcohol washing can remove over 90% (with multiple washes) of external Varroa mites present on adult honey bees.

What is an alcohol wash?

Alcohol washing involves collecting a sample of approximately 300 (1/2 cup) bees, taken from the centre of the brood nest. Placing the bees in a jar or container they are washed in 125ml of 75% rubbing alcohol or methylated spirits. This wash is performed 3 times in total on the same sample of bees.

Detailed steps to perform an alcohol wash can be found in the Plant Health Australia factsheet.

Hi it's Adam Maxwell and Joe Riordon from Agriculture Victoria.

We're here to show you how to do an alcohol wash to look for exotic parasite such as Varroa in your honey bee colony.

First rule around biosecurity is to make sure you wash your hive tool to remove all the honey and wax from any other hive that you've been to.

Ensure that you don't move bacterial spores from hive to hive.

Next step is we always take out the second frame from the edge, and just make sure the queen's not on there.

And we rest that on the upturned lid against the super, or if it's just single, just on the lid itself.

That's so we can be sure that we don't we don't roll the queen and that we've got room to move these other frames.

The next step is we want to get around about 300 nurse bees.

And what we're going to do is shake them onto that white paper to get them ready to go into an alcohol wash.

So we'll just go to the next frame where there's a few more bees.

Check no queen.

All right, we'll drop some of those on here.

And then we'll go to another one.

We want to get nurse bees from across the brood nest.

Check no queen. No queen present.

And just one more drop, around about three frames you should get the good coverage.

All right and we'll just go down here and I'll do another drop.

Thanks Adam.

Then what we're going to do is just put that over on the super there.

We're going to let it set, sit for a couple of minutes, and the field bees will fly up we'll be left predominantly with nurse bees.

In the meantime we can reassemble the hive so we don't stress the bees.

The next step is that we're going to I'll reassemble the hive while we're still waiting for those field bees to go.

There's none of these.

And then with the alcohol we've got 100ml of alcohol in here, the methylated spirits or 70% alcohol is okay. But metho is easy, you can get it from a hardware.

The main thing is that around a beehive, add the 100ml in before you actually approach the beehive rather than trying to get the metho and spooking the bees out - they don't particularly like the odour.

Then we're going to pour around 300 in there. That should do.

And this hive, we'll just put that to the side.

This hive doesn't have an excluder so we can pour those bees straight back into the top.

If it had an excluder you've made sure the queen's not there but just as good practice tip them in under, or at the entrance.

I'll give this to Adam.

The next step now is to upturn it, mix it and make sure that the bees are totally covered in alcohol.

It kills the bees on contact.

And then you give it a good shake.

What we want to do is dislodge any parasites like Varroa, Motal, Tropilaelaps from the bees themselves.

Give it a good shake for about 20 seconds and that should dislodge anything that's there.

Now the alcohol draws through to the bottom.

It's considered to be a more sensitive test than sugar shake, but with sugar shake you're not killing your bees.

They're both meaningful exercises, but this is a far more sensitive test.

They're both very meaningful and for people to do sugar shake or alcohol wash at home, that's very important for the industry, for hobby beekeeping and for the department.

And if you see anything unusual when you're doing any of these tests please call Agriculture Victoria or the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline.

What about sugar shaking or drone uncapping?

While sugar shake and drone uncapping are useful detection methods, alcohol washing has been found to be more effective at detecting Varroa mite.

Why do I have to wash the sample 3 times?

The number of washes is the most important part of the method and is key to achieving the highest volume of mite recovery.

The first wash aims to kill the mites and subsequently kills the bees as well. The second and third washes aim to dislodge the mites and extract them from the bees so you can see them. Without the additional washes you are less likely to detect mites that may be present in your hive.

Is alcohol washing for 15 seconds long enough?

In this method there are a total of three washes, each with a duration of 15 seconds. Washing for 15 seconds is a sufficient amount of time, and provided you perform three washes in total, has a high mite recovery.

A recent study by Plant and Food Research NZ showed repeated washing of the bee sample recovered more Varroa; washing once recovered about 70%, washing twice recovered just above 80%, and three washes recovered more than 90% of the Varroa.

Do I need to keep records of when I test my hives?

Victorian beekeepers should record all their hive inspections including visual, sugar shake, drone uncapping and alcohol washing in their BeeMAX Bees Online beekeeper diaries.

What should I do if I think I have found any exotic pest or disease in my apiary?

It is important when an exotic pest or disease is suspected in an apiary that the following steps are taken by the beekeeper to reduce the risk of spread:

  1. Collect a specimen of the suspect mite or pest and place it in a small jar of methylated spirits. Keep the jar in a cool, safe place away from sunlight. Don't mail or forward any samples until advised to do so by a department apiary officer. Never take live specimens away from the apiary as this may help to spread varroa.
  2. Reassemble the opened hive to its normal position.
  3. Mark the hive with a waterproof felt pen (or similar) so it can be easily identified later. Mark the lid and all boxes of the hive with the same identification number.
  4. Thoroughly wash hands, gloves (and gauntlets), hive tool, smoker and any other equipment to ensure varroa is not carried from the apiary.
  5. Place overalls, gloves veil and hat in plastic bag and leave them at the apiary site until advised by an Agriculture Victoria Apiary Officer.
  6. Don't remove bees or any hive components from this apiary as this could help spread the exotic pest or disease. Before leaving the apiary, inspect your vehicle to make sure there are no bees trapped inside or on the radiator. Check the tray of the truck, ute or trailer as well. Boxes of combs and other hive material on your vehicle which bees might enter must be left at the apiary
  7. Report to Agriculture Victoria immediately using the exotic plant pest hotline.

Do I have to tell anyone if I find an exotic pest or disease?

If you see or suspect an exotic pest or disease is present, you must report it immediately by calling the Exotic Plant Pest Hotline: 1800 084 881 (24 hours a day, every day of the year).

Notification is required by the Livestock Disease Control Act (1994). To not notify is to break the law.

Early recognition and early reporting are the most important factors influencing the chance of eradication and reducing economic and social impact on the whole community.

More information

If you require further information or assistance, please contact the Customer Service Centre on 136 186 or email

Exotic Plant Pest Hotline

Report any unusual plant pest or disease immediately to the national Exotic Plant Pest Hotline on 1800 084 881. Early reporting increases the chance of effective control and eradication.  Alternatively, you can make a report via our online form with a photo (where possible).

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Page last updated: 09 Apr 2024