miscellaneous musings rants

“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.”

  • 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.

  • 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…).

  • 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.

    • I know I’m coming along a year after the fact, but I just wanted to clear something up. There hasn’t been a case of actual CCD reported in over three years according to researchers. I just did my master’s degree project in April/May of this year on the subject. The media has taken CCD and run with it…and general colony death from a myriad of reasons has become lumped under a CCD umbrella. Colony collapse disease is an actual, specific thing, not just a generalized higher instance of mortality.

      • Really? Where is this? CCD is going like crazy here in Ohio. Of course the term is generic in that there is no proven cause so it’s labeled CCD, however it’s valid in that there are times you can’t pin point why the hive failed.

    • You do know that the “pesticides” and “chemicals” are naturally occurring correct? I tried the treatment free route, I now have lost 2/3 rds of my hives. They had everything needed to survive, except the treatments they needed. Not sure why people are ok giving dogs and cats and humans “chemicals” to survive yet are against helping bees.

  • Dear Tiffiny and Rusty,

    It seems you both agree on somethings more than you disagree, even when the choice in wording comes from different styles. The styles is where most of the confusion happens.

    A quote I remember but not by whom “It’s amazing that any 2 humans can carry a conversation without misunderstandings happening.” Simply put, a sentence containing just one word that has a different meaning to the 2 people can cause a negative reaction that can spiral out of control. I can understand the negative reaction to the words “production units,” until Rusty’s clarification. Personal intent of words “term of affection, only someone who really loved their bees would call them that.” It is hardly “inhumane or incredibly unthoughtful.”

    I refer to my honey bees, my never to be eaten chickens (will have graves), the bunny, dogs or any living thing that is in my household or yard that I have chosen to take responsibility for and add to my inter-species family. I try to never think of them as pets/property or slaves; I call them friends/partners/co-workers and family. I greatly appreciate their efforts, skills and tolerance of me. Be it conscious or unconscious intent on their part. A rose is still a rose even if its an alba. [A white-flowered shrub rose Rosa × alba.]

    I agree with Tiffiny when she gives her definition “they are a living breathing organism working within a living breathing ecosystem,” and also read that Rusty also has a respect, feeling responsibility and concern for living beings too as can be found by trying to convey all life has value.

    I disagree with Tiffiny when she later defends her right to devalue a life form. 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.

    I think Rusty might have a better understanding of Tiffiny’s definition of “a living breathing organism working within a living breathing ecosystem” then even Tiffiny.

    Yes all life eats and or uses other life to survive, BUT we as people are part of THE WHOLE ecosystem not above, below or separate. Until we have that broader respect of all life we will keep failing at being a true asset to the whole ecosystem or even our whole species. Just my opinion. Hugs to Tiffiny and Rusty. I think your emotional hearts and thoughts are filled with good intentions and both paths/views/words, you really are protectively aiming at the same target just coming from different directions.

  • Well said! Excellent write up.

    It fills me with hope to see that some folks DO have common sense!

    PLEASE don’t take the Organic NATURAL Beekeeping for beginners classes until AFTER you take a standard beginners beekeeping class, and have made it through your first winter with your bees!

  • Interesting post and interesting responses. I agree with you Rusty, our modern bee is not as Mother Nature fashioned her, nor is the world now as it was when the bee evolved into it. We have added a slew of stressors, most particularly Varroa mites, for which the bees simply do not have the appropriate genome. The bees need our help now.

    I am particularly vexed by the lack of critical thinking that the “treatment free” and “let the bees be bees” advocates exemplify. In my biozone on the USA/Canada border, if bees are truly untreated, the colonies become mite infested, likely disease infested with mite-vectored diseases, and die. Period. This is a bee-dense area, awash in an annual infusion of both New Zealand bee genes (the source of most new packages for Canada), and awash in an annual tide of mobile pollination bees. In my area, you cannot, cannot breed a “locally adapted” (and that term has a shifting definition) bee as the gene pool is too fluid.

    Varroa life cycles turn over many, many times in the life of any one honey bee queen, and thus Varroa can out-evolve honey bees every time. There is increasing evidence that “survivor bees” are a fiction, and that what we get is “survivor mites”…who promptly return to virulence again when returned to bee-dense areas. I have been plagued by treatment free, survivor apiaries that moved into the fields next to mine. Mite numbers went through the roof that year, and I was battling varroasis, EFB and AFB all late summer. I did not appreciate being made part of the survivor project experiment.

    Only practical, critical thinking can make life better for the honey bee, principally by pursuing research that eradicates the Varroa mite. Meanwhile, I take care of my bees when sick with appropriate remedies and treat for mites twice a year (at the minimum). There are no feral colonies left here, all seem to die out from Varroa predation over winter and the sites are restocked by early spring swarms. And in any case, feral habitat ie. hollow trees large enough, are vanishing with development.

    As for bees being domestic slaves, wow. Without the income I get from selling honey and nucs, I could never afford to keep the bees. And in Canada at least and certainly the Pacific Northwest, bees can’t make it without an attentive beekeeper. If we want to have honey bees to pollinate all the things we like to eat (and native bees do not fill that gap adequately, and are also suffering from forage and habitat degradation), then we need to support beekeepers and bees. Feral honey bee populations are no longer adequate to cover our pollination needs, particularly when the fields are now huge, sprayed monocultures with NO hedgerows to feed pollinators once the crop bloom is done…leaving a whole hungry year ahead of any bee in the area.

    Finally, I was shocked when the most vocal “treatment free” advocate in my bee club confided that his winter losses were just the same as the national average (30-40%). But, he added, his bees were dying from different causes. I wonder. How would you know?

    Our good wishes and wishful thinking will not help the bees, nice as they are. Hard work, and good research will.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I’ve been reading your site for quite a while now, even before I kept bees during my research phase. I am in my third year as a treatment free beek, and have successfully overwintered 3 hives still with original queens and have grown my numbers from those 3 original colonies to 10, this being my third season. I have accomplished this with bees I lucked into, captured from bait hives. My only explanation for my success is this area is thriving with mite resistant bees. Other than normal management, I have done no treatments. I am here to tell folks, and this is obviously a region by region scenario, not only is this form of beekeeping possible, it is THE best way to manage bees. When I say, “let the bees, be” to me it means let them, if at all possible, live their lives without chemical treatments, control pests like SHB and varroa. They can, let them try. The majority of beeks here prefer to do “preventative” treatments on bees that are of foreign lineage, because that’s what they were taught by their mentor. Get Brand X bee from this super breeder, treat, harvest, pray to God they overwinter in their weakened state. It’s frustrating to watch how people “treat” their bees in my area when I know for a fact you don’t need to treat. I just get tired of the vitriolic rhetoric aimed at guys like me who are just keeping bees, and doing better at it than those that “treat.” I understand the need to in a lot of instances, but I myself refuse to keep bees this way. Luckily, I don’t have to.

    Thanks, and sorry if this seemed a bit like a tirade.

  • I wish to say that i believe we humans ARE above the other creatures, not just ” part of the whole” or how ever it was written above. I believe we should be responsible to the other creatures and care for them properly, and all these types of things, but in my beliefs, which are from the bible, and a belief in God, and His word, that we have dominion over the other creatures. And that is a long story, but i wish to close with this. Folks whom believe that we are “just part of the whole” should state that that is their personal belief, and not state it as fact.

  • Sorry, maybe my comment should not be published. It takes away from the original discussion.
    Sorry. it just grinds me how people think bees are people. They are bees.

    • Brain,

      It’s just that not everyone sees it your way. I do not confuse bees with people, although I do like to compare them because they are extraordinarily similar. The main difference is that bees (some types) show up in the fossil record over 100 million years ago. Modern man shows up 200,000 years ago, so bees have been around five hundred times longer. It’s their planet, not ours, and I believe they will be here long after we are gone. We are made of the same materials and work in basically the same way. The only species that thinks we’re superior to animals is us, which tells you something.

      • Rusty — not to quibble but just a minor point of math here — if bees have been around for 100 million years and humans 200,000 wouldn’t that be 500x longer not 5x that you specified?

        Love your site, love your writing and well reasoned responses!

        Keep up the good work!

  • I was going to respond to Brian’s post, but you did such an eloquent job of it Rusty, anything I said now would just be unnecessary. I’ll try anyway.

    Brian, go look in the mirror and try to convince yourself you have control and dominion over every living thing on Earth. Yeah, right. I don’t think you truly believe your own words. To what end would such thoughts be warranted? What’s the point?

  • I hope I am posting this in the correct place.
    In one of our hives I found in my brood box an outside frame with the little black beetles that are usually called SHB, there were about a dozen of them along with a few bees who did not seem to mind them. I shook the bees off and replaced the frame with a new one. I got rid of the infested frame by putting it in a plastic garbage bag. I heard that there is a trap for SHB that works well, do you know where I could find one? and do you have any recommendations or comments?
    thank you,

    • Gerard,

      Most of the catalog bee suppliers have some kind of beetle trap. You can try Blue Sky Bee Supply, Brushy Mountain, Mann Lake, Betterbee, or Kelley Beekeeping. Also keep the hives as populous as possible. A big healthy colony can pretty much keep the beetles in check.

  • I’ve wanted to get bees for a long time and finally decided to give it a try. I’m largely in the live and let live category of people so the let “bees be bees” concept appeals to me. That said, I’m also in the crowd that thinks, if something needs your help and you can help, you should.

    Anyway for my first bee experiment I have decided to build a top-bar bee hive. I have what I think are the appropriate dimensions and the like, cribbed from various sources. I’m just going to build it and hoist it into a big tree by my garden. I’ll put in the recommended, bait materials and wait.

    If I am successful in attracting a swarm of bees I will let them settle in for awhile and then lower it down to a stand where I can more easily keep an eye on it. I’m putting in a glass observation window as shown on many plans and observation is pretty much ALL I intend to do. I will feed them if I think it’s necessary but I will not steal their honey or mess with how they want to live. ALL I will do is watch. My bifocal glasses are a pain so I will use my digital camera so I can blow up images and get a better view if there appears to be issues with other smaller insects.

    Again, If it works and the bees seem happy I will build more hives and learn to split and multiply them till I feel OK with taking a little share of the honey.

  • Loved your pic with the cat and the chapter title: The Ethics of Eating Animals.
    I immediately saw the title from the cat’s perspective. For the cat, eating is an adjective.

    If we advocate treatment free beekeeping, why not treatment free humans? The fact is, even under the best nutrition, hygiene, and seclusion, humans’ ability to survive to maturity is low.

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