Straight Talk about Treatment free Beekeeping

 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.

Small Cell

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.

Things to Do with a Queen Excluder – Harvesting Nurse Bees

There are several reasons why you might want to separate the queen or move brood or nurse bees from one hive to another:

  • To strengthen a weak hive
  • To weaken a hive to try to keep it from swarming
  • To make up nucleus hives – either for direct increase or as mating nucs
  • To make a cell builder for queen rearing
  • Making queenless packages of bulk bees

The thing is, when you move a frame covered with bees there is always the chance that the queen is hiding among them – unless you find her first  it’s really hard to be 100% sure.  But finding the queen when you want to is often very time consuming – when you are not looking for her she often comes out and poses for a picture, but when you really want to find her it seems she is having a shy day.

Fortunately you can use a queen excluder to accomplish most tasks without ever finding the queen – you can also use it to find the queen if you want to.  So…

To keep from having to find the queen when taking brood or nurse bees from a hive – while being  sure that you don’t accidentally move the queen in the process.

You need a queen  excluder.

This works because nurse bees are very attracted to open brood.

Remove all boxes except for the bottom hive body.

One or two quick shakes and a frame covered with bees will go from this…
…to this. Now you can easily make sure that the Queen is not on this frame.

Shake/brush all or almost all of the bees off of most of the frames of open brood one frame at a time and then look hard at them for a moment to make sure that the one bee still clinging to it is not the queen – then put those beeless brood frames in a spare empty box.

If at any point you happen to spot the queen you can stop shaking bees, and depending on what you want to do you might be able to just go ahead and do it.  But if you do you won’t get as high a percentage of nurse bees, and you will need to compensate by getting many more bees than you think you will need for your purpose, because all of the foragers will fly back home.   So if you are harvesting nurse bees then it will usually be best to proceed with the rest of this manipulation – stop shaking bees off of frames in that case but make sure the queen ends up below the excluder and most/all of the open brood is above it.

Now you know that the queen is not in the box of brood, because there are very few bees in there at all, and you made sure that none of the few bees that there are is the queen. This might take 15 minutes.

By the time you finish shaking all of the bees down there might be a lot of them outside of the hive – but don’t worry – even if one of them is the queen she will crawl back in through the entrance along with everyone else.

If your goal is to make a nucleus hive also put a frame or two of capped brood, and some stores  in the beeless box too – these are the frames that you want to use to start a new hive – or strengthen a weak hive.  But still put all – or almost all – open brood in there, even if you don’t want all of it in the hive you are going to make.  You will move the excess back later.

You can put some empty frames of foundation or empty comb in the queenless part of the main hive to replace the brood frames you have removed if you want to – but you don’t really need to because you are going to put them right back in a day or so at the most – suit your self on that. If you put in extracted honey comb your queen will probably lay it full of eggs though.

If your goal is to split the queen out into a smaller nuc then go ahead and arrange  as many of the nuc resources as possible – except not a lot of open brood – in the bottom box of the main hive.

Now you will have one box sitting on the bottom board with a few frames in it – very little if any open brood, and almost all of the bees.  Most importantly the queen will be somewhere in there.  Chances are there will be so many bees that they will be hanging all over the outside as well as crammed inside – but that’s ok it will all work out.

Go ahead and place your queen excluder on top of that box.  Use smoke or a brush or whatever you need to accomplish this without squishing a bunch of bees – one of them is your queen so try to be gentle.  Don’t worry about the queen being outside of the hive at this point – it’s possible, but unlikely – but even if she is she will climb back in through the front entrance along with all of the other refugees, and will end up where you want her anyway.

You will also now have at least one box with most of the open brood, and you might have other boxes with empty comb, honey, pollen etc.  But other than a few curious foragers or robbers there won’t be all that many bees in these boxes.  Stack all of them on top of the excluder with the box of brood on top.

Close up the hive.

Come back in an hour or sometime tomorrow whichever is most convenient.  Do Not leave it like this for more than a day.

When you come back that box of open brood will be full of mostly nurse bees, but the queen will still be below the excluder in the bottom box – so you can use any of the frames or bees above the excluder to make up a split, nucleus hive, or a cell builder, or to strengthen another hive without any fear of moving the queen. Also since most of these bees on the brood frames are nurse bees fewer of them will drift back to the old hive. And since they are nurse bees and not yet oriented to any hive you can just shake them off in front of a hive that you want to strengthen and they will climb right in to it and go to work.

If you want to split the queen out into her own nucleus hive all you have to do is remove the bottom box and place it on a new bottom board in a new location in the yard.   Most of the foragers will return to the original location, and the queenright hive might need to be fortified with a frame or two of brood and/or some shaken off nurse bees.

If you don’t need a whole lot of nurse bees you don’t have to move all of the open brood above the excluder. 2-3 frames will get you quite a few bees.

If you want nothing but nurse bees  (for setting up mating nucs for example.  Take the top box full of nurse bees and open brood to another location in the yard for awhile.  After a few minutes all of the foragers will fly back to the old hive location, and all of the bees left will be nurse bees who have not yet taken an orientation flight.

When you are finished with what you are doing take out the excluder and put everything back more or less like it was.


Removing all of the nurse bees from a hive – which you almost can do with this manipulation – and leaving a lot of open brood behind makes it hard for the babies to get fed. This will stress any hive and can cause the expression of latent European Foul Brood or other stress related diseases under certain situations. Just exercise some judgement.  Feeding the hive for a few days after removing bees will decrease the stress.

This is almost exactly how you can set up a certain kind of queen cell builder for queen rearing – and if you leave the hive in the configuration with the queen below the excluder and all of the open brood on top of the stack for very long there is an excellent chance that they will start queen cells on the open brood.  This is a possibility any time you separate the queen from brood using an excluder – even if the excluder is just a box or two of honey, which a laying queen often will not cross.  The reason is that the absence of some specific queen pheromone from the brood simulates a failing queen and triggers the construction of supersedure queen cells.

Don’t confine the queen in an empty box, a box of only foundation  or one that does not contain at least some resources – comb, food, at least a little bit of brood – if you do it is likely that the bees will just start queen cells on the brood above the excluder and abandon the queen.

If it is swarm season (and it probably is) when you do this, and the queenright part of the hive below the excluder is really populous with bees when you come back to it –  it could mean that they were already preparing to swarm when you started this manipulation – and they probably will proceed to swarm if left to it.   You might be able to head them off by doing a shook swarm or other manipulation – or you might not.  You never can tell with bees.