Dutifully following the advice of many online bee pages, and hungry for knowledge and fellowship, I slipped into an inconspicuous seat at the back of a draughty hall: it was my first bee club meeting.
I had taken a weekend course in beginner beekeeping, all that was available in those days and pretty cutting edge at that. We had run through the basics, looked into a real colony, and come home with a good reading list, which I had promptly exhausted.
But I realized, standing over my new colony, that I needed to know more. Much more. I did not have a clue what I was looking at, or what it meant. So I was counting heavily on the experienced beekeepers in this big club.
Over tea one member introduced himself and warmly congratulated me on taking the bee plunge. He was full of advice and extremely kind. He urged me, convincingly, to give treatment-free beekeeping a try, and handed me another reading list.
I went home, studied up, and did my best. I will leave aside the fact that many people mean many different things by the term “treatment free”. But by and large they mean “no chemical control of Varroa mites”.
I turned to: screened bottom boards, sugar dusting, essential oils, brood breaks, drone sacrifice, every trick in the book. I was diligent. Committed. And found, in my locale at least, treatment free was a complete failure.
Within a year, most of my colonies were dead, or dying. What had I done wrong?
Treatment free advisors implied I was not trying hard enough. They advised I invest hundreds of more dollars in new bees and try alternate hive types.
This was not fun anymore. Delving deeper, I found many of the methods my advisor was recommending were discredited. And many, like Kirk Webster, stated that their 50% losses were “natural” and equivalent to loss rates in treated colonies. Really?
If I thought I would have loss rates of 50% annually, I would tear out my hair, go broke, and quit beekeeping. I knew many beekeepers achieve 90% or more rates of survival each winter. Why not me? Why did the treatment free beekeepers settle for so little, for them and their bees? They obviously had different goals.
I realized my mistake, then and there.
I had not looked carefully at my beekeeping goals. Why was I wanting to keep bees? I saw immediately that two goal sets were now in conflict.
I began keeping bees for several reasons: I am a science buff, love nature, love raising things, and wanted an absorbing, ever-changing hobby that I could reliably take into retirement and old age. Something that would keep me busy, engaged and growing as an older person. Something I could do even if/when I became chair-bound.
So in a nutshell, my original goal was to learn the craft of keeping bees happy, healthy and productive, year after year, and making improvements year after year if I could.
What had happened to that goal? It had become lost in another goal: the search for a Varroa-proof bee.
Did I care about finding a Varroa-proof bee? Well…I sure hoped somebody could solve the Varroa problem (Randy Oliver of ScientificBeekeeping.com is attempting to do just that in a large, well-run program). And genetic studies were hinting that we can alter Varroa mites at the genomic level, opening the door to eradication of this terrible pest.
But meanwhile, did I want to devote my beekeeping time to the heartbreak of winnowing through tons of dead colonies looking for the one queen in a million who somehow turned out to be Varroa-proof? Nope. That was not what I wanted to do.
And what would I do if I found that queen? I cannot clone honey bees, and I do not think anyone else can either. So one magical queen is, however wonderful, not enough. You could not distribute her to all the beekeepers in the world, and her daughters would only carry half her chromosomes, diluting the Varroa proof quality. And in any case, I am not set up to breed massive numbers of queens.
Let others, with bigger resources (and more than a back yard) take care of that one.
I returned to my initial goal…keeping bees, healthy, happy and productive…and in the process preserving and protecting the bee genome.
I took more courses. I worked my way through the Apprentice – Journeyman – Master Beekeeper education stream. Throughout, I sought out successful beekeepers, whose bees were healthy and overwintered reliably, and asked for their advice and mentorship. I followed the current research. I applied my critical thinking skills.
The result was: I became a much better beekeeper. I very rarely lose a colony now, even over winter. And when I do, it is my fault for missing a critical date or inspection.
I came to see that I lived, not in some remote, bee-friendly paradise free of pests and diseases, but in a busy urban setting filled with backyard beekeepers, surrounded by agricultural lands hosting hundreds of mobile pollination hives annually, and home as well to several apiaries of varying sizes and practices. This area is low in bee forage, and getting lower all the time thanks to climate shifts, urban sprawl and the eradication of hedgerows in favour of larger farm fields. Our open water sources are mostly ditches full of field runoff, contaminated with a host of agri-sprays.
No bee queen in her right mind would ever settle down here. But our bees do not have a choice. They go where we put them, eat what is available, and weather pests, diseases, and environmental stressors as best they can.
As beekeepers, it is our responsibility to do what we can to help these creatures live productive, healthy, stress free lives. That is our job…
…because if we don’t do that job, the bees are indeed better off without us.
Great resources to read when struggling with the idea of going treatment free:
Bees are magical creatures, truly those “Sparks of Wonderment”.
Keep them alive and healthy.