If I could change the direction of modern beekeeping, I would insist on responsibility. The more I read about the health crisis of honey bees, the more I think we beekeepers have created our own problems. It’s convenient to blame everyone else, but outside influences are only part of the story.
Having said that, if I were to blame anyone outside of beekeeping for the “bee problem,” it would be the popular press. The press continues to exaggerate every bee loss to the point where people who know nothing about bees think they should help by putting a colony in their backyard, rooftop, or patio.These bees are generally purchased from a southern supplier, not adapted to wherever they’re going, and placed in the hands of unskilled keepers. Invariably these bees have mites and viruses.The bees swarm, abscond, drift, and perhaps die, and in the process they spread the mites to neighboring hives and feral colonies.
Bees are not lawn ornaments
Now there is nothing wrong with being a beginner, and nothing wrong with making beginner mistakes. We all do it. But many of these colonies were purchased by people who were not particularly interested in bees or animal husbandry, but who thought that they should do their part to help “the bee situation.” It makes them look “green” and kind of cool, too. Unfortunately, this kind of beekeeping only makes the bee situation worse. Here’s why.
Nearly all the common honey bee ailments—including brood diseases, predators, parasites, and pathogens—are spread from hive to hive by close contact. In a landscape where beekeepers are far apart, the spread of disease is lower and slower simply because the populations do not interact. Assuming no packages are shipped in, a beekeeper can keep a remote apiary relatively clean. But once we begin filling in the interstices, putting a beehive on every block, we create corridors of disease transmission. When the foraging area of every colony intersects with the foraging area of every other colony, disease organisms can travel like light.
Worse, since the bees in these hives are often trucked from large package operations, the bees are loaded with diseases and parasites before they leave the bee yard. Instead of helping the bee situation, these innocent people are actually making it worse. They are closing the loop, assuring that every colony is in close proximity to another.
Into the wild
Even worse, some evidence suggests that bee diseases are spreading into the wild populations of native bees. We don’t have a lot of data, but it’s possible that we are losing bees without even knowing they are sick. The jury is still out on honey bee diseases, but we know that managed bumble bees have infected wild species with Nosema bombi, and we know that managed leafcutting bees have spread chalkbrood to other Megachilidae. I would be surprised if honey bees haven’t already passed some of their ailments into wild bee populations.
Many of the people who want to save the bees simply don’t understand the complexities, and it is easy to get involved in situations that are not as they seem. For example, many people buy electric cars so they can do their part to cut down on greenhouse emissions. That seems like a good idea. But depending on where you live, your electric power may come from coal-burning plants. By driving that electric car, you may have actually shifted from gasoline to coal, which is worse for the environment. Yes, the proportions matter and you would need to calculate your usage based on the percentage of your electricity that comes from coal. But my point here is that things aren’t always as they first appear.
Sharing the planet with other beekeepers
In our sometimes misguided efforts to be “green,” it is easy to forget that we share the planet with each other. If you are a “let the bees be bees” type of beekeeper and refuse to treat for mites on the grounds that you are all-natural, you may be interfering with the lives of others. If your bees are infecting the colonies of people whose livelihood depends on bees, or of breeders who have spent decades developing resistant strains, or of your neighbor who carefully treats his bees so as to not affect yours, you are overstepping your bounds. To me, a responsible beekeeper is one who manages his bees and mites, who understands what is going on in the hive, and who actually has a plan.
In areas where people live close together and beekeeping is popular, I believe we have an absolute responsibility to other beekeepers to monitor for mites and treat or destroy when necessary. How you treat is up to you, but it should be a recognized and effective treatment that is monitored for efficacy. If it isn’t working, you can do something else, but do something you must.
A word about treatment-free
As I’ve said before, successful treatment-free beekeepers usually have a few things going for them:
- Probably the most important factor is some degree of separation from other beekeepers. No one can keep mite-resistant bees in an area that is importing hundreds, if not thousands, of mite-ridden packages. The odds are overwhelmingly against it.
- Successful treatment-free beekeepers usually have a large enough operation that they can flood their areas with drones from treatment-free stock. They need their queens to mate with drones that have the proper genetics, not random drones shipped into the neighborhood.
- The third thing is a solid understanding of honey bee genetics and mating behavior. The two things that most separate honey bee genetics from the simple Mendelian genetics we study in high school are haplodiploidy and polyandry. These two items turn bee breeding into a complex puzzle governed by numbers that are hard to understand, even for the pros.
If you are a beekeeper who wants to breed treatment-free bees, then you should. But you need a plan. An island is helpful, too, or at least a section in the middle of nowhere. No matter how good you think you are, you won’t succeed at treatment-free if hundreds of packages are finding their way into your foraging area every spring.
Treatment-free bees or just free bees?
Of all the treatment-free stories I come across, the most irritating one goes like this. The treatment-free beekeeper gets his bees from removals and cut-outs. Although he doesn’t treat, he has an endless supply of rescued bees. On the surface it looks like the operation is thriving but, in truth, he just keeps replacing deadouts with cutouts.
I would like to know how many of these beekeepers are doing as Seeley recommends and proactively destroying the colonies that show little or no mite resistance. I would also like to know how the drone thing works. Successful treatment-free breeders are highly concerned about the genetics of their drones. How does that compare with bringing in random untested drones from cutouts? If the random model really works, it’s time they publish some data so the rest of us can learn how to do it.
A responsible beekeeper keeps his mites at home
With the situation we have now where viral loads are higher than ever, where bees are requiring more and more care, and colonies in some areas are dying in record numbers, we cannot continue to condone the casual beekeeper who believes treatment-free means “hands free.” If nothing else, beekeepers must be responsible toward each other. You can no longer “let the mites be mites” because you’re too lazy to do anything about them. There are simply too many colonies too close together with too many problems. You should take responsibility for your mites or get out of beekeeping.
The way I see it, you have two choices. You can monitor your mites and treat when necessary, or you can monitor your mites and take proactive measures to re-queen or destroy collapsing colonies before they release their mite loads to the world. Beekeepers who treat and beekeepers who don’t will never see eye-to-eye on philosophy, but we should be able to agree on one thing: mites must be contained to the best of our ability. Letting mites be mites is no longer an option.
Honey Bee Suite
“…Destroying a hive” simply for not managing the varroa mites effectively, is not a good option in my opinion. You would be better off to requeen with a VSH queen, ankle biter, or some line that is known to control the mites. Why recommend that a beekeeper destroy a $300+ investment, when it can be fixed for about $50? New beekeepers need to understand that they need to “monitor & manage the mites” in their hives. We seem to have drawn a line between treatment and treatment-free, but there is a whole spectrum in between of beekeepers that use non-toxic treatments to control the mite levels. These non-chemical methods tends to appeal more to a backyard beekeeper than having to buy miticides or a $100 vaporizer.
I have three questions in response to this:
a. what is the best time to begin mite treatment in the spring?
b. which miticide would you recommend for spring treatment?
c. how far apart should hives be placed in the backyard apiary?
Thanks for the great information, as always. sklemm
These are questions that I can’t answer because they are dependent on local conditions and your particular situation. Generally, I think you should test for mites before initiating treatment. I think miticides should be rotated to prevent resistance. I like to use so-called natural treatments, like organic acids, instead of commercial miticides. More distance between hives is always better, but it’s not always possible.
Ok – so what is your solution and what treatments do you recommend?
Nothing to say here except AMEN!
I enjoy reading all of your blogs. I just got my three nucs in my hives about a week ago and was wondering if/when I should treat for mites? I lost my last hive to mites because I was new and didn’t know about them until it was too late. I don’t see any on any of them, they all seem pretty happy and abundant. Mine were raised in my area and I think mine were mated down in California and brought back since our weather is pretty bad. Any thoughts? And if so, what should I use?
I think it’s a good idea to do a sugar roll test to see if you have mites before treating. But which treatment you use will depend on daily temperatures and whether you will have honey supers on. Is there a local person you can ask? Local conditions are important.
I have to say I agree. I think if more people would think of bees as stock they would be more responsible.
I AGREE with the packages. Keep that garbage down south..But disagree with u.on treating u are breading weaker bees if u treat. The bees will evolve if we let them. Putting chemical in a hive is not the solution. Judt like sttongrr pesticides and herbacides arr not yhe amswer organic is. THE Bees OWN ABILTY To Survive Is THE solution. No weak hives. The strong will survive. Quit treating and the bees will start the evolution. Everyone that is treating are keeping inferior bees around and there mite loads. Kill those mite loaded bees as I do and keep the good ones.
Comments were a bit soap boxish. As a fourth year beekeeper I still feel a bit looked down upon when talking to those with more years under their belt. I get what you are saying, but feel like I am not as worthy to keep bees. So my next comment on this site will be made ten years from now….perhaps by then I’ll have some street cred. Way to be so welcoming.
If you’re four years into it, I’m sure you’re doing fine. There is no need to feel looked down upon. By the way, you never really get street cred when it comes to bees. As you can see, I still don’t have any and never will. As for “soap boxish”…absolutely! That’s why I filed this post under “rants.”
Rusty, I am in complete agreement. May I have your permission to reprint and share this post with local beekeepers and on our forum (Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association). This year, I made a public promise not to purchase any bee stocks not produced by responsible PNW beekeepers.
My proposal to local club/beeks is to discourage package purchases – period. Instead, a new wannabeek works with a mentor for one year, on mentor’s hive. The next spring the newbie gets a split from that hive for his own.
That sounds like an ingenious plan. And yes, you may reprint and share.
All good points and some thought provoking ones too.
Even though we don’t have mites downunder (yet) I’m trying to learn as much as I can about them, just in case.
When I hear of someone who wants to ‘help the bees’ by having a hive at home, I suggest they contact their local beek club and see if they can ‘foster’ a hive from an experienced beek – there are quite a few in Australian states offering the arrangement and a couple of jars of honey is the usual payment. Perhaps this is something that could be encouraged in more areas of the beekeeping world as way for enthusiastic ‘helpers’ to help and feel green without causing further problems as the bees are cared for by an experienced beek.
It is an idea that is getting more traction here in the states. I agree that it’s a good way to find out if you really want to be a beekeeper or not.
I find it interesting that so many people think that they will single-handedly save the honeybee by simply putting a box full of stinging insects in their backyard. The prettier the box, the better they feel about their plan.
They are convinced that we who have been keeping bees successfully for decades are doing it all wrong. They think the best solution is keeping bees “naturally” which means to do nothing. Invariably, their bees are dead within 3 years and every other beekeeper within 5 miles receives a heavy load of Varroa imported from that “natural” colony.
I tell new beekeepers in my area that if they want to keep their bees “naturally”, they must be prepared for Nature to take their bees within a year or two.
Unless they are sincerely willing to get stung and to sweat through bi-weekly inspections, mite counts, and scientifically-proven treatments, the best thing most wannabe beekeepers can do to save the bees is to plant flowers.
As a treatment free beekeeper for 14 years, what a crock of hooey. Your description of what I (we) do is almost exactly wrong on all counts.
I agree, I thought I would be able to go treatment free with my first bees last year. That was a sad mistake, I’ve taken the winter to learn more about treating them and what things to use this year. Thanks.
I so wished u could do videos when u did your inspections; I think u would do a wonderful job. Thanks for all u do. I treat for mites. I love my bees and I am not just going to let them die; to me that is just wrong. They say to treat the bees weaken them but I do not believe that. I see it like I go to the doctor every year. Cats and dogs go to the vet, and I think the bees are animals and if u are not going to take care of them, u should not have them. Thanks for what u do.
KUDOS! Could not have said it better myself!! This post should be printed out and given to each and every new beekeeper at the beginning classes. Thanks for a great post!
Thank you, Debbie.
I totally agree with what you wrote. In the past I wondered if there was actually any need to write something obvious like this but then I came across comments here and there of people that use their beekeeping to make a point, as an extension of a dogmatic life style and really couldn’t care less about their bees or the community, it’s all about their ego and wanting to make a point. The funny thing is that many actually believe they care more about the bees or the environment than responsible bee keepers.
I have a question: is there still a feral honey bee population in the US? One of the less noticed impacts of varroa mites was the extirpation of feral bee populations almost everywhere. I have no idea if they are bouncing back or if they just disappeared. There is a really nice, little book, telling a bit the story of the impact of varroa on wild honey bee populations around the world – Honney & Dust (here is a link, if that is ok https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jul/16/featuresreviews.guardianreview6 ). I wonder what the situation is in the USA.
From what I’ve read, the US feral population was nearly wiped out by the early 1990s but it is slowly making a comeback, especially in certain isolated areas. One of the problems is deciding if a colony has been surviving on its own or if it is being replaced by newly-escaped colonies from beekeepers. Since honey bees tend to re-use nesting spaces, a colony can die and a new one move in without anyone knowing they are not the same bees. Genetic testing has shown some to be survivors, but in other cases, it appears they are not.
I will check out your link.
Thanks, good to learn that the feral populations are bouncing back and managed to hang on, somehow. Although, I guess they are an introduced species over there so what’s your feeling about it, would it be better there was no introduced feral population in America?
Thank you for your posts and reply to comments.
Bringing honey bees to America was probably a mistake, like introducing rabbits to Australia. Americans seem to be really confused about honey bees, treating them as if they were an endangered native species. To me, they are imported livestock. End of story.
I was referring to the Russian strain of bees. They aren’t an introduced species.
What do you mean by that? All Apis honey bees were introduced into the New World.
Sorry, I thought he was responding to a different comment.
Okay, got it.
I think you have it completely backwards. Treating for mites doesn’t eliminate mites completely. It just breeds for treatment resistant mites while preserving bee genetics that would be naturally selected out of the gene pool. You are turning the force of natural selection against the honey bee. And your nonresistant genetic stock is then allowed to spread and your treatment resistant mites spread. Instead we need natural selection on our side. I would much rather the beekeepers in my area go treatment free and allow their colonies that can’t live with the mites to die. They need not “proactively” kill hives. That will happen on it’s own if the bees can’t handle the mites and if they can handle them you may be killing bees that would otherwise survive and working against natural selection. This is much like telling beekeepers they should kill their hives that aren’t adapted to their area and if they don’t they are part of the problem when nature is already eliminating the colonies that aren’t adapted. No intervention is necessary. Too often we overestimate our ability to control nature and make matters worse with the best of intentions.
I think you are overstating our ability to control nature. The natural adaptations that have arisen in bees have taken millions of years. They’ve been on earth something like five times longer than humans. The kind of natural selection you’re looking for won’t happen any time soon.
It sounds like you are saying the price of turning natural selection against the bees is worth the short term gain of saving some colonies because presumably without treatment no bees would naturally be able to coexist with varroa? If that is true then how do you explain the mite resistant strains of bees found living within the native range of varroa? The genetics for bees that can coexist with varroa are already in the gene pool. The question then is what selective forces are you applying as a beekeeper? I think the responsible beekeepers are those who have the long term in mind and I’m doubtful that treatment in the long term is what is best for the bees.
The “Darwining Beekeeping” article is worth a read, if you haven’t yet. It address some of your natural selection comments.
The cruel reality of modern beekeeping is that bees are engaged in a struggle to survive predation by varroa mites, and if someone wants to become a beekeeper, they must join that battle. Another reality is that backyard beekeepers become quickly overwhelmed by the complexity of the struggle. When faced with the intense control regimens required to keep bees alive, some rationalize that it’s just as easy to disengage and buy a new package next year when their bees die. I thank Rusty for pointing out the extent to which that hurts us all and especially the bees.
I really want to just say that I think the packages of bees and all the producers who MOVE their hive play a far larger role in mites and shb than treatment free bee keepers. I have NEVER gotten a package of bees to survive. I will never again buy another package of bees as they are a complete waste of money. I may as well roll up the 100.00 for each package and smoke it as all I have left at the end of the season is nothing. Treatment free? yep. they are the only ones I get through the Winter.
Excellent article, Rusty. I’ve been approached by a lot of people wanting to learn more about keeping bees, and I spend a lot of time telling them about the challenges of the mite situation, and always suggest that they spend some time helping me or another beekeeper for a season to see if they really like it…and to plant lots of bee friendly flowers, as that is something everyone can do to help the bees.
I agree, and flowers are especially important. My husband came back from a walk yesterday and said that he saw no flowers. Things have changed in the last decades, and it seems weed control and landscaping with “neat” plants has replaced bee forage. Then we wonder what’s wrong.
Rusty, an excellent rant, and I think a very accurate presentation of the facts.
Wow! Oh wow. So true. When I first got into beekeeping 2+ years ago I noticed that the local hardware stores and farm supplies were now selling bee equipment. I pointed it out to my wife that there is nothing about mite control or any treatment products. Her comment was “Well of course not, they want to sell the product. Not scare people away.” So I told her “It won’t be long before we start seeing bee equipment when we are out hitting the garage sales.” Right now it is a fad going across the country. My brother-in-law is renting some land and was tossing around the idea of keeping some bees last summer. At a family get-together I brought a complete hive and explained how it all works. I emphasized mite control, that he will have to do it. Not an option. This was all a surprise to him. His comment was “I thought all I had to do was get a hive, toss in some bees and take honey in the fall.” He decided not to try beekeeping after talking to a local beekeeper in his area who said that I was absolutely right. Beekeeping is a lot of work if you want be successful at it.
I met a beekeeper last summer who’s been in it for 8 years and didn’t use mite control. He runs 8 hives and said it costs too much to treat them. He reasoned that he can buy replacement packages cheaper than what they get for mite control products. When I asked about his winter losses it was always 50%. OK, lets see. Four packages (3 lbs.) runs me $540.00. I can buy a lot of mite control for that kind of money. I told him he should at least treat in the fall to offset the mite load when the hive population decreases, and he did. I talked to him two weeks ago and he only lost two hives over the winter and that he was going to keep up the mite control.
Good for you, Richard. I’ve noticed that too. Everybody wants to sell equipment, but they are often silent on the issues. It is a fad right now, and eventually it will subside, just as it did after the 70s green movement.
I bought a oxalic acid kit four years ago when I started keeping bees a little more seriously. So far it has worked well in the form of a threat rather than a treatment. Every year I expect to see a big setback due to mites, but it hasn’t happened yet. I see mites every summer but I’ve never seen deformed wing virus.
southeastern PA beekeeper 25 years 20 hives Please add me to your blog list
please add me to list
This is a different email. Which do you want? I already added the other.
Commercial beekeeper for 45 years. Can you add me please
Okay Joey. Done.
I am new to beekeeping but trying to read as much as possible. I am learning from another beekeeper but have already learned from your blog. Do you mind adding me to your blog? I will be testing and treating for mites thanks to your comments.
Okay Hart. You’ve been added.
Something every new beekeeper should read before embarking on saving the planet.
couldn’t agree more!!
I have kept bees for 44 years and never bought a queen or a package of bees. Caught swarms and divided colonies. Keeping hives together is not natural. Sure it’s easier for the beekeeper but it is a recipe for disaster. Survival of the fittest.
Agreed. In his article, Thomas Seeley mentions that in the forest in central New York, feral colonies are spaced about a half mile apart.
I am getting some Apivar Strips to use as a preventive maintenance in July/August.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciated your candor and straight forwardness on this issue. As a non migratory queen breeder I have definitely learned through the “school of hard knocks” I have lost plenty of colonies to my own naivete. When I learned that lesson I have lost really promising colonies with breeder queens to a sudden onslaught of mites from collapsing colonies in the area at a point in the season when it was too late to bring them back to health (our winters are cold).
One point that I would like to make is that selection for stock that is fit to largely handle pests and diseases does not need to happen on the colony level. If a beekeeper is testing enough to realize when there is an issue then the colony can continue to exist while the genetics turn over to a new, hopefully, better queen.
I agree with that. If you notice a problem in time, you can successfully re-queen.
Tom Seeley recommends to “refrain from treating colonies for varroa”. The reason for this recommendation is stated earlier in the article.
“Colonies are not vs. are treated for diseases. When we treat our colonies for diseases, we interfere with the host-parasite arms race between Apis mellifera and its pathogens and parasites. Specifically, we weaken natural selection for disease resistance. It is no surprise that most managed colonies in North America and Europe possess little resistance to Varroa mites, or that there are populations of wild colonies on both continents that have evolved strong resistance to these mites (Locke 2016). Treating colonies with acaracides and antibiotics may also interfere with the microbiomes of a colony’s bees”
He recommends not treating with the caveat that the beekeeper identify and kill colonies with high mite counts for two reasons.
1. To eliminate colonies that lack varroa resistance and prevent them spreading their genetics.
This is the same reason you should not treat. If a colony should be killed asap to select against their genes how much sense does it make to treat that same colony and keep them going when they would otherwise die out?
2. You will prevent the “mite bomb” phenomenon of mites spreading en masse to your other colonies.
I’ve not seen any studies that document the relative significance of mite populations being due to spreading from drift or robbing deadouts versus their natural population growth within a hive. I suspect the contribution is not significant.
Seeley’s recommendation short of going treatment free is not simply to treat when necessary but to treat and requeen with mite resistant stock. How do we get mite resistant stock? By not keeping non-resistant stock alive with treatments.
There has been a lot of discussion about the huge problem of mite bombs over on Bee-L. Maybe give them a try.
Resistance is not an on/off switch controlled by one gene. A failling colony might be resistant but, for example, the environmental load might have gotten too large making treatment the only way to help them cope with an highly unnatural situation. It is a multifactorial problem, not a simple resistant/non resistant decision.
Honeybees are a domesticated species that were subject to the sudden introduction of a highly letal foreign parasite and are forced to live in very unnatural conditions. Treatment is probably the only way to help the population adapt, and that will take time. You cant apply straightforward survival of the fittest logic to animals not living a natural live and domesticated to adapt to conditions imposed by humans. Unless you defend abandoning the keeping of bees and leaving them to it.
The irony Pedro is the bees best able to live with varroa are those who are found in the native range of varroa that have not had the “helping” hand of treatments. We only have that genetic stock available to us because natural selection was allowed to eliminate the bees that couldn’t survive varroa. Even Tom Seeley acknowledges that treating is breeding treatment resistant mites and recommends refraining from treatment. Treatment in the long term works against the bees and in favor of the mites. If you have colonies that can only be kept going by dumping chemicals in the hive I would rather those colonies die so they don’t breed with treatment free colonies.
Josh, just to clarify, are you talking of Apis mellifera as the species in the natural range of varroa or different bee species? Because the other species/populations co-evolved with varroa, Apis mellifera, that we farm, didn’t.
And you seem to think the extremes are the only option. It is as if you defend that we should not use antibiotics to save people because they are badly used sometimes and generate resistant bacteria. There is a rational way to treat for varroa.
No varroa treatment would mean no honeybeekeeping. We would go back to occasional harvesting of wild bee honey.
Varroa treatment is a bit like vaccination. When everyone else is treating it becomes possible to not treat and claim success. It’s the same when everyone vaccinates and some selfish people have the advantage of herd vaccination and decide not to use vaccines. If people stopped treating for varroa, honeybee colonies would simply collapse, for everyone.
I’m talking about apis melifera in Russia. That is native range for both species. Feral colonies are found there that have natural resistance to varroa not found in areas that varroa is new to. They didn’t get that way through beekeepers going around dumping chemicals in every feral colony they could find. They got that way on their own. The bees without the survival traits died and the ones that had the survival traits filled the gap. Rusty’s own source for this article recommends against treating for the same reasons I’ve referred to. He only recommends treatment in combination with replacing the queen with mite resistant stock. The comparison to use of antibiotics is a fair one. It is indeed a problem that the use of antibiotics tips the scales of selection in favor of the bacteria we are fighting. The difference is that we accept that trade off because we value the life of a human more than the life of a bee colony. What is best for the individual organism isn’t necessarily best for the species as a whole.
Thanks for the thought provoking article. Congratulations, you have made the public enemy list of the “treatment free religion”. Watch your back they can be unrelenting.
I do not like to treat with chemicals, but I do treat with OA and thymol. I also am a big believer in Mel Disselkoen’s methods. But even he gets mites. I also enjoy Dr. Seely’s research articles, but quite frankly none of us will live long enough to see his recommendations put to use on a large scale.
You have identified a big problem in getting to mite resistant bees-“do gooder” beehavers.
My advice to you after this article: DUCK
Thanks for the advice. I’ve been ducking them for years. Every now and then I just think that some of the things that are said in private need to be said in public. My main objective is just to get people thinking and talking. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, although a few do. The rest can find a website that suits them better.
I don’t use hard chemicals either. I use thymol, oxalic, and hopguard. To me it’s not important how people manage their mites as long as they manage them. I don’t care if they want to be treatment free either, as long as they keep their mites from invading other hives. I really don’t understand why people don’t see the difference.
Last fall, even tho my timing was way off, I treated with hopguard, courtesty of learning about that on this blog. I already have the oxalic acid lined up and for the ready this spring (if it ever becomes spring around here). I did lose one hive, as Rusty explained to me about big healthy hives also being the ones most vulnerable to heavy mite loads, a concept I had not considered. The little swarm hive that moved in on the sneak was the one I completely expected to die and they seem to be booming. I have had bees in my backyard for a few years now, but still feel pretty dumb about the whole thing. I do agree with a few things that seem to be making a consistent return in the conversation: the need for flowering plants, esp.of the locally native variety. We humans are a little too enamored with the neat and tidy, mowing everything down we see. I also find the discussion about “domestic” honey bees as an introduced species interesting as well. As we become more awake to how the natural world functions, it becomes more and more obvious that the native beings are well adapted over millions of years, to function with the environment in which they exist. Upset that balance, which we do often, and the whole thing gets taken down in a tail spin. I don’t think most people understand where their food comes from. I even asked my college age students this one day and they looked at me like I was the most stupid thing they ever saw. Of course, and obviously, it comes from the grocery store or McDonalds. So, there ya go. We have a whole lot of educating to do. I am happy for these posts, from everyone, bc I learn something from everyone everyday. Even if I may not agree with a perspective, it makes my world bigger anyway and for that I am quite happy.
Someone suggested we start to look at bees as stock and we would take care of them better. Maybe we should go one more step and think of them like the family dog.
I do find our treatment of honey bees odd. There is no other introduced species that we so like to pretend belongs here and is somehow natural. Many of the folks who care for our truly native bees would like to see the honey bee disappear altogether. Although that is also an extreme position, I can understand that one. Native bees in a native landscape would be nice.
If I could offer a theory about liking to pretend that the honey bee belongs here. Maybe it is all tied up with our agricultural economy’s dependence, and ultimately us, on the honey bee for the environmental services it supplies, namely pollination for food crops that are worth billions of dollars, honey and wax. Then there is the whole bee keeping supply business which has to put a decent amount of money into the economy. This is an important insect that has become integrated into our economy and when I think about what would happen to our food supply should this insect disappear, it gives me pause. To the idea of nurturing along the native bees, I bought my first Mason Bee set up and am waiting to see how that works out this season. The bumblebees are also present here and I have planted a lot of bee balm bc they really like it. To the idea of the extripation of the honey bee in the US, I don’t know where I stand on this point. I guess if I had my choice I would rather see the Asian Carp never get into the Great Lakes and the zebra and quagga mussels go the way of the wind. Anyway, this year I am going to move my hives as far apart as I can and do my part in making sure that I am not the source of mite infections. Keep bringing those rants, they are helpful.
Yes, they are extremely tied to our system of agriculture. But that system (large single-crop expanses often controlled by chemical inputs) is totally unnatural. Yet we want to raise all-natural bees to do a totally unnatural job. When you really think about it, the ironies run deep. It’s obvious to me that you have thought about these issues, and I always respect that, regardless of anyone’s ultimate conclusions.
When I get on a rant, it’s because I want people to at least think about the complexities. Sometimes our ideas change over time, sometimes not. I started out as an all-natural beekeeper, but I couldn’t bear to watch my bees die, anymore than I can watch a family pet die. My daughter and my pets were given vaccinations and medical care. So were my bees. Maybe they are all weaker for it, but I don’t believe so. In my heart I truly believe that we are responsible for the health and comfort of those we choose to take into our care. I also believe we have responsibility to our fellow beekeepers which, apparently, is not a popular idea.
Sharon you could move them farther apart or you could also put robber screens on them.
Hi Josh. I am going to move the hives further apart for sure and I did put robber screens on them last year. I found that this worked out well for a variety of reasons so I will do that again this year. (It’s still snowing here so I am not doing much with the hives except checking them.) Thanks for sharing that idea. Worth noting that a Boardman feeder and a robber screen don’t work out so well together. I like this blog for a number of reasons, a. we get the expertise of Rusty and b. we get the observations/practices/experiences of a huge variety of people. I have learned bunches here and anticipate that is a trend that will continue over a long period of time.
There is an ag. movement afoot called permaculture, I bet you have heard of it, that attempts to mimic the way the natural world operates without all the chemicals and the monoculture. The first time I saw a permaculture farm I did not know I was looking at a farm, it so resembles a field that has been there a long time. Mark Shepherd is the guy who is the Aldo Leopold of this movement, and has written a couple of books on the subject for those who like reading about new stuff. If one is interested in going back even further, there are always the Native American ways of being, the Three Sisters cropping system comes to mind. We have created quite a problem for ourselves, and I think it is slowly beginning to dawn on us how big that problem is and what a feat it is going to be to get out of it.It will take centuries. We could go on for weeks about this without getting to the nits and grits of it all. Suffice to say, as beekeepers, we are feeling the effects every time we lose hives to parasites and disease, to an introduced species we are desperately trying to keep alive. You are right, the ironies run very deep indeed.
Anyway, I could go on my own rant here, so let me close with a little story. I wanted my students to understand the problem of invasive species, namely plants that are taking over the dune ecosystems, so I arranged a little outdoor play date to remove these plants, conducts some science and ultimately present a paper on their findings. One of these kids opens his presentations with this comment: “Invasive species are like that ex. You just can’t seem to get rid of them.” Bingo. Nailed it.
I get conflicted sometimes about agriculture. I have degrees in both agronomic crops (use chemicals) and environment studies (never touch a chemical) and, to some extent, I can empathize with both sides. Although personally I’m a strong advocate of organic agriculture and natural environments, I can see the problems that a large world population has created. Truly I believe the answers are not always the ones we would most like. When I look at photos taken in population hotspots like Beijing and Mexico City, I’m amazed we can feed as many as we do.
Check out this month’s American Bee Journal. An Australian bee “expert” says pretty much the same thing. In particular, he believes hauling 1.8 million hives into and out of California for the almond crop shares disease and pests and then broadcasts (my word) them all over the continent. So there. By the way, all these snowflakes need to get over it. An opinion is just that, not an attack on individuals. Thanks for all your opinions, even the wrong ones. HA.
Thanks, I think(!). You’ve stuck with me and my opinions all these years and I appreciate it. There will always be haters (i.e. snowflakes) but I learn from them too. It always helps to know what the other side is thinking and how they got there.
I will check out the ABJ article.
Geez! The war rages on! Took a lot of stings here Rusty, but you’ll survive … you’re a survivor bee! LOL Even though we have ‘VHS” queens, they cannot be mass-produced naturally, considering each successive queen w/have less and less of the desired trait. What people don’t understand is that it will take another hundred years or more for the bees to even come close to natural resistance. Even these ‘VHS” hives can be overloaded with mites and need to be treated. Antibiotics are not a necessity in the beehive, but mite treatments are! I cringe every time I hear people who want to “Save the Bees!” and see how many people put these hives on their property with absolutely no knowledge of how to take care of them. And then the virus load …. If it isn’t one thing, it’s another!
Thank you. And I agree “mite resistant” is not “mite proof.” If the varroa load is great enough, they too will go down, which is one reason it would be nice if people took responsibility for their own mites instead of letting them run free.
I’m a conflicted fan. On one hand, I admire your writing and I respect your beekeeping knowledge and experience. On the other, I’m apparently on everybody’s enemies list because I’m a backyard beekeeper and I’ve never treated my bees. I’m baffled by your rant, which doesn’t match my experience. Let me describe my treatment-free situation and hopefully you can explain why I need to treat my bees.
I live in the hills of suburban Los Angeles and took up beekeeping three years ago knowing nothing about bees other than what I read in “Beekeeping for Dummies.” I bought woodware and tools, joined a local beekeeping group and eventually hived a rescued swarm. (Actually, it wasn’t that simple…my first two swarms absconded and it was the third one that became my first hive). Since then, through swarm capture and helping friends with cutouts, I’ve come to keeping 7 hives in three different locations. In those three years I’ve seen an occasional hive beetle or wax moth, but I’ve never seen a varroa mite or hive disease of any sort. The only hives I’ve lost were two that became hostile. 80% of feral bees around here are said to carry Africanized traits and my biggest problem has been dealing with aggression. One hive became so hot there was no time to re-queen it and I gave it to a rural keeper; the other, after re-queening failed, I put down with dry ice. All my hives at this point are healthy and easy to work with. I inspect them every couple of weeks to make sure they’re queenright and have enough resources and space. And I’ve fed them when their resources were lacking. Southern California’s years-long drought has meant that I’ve only harvested three frames of honey in the past two years, mostly to win the good will of neighbors. I’m not in it for the honey or money…I enjoy working with the bees. Also my hives are registered annually with the county agricultural commission and have been checked by our local inspector.
You can call my hives “mite-bombs” but the nearest agricultural area is ten miles from here…I’m not threatening commercial keepers and I’m hosting feral bees that survive around here just fine on their own. My bees aren’t lawn ornaments. They’re not infecting wild species because they’re healthy and primarily feral themselves. I inspect for mites but have never seen one so accusing me of letting “mites be mites” seems over the top.
So why should I treat my bees when they’re not sick and they’re not a threat to anyone else’s bees?
Here’s my rant back atcha: Before you cast the woes of the bees at the feet of backyard keepers, I’d like to take a slight look back in time. Conventional beekeeping has been in existance in it’s present form for—what–say about a hundred years here in the states? In that time, we pretty much outlawed any other hive type than Langstroths, Managed to quickly and unnaturally spread varroa into all 50 states, fostered AFB in our overpopulated apiaries, started up a bee-raising empire in which bee genetics have simply tanked, introduced Africanized bees, promoted the use of insecticides and antibiotics into the hives, thereby raising supermites, and began supplying our bees with plastic comb. Our hives are thin-walled flimsy things. We insist that our bees build in straight lines, thereby diminishing our bees ability to control hive temperature and humidity in the hives. We open our hives often, destroying the propolis envelope and setting our bees back 2-4 days trying to restore hive balance after we’ve been in doing essentially open heart surgery by moving combs around, pulling combs, adding empty space, performing splits—all incredibly gross maneuvers as opposed to how our bees work, which is slowly and by degree. Rusty, conventional care means STRESSED BEES. Period. Stressed bees are sick bees.
The mites that destroy our hives today are the creation of conventional beekeeping methods, which have created ultra virulent mites and weak, medicated bees. Why should any of us backyard keepers listen to the advice of the system (yours) that has put our bees on the road to collapse? It is bees from conventional yards that weaken my genepool of wild bees. It is mites created by modern beekeeping that attack my hives. You, Rusty, and beekeepers like you, are the problem. Not a backyard beekeeper with one hive who gives up in a year or two anyhow.
Are you following up on any of Seeley’s recommendations? Are you moving your hives so they are not on top of each other? Are you recrafting your hives to be well insulated winter and summer? Are you getting your hives high up off the ground? Are you sourcing your bees locally only? Are you allowing your bees to requeen naturally?
Seeley made the comment in this article that he is “saddened” by the actions of the conventional beekeepers and by how deeply they keep working against the natural behavior of the honeybee. The Darwinian beekeeping article was profound in its implications, and Seeley was NOT aiming his comments at backyard hobby beekeepers.
I don’t know why you think I’m a conventional beekeeper. I treat my bees with soft treatments for mites, yes, but nothing else. To answer your questions:
Are you following up on any of Seeley’s recommendations? Yes, I’m trying all of them. Yesterday, I cut all my hives back to one deep box, according to Seeley’s outline.
Are you moving your hives so they are not on top of each other? Yes. I started last year by getting rid of half my hives, and have spread the others out into non-contiguous yards.
Are you recrafting your hives to be well insulated winter and summer? Yes. I’m experimenting with various configurations and I lost zero colonies over the winter we are just coming out of.
Are you getting your hives high up off the ground? Yes. At the minimum two feet. Some higher.
Are you sourcing your bees locally only? I never bring in bees from the outside. I raise my own.
Are you allowing your bees to requeen naturally? Yes. I have done no re-queening from outside the apiary for over five years.
If you haven’t already, you should read Randy Oliver’s article in this month’s (April 2017) issue of American Bee Journal “The varroa problem part 6b.” It’s an excellent summation.
Seeley recommends requeening with mite resistant stock. Are you doing that? And if so how are you selecting mite resistant stock in your queen breeding from hives that are being treated?
Yes. Not all my hives are treated. I have resistant stock in my top-bar hive that hasn’t been treated at all and is still incredibly strong after seven years. I monitor all my hives on a regular basis and treat only those that need it.
Thanks again for all you do Rusty! Information is knowledge. Knowledge is a life line.
Courage up Rusty! Treatment frees are like democrats they believe in free speech as long as its theirs. NO ONE ELSE!!@!
Thanks! But no more politics!
Could you expand the idea of the one deep box? I am assuming you mean one deep super/brood box, and that’s it? That little swarm colony that moved in while I wasn’t looking spent the summer and winter in a one deep box and they seem to be doing really well. Since this comment, I am thinking I should leave well enough alone and not put another box on top? I don’t harvest honey, I am in this strictly for the ecology of it all. I am also thinking about a top bar hive mainly bc I think it i will be easier for me to manage weight wise, not tearing the hive apart which seems to tick the bees off and it strikes me as a more natural way for the bees to live. Clearly I need to bone up on this person Seeley; this is a new name to me.
Thomas Seeley is one of the most respected honey bee biologists in the world. Currently, he’s at Cornell University and he has written some of the bibles of the beekeeper, including Honeybee Democracy, Honeybee Ecology, The Wisdom of the Hive, and Following the Wild Bees. He’s also an all-around nice person.
As for your other questions, singles and summer insulation, I plan to take up these subjects in a future post. But for now, yes; single deeps seem better able to defend against mites for a number of reasons. I’ve reduced my doubles down to singles, and my triples down to one deep plus one shallow. I intend to take them all down to singles within a week or two, but I’m doing it in steps.
Could you also speak to the idea of summer insulation?
Yes. See my previous comment.
Your firewall wouldn’t allow my post…perhaps it’s all the web references? I’ve posted it here for your review:
Thanks, and please feel free to re-post here if you find it of value.
Wow! This is one of the most interesting, enlightening posts I’ve ever read, here or elsewhere. We have some version of this conversation at almost every meeting of my local club, so I will share this with them, if that’s OK. Complicated problems such as varroa need to be approached from as many angles as possible and there are so many good points made in your original comments, and some in the responses, too.
Thanks, Rusty, for being in the educational vanguard! Your passion for the bees is inspiring.
Thanks Janet. Use the post however you like.
Confidential to JT,
I deleted your comment as you requested. If you are using WordPress, go to admin/settings/discussion/ and scroll down the page to “Comment Blacklist.” Just put their email address in the box, and poof! The really bitter ones don’t want answers, they want a soapbox for their bitterness.
As for unsubscribes, I welcome them. If you’re paying by how many emails you send out, you don’t want to pay for haters. I try to keep my total subscriptions below the next price point, so I have a limited number available. Sometimes I unsubscribe them before they do it, but in either case, you win because you’re not paying for someone who’s not interested.
Hope that helps. Chin up!
I have been doing research for beekeeping for a few years. I have never found any advice that was as straight forward or commonsensicle as yours. Thank you.
We have decided on a homemade top bar. We are, unfortunately, getting a package from a regional dealer here in North Idaho. Next year we may have to do the same, but we found a person who sells packages of survivor stock which are supposed to be mite resistant instead of the Italians which are so common. We have bought tons of sugar and are ready to feed! The most daunting thing for me is going to be to little rascals, the mite, quick, jumping around, infecting and gross! They scare the dickens out of me and I don’t scare easily.
We will stick with it and keep mining the amazing resource which is honeybeesuites.com!
Thank you, Raul.
Hear, hear!!! Thank you Rusty!
Will you please add me to your blog list. Brand new beekeeper in the house. Need to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. Thank!
I know this is a bit late but thank you for writing this.
I know many natural and treatment free beekeepers. Some do it with great success, and those that do monitor their mites.
Some will use brood breaks or drone sacrifice to manage mites, and some will requeen trying to obtain more mite resistant stock if they see a hive is a mite bomb.
I breed queens for mite resistance, try to keep it natural, but I do test when I have a problem and destroy the queen if it continues.
I get so angry when I read or talk to someone who does not monitor and says they are doing a service to the gene pool somehow. I’ll argue that in an infested hive the mites reproduce every 24 days, so you have 10000 mite reproductions each month where the hive [colony] reproduces one or two times a year at most. Leaving an infested hive is really giving the advantage to the mites, not the bees.
But somehow there’s a belief in some circles that monitoring is counter to natural or treatment free beekeeping. I even hear talk of using skeps and hollow tree trunks as hives because they are closer to “natural” and cannot be inspected.
I believe if you want to go “hands off” and let the bees be bees, then let the bees be bees and leave them alone.
But if you want to keep bees for whatever your motivation then make the effort to help the bees battle the mites and the only way to know if you’re helping is to monitor.
I agree completely. If you don’t know what’s going on in your hives, you are not a beekeeper, you are just an uninformed person with bees. Only by knowing if you are coming or going are you actually doing something useful. They say “ignorance is bliss” but I don’t think so.
l’ve read this and similar posts about treating vs. not treating for mites. While I do treat with OA and thymol, I would like to cut back as much as possible. I would like to move my hives further apart but am constrained by another bee pest – bears. My hives are in a bee yard surrounded by an electric bear fence. I’ve had to expand the fenced area twice now (heading for #3 this spring, I think). I have plenty of acreage but electric fences are expensive. Just wondering what you use, if anything. Also, we use 8′ wooden fence posts but I have seen some fences that just use metal rods. I question how effective those are against bears and am wondering if you or your readers have any experience with them. They would definitely be easier to install but don’t seem as sturdy. We do have bears that wander through occasionally so the fence is necessary.
I don’t use anything against bears, so I have just been lucky so far. I do have an electric fence mounted on metal t-bars to keep out my neighbor’s cattle, and it works fine for that purpose. It’s the electric shock more than the strength of the fence post that keeps animals away. That said, bears are more persistent than cattle.
Here’s where I get confused on this whole ‘treat the bees’ or ‘don’t treat the bees’ subject. To my knowledge the honey bee existed before there were beekeepers to ‘save’ them from mites. For bees in hollows of trees, the tree doesn’t exude a miticide (pesticide) and yet bees existed long before humans started carrying for them.
The best bee advice I ever got was from the owner of Beekind (up in Sebastapol) – he said that I when I embarked on beekeeping that I would get lots of advice. He pointed out that much of the advice may very well be spot-on, but that specific advice might only be true based on a given beekeepers location and general situation.
Michael Bush seems pretty adamant about not using treatment on bees as it was only propping up weak hives. Yet, he also likely has a great number of hives so his loss of a hive or two, every once in awhile would not be as detrimental as it would be to a person who had only one or two hives to start with.
As I always say,,, the more I read about beekeeping advice the more confusing it gets. 🙂
I’ve said this a thousand times, but once more won’t hurt. Bees did fine for all those years BECAUSE they didn’t have us mucking things up. Bees with varroa mites lived in one part of the world, bees with tracheal mites in another part, bees with SHB in another, and so on. All the bees in their local areas developed resistance to the local problems. Then we came along and mixed it all up and spread the diseases everywhere. So now our bees have to fight all the pests mixed together, not just one or two. Sure, I absolutely believe they will develop resistance again. And just like before, it may take a couple thousand years.