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.
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). But 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.
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.
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:
We all hope someone succeeds in breeding a meaningfully (meaningfully means so resistant we can reduce treatment frequency!) Varroa resistant bee that can be widely distributed. And there are several very well run programs in progress right now with that as their goal. They will, incidentally, also have to tackle how to re-stock the continent with those potentially improved bees. And how to prevent mites from quickly adapting to the new playing field….because mites evolve much, much more rapidly than honey bees. A plucky trait of Varroa we are all too familiar with.
There is no need for new beekeepers to feel pressure to produce the perfect bee themselves. They should not feel they have to reinvent the bee genome while also learning to keep bees.
But every year, I get calls from beekeepers who in their first and second years repeatedly lose their bees. They are often very upset and discouraged. After all, they started this (very expensive) enterprise to help a creature that fascinated them, that engaged their interest and their sympathy.
But it never seems to go right. To a person, to a beekeeper, they have tried very hard to do one thing:
-go treatment free
And quite a few of them have a second goal:
-never feed sugar
Let’s have a look at those goals.
It is very common to be told as a new-bee that if you feed your bees and if you treat your bees, you are supporting the existence of weak, unfit colonies. That unless you run a survivor project in your back yard, you are part of the bee problem, not part of the bee solution.
This plays heavily on the real concern new beekeepers have for the plight of the bees. How can they possibly do anything that will dim the bees’ chance of survival in this hostile world?
If you are a new beekeeper struggling with the desire to go treatment free, or a relatively new beekeeper who is tired of losing colonies year after year, I have some good news for you.
You can keep bees successfully, and there are different ways to look at what it means to help the bees. Let’s go through the most common arguments used by treatment free advocates:
1. Treating the bees with chemicals will hurt them in the long run.
I believe this is a reaction to the fact that when Varroa mites jumped into the honey bee population, the only chemicals on hand were truly awful. They were highly toxic, and prone to migrate into the beeswax in the hive. And because they were used universally to fight the mite apocalypse of the early 1980’s, resistance developed rapidly. The failure to eradicate mites, the failure to control mite depredations, the failure to safeguard bee health during treatment turned a number of beekeepers away from the recommendations of the experts, who seemed to be letting beekeepers down. The chemical suppliers of the remedies were suspect as well: profiting from this disaster but offering no permanent relief.
Beekeepers began to question the wisdom of chemical Varroa-cides…not just the bad ones, but all of them. Many beekeepers were bitter, having lost their bees in spite of doing everything they could. And worse, a lot of them became deeply cynical.
It is true that most of our Varroa-cides have side effects, and do things to bees and colonies that none of us likes. But we now have the organic acids, formic acid and oxalic acid. Properly applied, they are easy on the bees, and tough on the mites.
They are not a cure, particularly for those of us in bee dense areas where drift between colonies (especially from collapsing colonies, which send out waves of desperate but Varroa-laden bees seeking a healthier hive) means reinfestation is constant. But they allow us to control Varroa well enough that the bees can stay healthy.
Finally, what is “the long run” when most untreated colonies die within 6-18 months? If your colonies keep dying, what kind of favour is that chemical free regimen?
Nobody likes treating for mites. But letting your bees die serves no purpose…and certainly hurts them. It is not the fault of the bees or the beekeeper that a deadly pest has infested bee stocks world-wide. There is no harm to keeping your colonies alive and healthy by treating for a pest that is foreign to them.
Once you are comfortable in the craft, you can begin breeding your own bees, and work on improving your stock.
Which leads us to the next idea you often hear as a new-bee:
2. If you treat your bees, or feed them, you are supporting the spread of weak bee genes. If you let the weak ones die the survivor genes will be all that is left and bees will prosper.
It sounds so sensible! But to date, no survivor stock has proved Varroa proof. Survivor stock moved to bee dense areas from the isolated survivor yards rapidly succumb to local mites: it appears what changes in the survivor yard is not the bees, but the mites. A less virulent mite is able to quickly arise in the isolated survivor yards, one that does not kill its colony (although many colonies are lost in establishing this altered mite population). But once returned to the wider world, the usual virulent mites invade the colony, resulting in the usual mayhem.
Often, beekeepers claiming to be treatment free have found on closer investigation that they have misinterpreted what they are seeing in their hives. A classic case is the recently studied apiary in England where the talented apiarist had for years been selecting and breeding from his healthiest hives. Over time he came up with a situation where Varroa were present but the bees remained healthy. He asked a local university entomology department to come study his Varroa-proof bees, hoping to share this wonderful bee with other beekeepers. The finding? These bees were just the same as everyone else’s, but the Varroa infesting them were carrying benign viruses, ones that did not affect the bees. This interesting finding will yield many benefits, but does not confirm a Varroa resistant bee.
Dr. John Kefuss in France claims to have reliably Varroa-proof bees, but to date there has been no identification and verification of what is different in his apiary. His recipe for success is now being tested by other large breeding projects.
One beekeeper in our club who never treats her bees has no Varroa mites. She lives in a remote location, well outside the flight range of other colonies. Once she treated her bees successfully, there were no mites around to re-infest her bees. It is not her bees that are resistant, it is the gift of her location. Note that Thunder Bay, Ontario has remained Varroa free for the same reason. A remote city, they early restricted bee imports to the area and to this day have remained Varroa free. When Varroa have appeared they destroy the colony immediately, and supply that beekeeper with a replacement clean local colony. The island province of Newfoundland, and in England the Isle of Man are Varroa free for the same reason: importing bees (which will carry in Varroa) is prohibited.
There are other beekeepers who report they have untreated but healthy bees. To date, there has always been a reason, often a subtle one, that explains this. But that reason has not resulted in the availability of meaningfully Varroa proof bees.
I have been waiting patiently, but no one has taken me up on my offer of hosting their Varroa-proof bees in my apiary. I would be delighted to have them!
It turns out, getting to treatment free is a more complicated enterprise than we had all hoped.
Attention is now turning to the Varroa mite itself, and it looks like tinkering with the Varroa genome will give us the answers we are looking for.
Meanwhile, asking new beekeepers to go treatment free in the hope their bees will be the long sought after Varroa-proof honey bee is like asking them to create a new space agency which must, in under 6 months, launch a successful, easily replicated, manned mission to Mars…from their back yard.
3. If you feed your bees, you are encouraging unfit bees to add their weak genes to the bee population. If you feed them sugar water, you are feeding them an unnatural substance they never feed on in Nature.
I too agree that bees should be able to feed themselves. And in many places they can still do that. But those places are shrinking, and thanks to Varroa pressure, even places that used to host feral honey bee colonies have seen them die out, unable to overwinter in ranges that used to support them.
We now keep bees in areas that are for them food deserts. We keep bees in urban back yards, or in fields that host monocultures that bloom only for a brief few weeks of the year. We keep them in areas where the nectar and pollen in flowers is contaminated by drift from agri-sprayed fields and roadside verges. It makes no sense to allow a valuable colony, otherwise healthy and strong, to starve because your area is toxic or short on bee feed.
Some areas (like mine) have a long dearth through summer and often into fall. Bees kept here starve through no fault of their own.
We also keep bees to take their honey. Honey bees take their very name from the fact they are that rare bee that stores more than they need for themselves. Frequently, we take a bit too much! Bees starving in late winter, either because of poor food sources the summer before, or over-harvesting of honey, or due to cold and wet causing them to eat through their stores…those bees should be fed.
Honey bees depend on a metabolism that runs largely on sugars. Their only foods are pollen (for protein) and sweet nectars (for carbohydrate). While sugar water lacks the micro-nutrients found in floral nectars, it is a life saver in dearth times. Many beekeepers add micro-nutrients back in, and current research is attempting to pinpoint exactly what is safe to feed in sugar syrups. We will have very nice nectar recipes soon, but for now sugar syrup and fondant are great beekeeping aids. Bees are not people. They do very well on emergency sugar rations…and as soon as the nectar flows return, they quickly return to gathering their best and favourite foods.
4. If you are not part of the (treatment free) solution, you are part of the problem.
The root problem is not that bees are being poisoned by their beekeepers, it is that they are infested with a nimble, unrelenting parasite. Beekeepers would love to stop putting miticides on their bees, and most of us work hard to control Varroa in ways that are easy on the bees. But right now, effective Varroa controls, including the organic acids, are the only path to keeping most bees alive and healthy.
Lots of talented researchers are hard at work searching for better methods of Varroa control, including Varroa eradication, which is now within our grasp. But we are not there…yet.
Meanwhile, since it is possible to keep colonies alive, healthy and productive via the judicious use of Varroa controls of all kinds as a part of an intelligent IPM program, why would we adopt methods that doom bee colonies to long, slow deaths by parasite and parasite-vectored diseases, and spread mites to other colonies?
We need every bee gene we can preserve right now. So be brave, and keep your bees alive!
5. Treatment free colonies are clean and healthy
Colonies do thrive when they are lucky enough to live in a remote, Varroa-free zone. But if they live where Varroa find them, I am sorry to say bad things happen.
Many treatment free/treatment lite beekeepers accept, in exchange for tolerating high levels of Varroa in their colonies: poor health, poor colony vigour, low or no honey harvest, poor overwintering. Many of these advocates feel that a weak colony that survives in any shape or form is better than a strong, healthy colony that receives support.
I don’t think the bees would agree.
In closing, let me reassure you that as a new beekeeper, YOU are not responsible for saving the honey bee and recapitulating their genome. There are lots of talented folk hard at work on the tough questions. They are making progress. We can relax and leave them to it.
Treatment free, if and when it truly works, is not an entry level pursuit. It demands a high level of skill, an expert eye. At the very least you need a very good idea of what to do and when, something that only comes with experience and practice.
Your job as a new beekeeper is to learn what you can do to keep your bees alive, healthy, vigourous and productive. That will mean a lot of learning, a lot of vigilance, and advocating in your yard, your community, your nation and your planet for pollinator friendly policies and actions.
Once you have gained a good skills toolkit, and can identify and handle the typical challenges we all face in a beekeeping year, by all means start to experiment. We can all learn to be better at this beekeeping thing. But give yourself time and space to learn the craft first. It is worth learning!
Bees are magical creatures, truly those, “Sparks of Wonderment”.
Keep them alive and healthy.