“Let the bees be bees” Really?

Once again I’ve been asked why this phrase bothers me so much. So here goes.

From what I’ve heard, the “let the bees be bees” camp are “beekeepers” here and abroad who advocate laissez-faire beekeeping. They capture colonies, hive them, interfere with swarms, but otherwise ignore the bees’ needs. They dismiss pathogens, parasites, and predators by avowing a belief in “survival of the fittest” and “letting nature take its course.”

I have several issues with this philosophy. First off, if you want bees to be bees, then leave them alone. Don’t capture. Don’t hive. Don’t interfere. Most likely the colony will die after a year or two, but in the meantime, the bees can do their own thing and you are off the hook.

But once you capture that colony, everything is different. You have made a conscious decision not to let the bees be bees. So stop pretending.

If you take another being into your care, you are responsible for it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a horse, a dog, a kid, or a goldfish. When your family Fido comes down with heartworms do you walk away and say, “Let dogs be dogs?” When your first-born child contracts meningitis do you shrug and say, “Let kids be kids?” No? That’s different, you say? Not on your life.

Here’s the thing. Once you captured that colony and put it in a location of your choosing, you acquired livestock. You are now a caretaker. And, like it or not, you are responsible for those bees. Remember, this arrangement was your choice, not theirs. It doesn’t matter if you are in Brooklyn, New York or Ollie, Iowa—it’s still livestock and it’s still your bailiwick.

Being a caretaker means you tend to your charge, look after it, and keep it as comfortable as possible. If it happens to be a horde of honey bees, you make sure it has fresh air, a water source, and a place to forage. You treat foulbrood and, yes, even mites.

The details of how you proceed are up to you. If you prefer not to use chemicals, fine. Great, in fact. But you will need to use another method, be it mechanical separation, brood cycle interruption, or weekly applications of confectioner’s sugar. The choices are yours alone, but they are choices you must make.

Do I think there are exceptions? Sure. I believe in scientific inquiry and research. I believe in carefully designed experimentation with controls, data collection, statistical analysis, and peer review. But if you are not doing research, if are going around half-cocked pretending you are Darwin and preaching “survival of the fittest,” if you are letting your bees die from Varroa mites, you are just plain lazy. How much easier it is to do absolutely nothing and proclaim you are “letting nature take its course.”

The “nature” we provide our animals is not the nature they evolved with. We have added all the optional extras, including pesticides, pollution, contamination, urban sprawl, climate change, and introduced species that include pathogens, parasites, predators, and billions of humans. Seriously, how can nature take its course when there is no nature left?


“Not to hurt our humble brethren is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: to be of service to them whenever they require it.” –Saint Francis of Assisi.

Raymond (R.I.P.) and me reading “The Ethics of Eating Animals” Photo © Rich Davis.



My favorite: “The ‘nature’ we provide our animals is not the nature they evolved with. We have added all the optional extras, including pesticides, pollution, contamination, urban sprawl, climate change, and introduced species that include pathogens, parasites, predators, and billions of humans. Seriously, how can nature take its course when there is no nature left?”

That’s like, “amen sister.”

Jim Withers

Preach it sister. I preach the same sermon, albeit not as well, all the time. And don’t get me started on the ‘pure organic honey’ crowd. I like to say there is a vast difference between beekeepers and bee havers.


Bravo! It’s not a question of ideology — it’s a matter of responsibility. Well-said!


Just took off 3 gallons (8 frames) of lovely light honey from our two hives with the help of our grandchildren. Number one started last spring. Number two started April this year. Started number two with two frames of brood from number one and some drawn comb.

Of course it is all artificial. The hives are optimal in that they are Langstroth hives and not holes in a tree. Also, I have manipulated them by putting brood from one into the other and feeding the new hive. See no sign of mites or other pests so far. If I do, I will treat them as they are not truly wild animals but domestic Apis Production Units. Still, the feral hive in a tree by the driveway seems to be doing well and it is 4 or 5 years in existence.


That is great that you have a feral colony nearby to compare with your Langstroths . . . and that they’ve survived for so long.


Argh. My long comment erased itself when I left to have dinner.

I really appreciate this post, Rusty. I’ve been struggling with this one lately. Your perspective is always so well-reasoned, and I truly value that. It makes good sense that nature cannot properly take its course in an unnatural situation, and that beekeeping is absolutely an artificial environment. I also like how you explain our responsibility to our bees in terms of caretaking livestock, or even pets or children. My take-away from your post is that consistently doing *something* to prevent bees from getting sick and dying is the most important thing; it’s a good, stern reminder for me that it’s time for another mite drop test and decision about what we are going to do for mites before winter.

Do we have any responsibilities to the species as a whole, Rusty? Or is that too big-picture for us small-scale, non-researcher types? Is simply keeping bees as well as we can the best thing we can do? I really enjoy beekeeping, and it is something we are still working on getting into for a career – my worry is that the more beekeeping I do, the more I will feel that even responsible, small-scale beekeeping is not sustainable for long-term bee health and survival. It will take me more time and a lot more information to confirm or deny my anxiety, but your opinion on the matter would mean a lot (you know, someday, when you have time…).


Yes. I agree. It’s time to take responsibility for our actions.


I don’t believe in viewing nature or animals as “production units”. How inhumane, how incredibly unthoughtful toward these beings, to only think of them in terms of what you can take from them, to such an extreme that you actually forget that they are a living breathing organism working within a living breathing ecosystem.

I believe in letting an animal be an animal. Bees should enjoy doing exactly what their minds and instincts tell them to do. I agree that once you interfere and try to make yourself a part of their lives to gain something from them that you should then take responsibility for that relationship. But the beekeepers I know who are “treatment free” are not capturing bees and then just leaving them. They are doing everything in their power to make the colonies strong – planting gardens of flowers and orchards, herbs and helping them get through winter by keeping them warm, and building hives that are fit their ideal criteria rather than our ideal criteria. These beekeepers forgo making massive amounts of honey in order to make for happier bees. Their ideology is about having a healthy relationship with the bees rather than turning them into “production units” which is less a relationship and more of a form of bondage or slavery on the part of the bee and sadist on the part of the human.

Why would you douse your bees in pesticides that are just strong enough to kill verroa mites but not quite strong enough to totally kill your bees – it will leave them a weaker hive. I have seen hives that had a mite infestation and the bees cleaned the mites out. They are very healthy hive and still going strong – even though there was no treatment done to them. How can this be possible if what you say is true?

If you allow your bees to be bees – let them eat honey instead of sugar like bees should, let them make their comb however they see fit, and let them make their own medicines for their illnesses (because that’s what they do) you are going to have a much stronger hive. You can help them by planting medicinal flowers for them because they do use them for medicine. But to go in and dump human chemicals made for and by humans – that aren’t even good for humans (like antibiotics or pesticides), to me this seems absurd.

If it was true that treatment free beekeeping was terrible for bees then why is it that so many of these beekeepers have such amazing hives year after year? CCD is a huge problem among industrial beekeepers who are the biggest users of modern beekeeping chemical treatments.

And as for comparing keeping bees to having a pet, it is just not the same thing, at all. For one, they are more wild than a dog. It might be a little closer to keeping wolves or something. But it still isn’t even the same because they are an insect. We don’t even have being-a-mammal in common with them. Yes they are somewhat domesticated, but only as much as you can domesticate an insect. Which means they really do probably know a lot more about being a bee than we do. Sure when your dog has worms there is a treatment for that that we know works, and if you don’t do something your dog will die. Most treatment free beekeepers do whatever they can to keep their bees healthy without the use of chemicals. But they still act when there is a problem if it is within their ability to do something that is certain to be helpful rather than harmful. The problem with chemicals and sugar water is that it doesn’t seem to be more effective than letting the bees heal themselves.

I understand and completely agree with the argument for taking responsibility for the animals you want to have a relationship with. But how you go about doing that is up to you, and I don’t think the treatment-free people are doing something wrong. In fact, I think there is a good argument for avoiding modern medical practices whether you are a bee or a person, and it is my right to act according to this belief.


Interesting, but I don’t think you read the post. You can be a responsible beekeeper without using pesticides, chemicals, or feeding sugar. There is a big difference between doing something vs doing nothing. It is the do-nothing attitude that bothers me. A true treatment-free beekeeper does more for the bees than anyone. But many claim to be treatment-free when they actually are just too lazy to do anything. If you keep your bees comfortable and healthy, treatment-free is the best alternative and one we should all strive for.

As far as “production units?” My dear girl, APU is a term of affection, only someone who really loved their bees would call them that. It is hardly “inhumane or incredibly unthoughtful.” You are either funny or naive.

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