Straight Talk about Treatment free Beekeeping
While Treatment Free bee keeping is an often misunderstood and controversial subject – especially on the internet – keeping bees without treating for mites apparently IS possible. More beekeepers report successfully practicing treatment free beekeeping every year. However in a lot of cases you need to be pretty liberal in how you describe success – a few treatment free beekeepers do report strong hives, low losses, and robust honey crops – but it really seems to be pretty few. Many more struggle just to go from year to year without losing all of their hives at one time.
Let’s get something straight – If someone uses essential oils, drone trapping, sugar dusting, prophylactic brood breaks, etc – they are not treatment free. There is nothing wrong with any of that, and some of it can be quite effective if properly applied – especially in synergy. It just isn’t treatment free. So when someone tells you that they are successfully keeping bees without treatments ask them specifically if they use or feed essential oils…
Anyway the point is not to tell anyone what they can or can’t do, or even to discourage you from going treatment free if that is what you want, but just to make sure you know what the implications are.
The essence of the treatment free philosophy is to not treat, let the hives which can’t hack it die, and then make increase from the remaining “Survivor” bees – the so called Bond method. But to increase the chances of ever achieving success you also need to do more.
Treatment free beekeeping is a puzzle with several pieces – and just getting any old bees and then hoping for the best while not treating them will not make it come together. This is probably a sure fire way to fail completely within 2-3 years – probably sooner.
- Successful treatment free beekeeping requires bees which have the ability to survive to begin with. You can get bees which are more resistant than others (USDA VSH or Minnesota Hygenic queens for example) but based upon my personal experience it is quite difficult to just buy “Survivor” bees.
- However BeeWeaver Apiaries in Texas have been producing treatment free queens, bees and honey for more than 10 years now. There are mixed reports from consumers – including some reports of aggressive bees – but that is typical for any queen producer, and apparently BeeWeaver will replace aggressive queens. So, while this is not an endorsement, they might be worth checking out if you are interested in going treatment free.
- Making increase is probably an absolutely essential part of treatment free beekeeping.
- If you want to try treatment free you should probably prepare for high colony losses – 50% or more in some cases. Hopefully less, but don’t fail to plan.
- You can probably not reasonably expect to be successful with very few colonies – larger numbers give more fault tolerance and a better gene pool.
- Treatment free does not mean doing nothing – if anything treatment free beekeepers need to be more competent and diligent beekeepers to meet the challenges.
- There do not seem to be a very large number of treatment free beekeepers who are able to report success beyond being able to keep their bees alive from year to year. This statement is not based on any kind of scientific data collection, but rather from responses to an informal Q+A thread on beesource forum.
- It is possible (and likely in my opinion) that some locations may not be conducive to treatment free beekeeping. Or at least that some areas may be much better than others.
- Randy Oliver on varroa resistant bees.
Beyond the Bond Method
It is not necessary to led a hive die to remove it’s genes from your program – obviously hives can be requeened. But to do this requires considerable work on the part of the beekeeper to monitor mites, and take action before a hive declines too far because of mites.
Essential oils, oxalic acid, and powdered sugar dusting are mite treatments – if you use these then you are not treatment free. However they can save a colony without polluting the hive and comb with long lasting chemical residues – if used in time. Other treatments which don’t leave residues – Apiguard (thymol) and Mite away quick strips (formic acid) are commercially produced and epa registered. All of these so called “soft” treatments are made from naturally occurring substances which break down into harmless components very quickly.
Monitoring mite levels as in IPM – and then only treating with the softest possible of these naturally occurring miteacides to save hives – and ultimately requeening them with more resistant stock is a much more productive way to work toward being treatment free than simply letting hives die. In my opinion
Biodynamics / Probiotics and treatment free Beekeeping
Michael Bush who is a prominent proponent of treatment free beekeeping says that the problem with ever using any kind of treatment is that it upsets the balance of bacteria, fungi, and other microbes within the hive – somewhat like when a person is treated with antibiotics and bad bacteria (known as c-diff) then take over in their intestines. This imbalance of the human biom is often very serious, and has in the past been quite hard to treat – there actually is a simple and effective (although somewhat unsavory) treatment for c-diff now. Anyway, the theory goes that treatments changes the microbial balance of power in a bee colony in a similar way.
Also, some proponents theorize that treating kills only the weakest mites and leaves a stronger varroa gene pool to carry on – thus producing super mites over time – while having the opposite weakening effect on bees. Not treating kills the weakest bees and allows the less virulent mites to compete in the mite gene pool.
All of this seems to make sense, but is largely based on conjecture and anecdotal – not scientific – evidence. That does not make it not true, but the clear difficulty that most beekeepers have in reproducing the success that a rather small number of treatment free proponents report is at least as compelling. In My Humble Opinion.
I doubt if anything in beekeeping is more controversial than small cell. Michael Bush holds the position that small cell is instrumental in success with treatment free. The theory is that brood cells are capped for a shorter time with small cell comb which decreases the reproduction rate of varroa mites. Again it makes sense, but is largely unsupported at large.
So, are all these people just lying or deluded?
I seriously doubt it. I do think that the relatively few success stories get echoed and amplified while the agony of defeat crowd is probably a lot less vocal. Also the very large group of enthusiastic beginners who commit to going treatment free tend to make a lot of noise about it – with an almost religious like zeal sometimes. Many of these either fall off the wagon or give up beekeeping completely within a year or two and their failures largely go un-reported.
Also I suspect it is very likely that some locations are just better for treatment free beekeeping than others – or beekeeping period. Better how? Nutrition of course could be a factor – perhaps some pollen or nectar contains important components which are lacking in other areas. It is very likely that some kinds of commercial agriculture practices are bad for bees. No doubt some environments are better for wild or feral bees which could be a repository of beneficial genes – or the previously mentioned beneficial microbes. Being near a lot of commercially managed bees could be detrimental – and probably is. Maybe the mites are less potent in some areas. It could be something in the soil, water or air – It could be a combination of several of these factors. Who knows? The point is that it is possible that some of the people who report real success with treatment free are keeping bees in a particularly conducive spot.