My last two posts about Varroa mites led into a discussion of treatment-free beekeeping, a place I didn’t want to go.
The truth is, I would love to see everyone become treatment free. But at the same time, I do not want to extinguish the fire, the passion, and the fascination that newcomers have with their honey bees. The conflict arises because many folks, especially those newbees, don’t have the knowledge to begin treatment free properly. Almost without exception, their colonies die. The following year they buy more bees, and they die as well. Many give up after two or three years of loss.
Why treatment free so often fails
I’ve been writing my entire life, but if I had five more lifetimes to explain why treatment-free beekeepers so often fail, I couldn’t say it better than Randy Oliver did in a few short paragraphs. Even if you are not interested in raising your own queens, go back and read the introduction to Randy’s article called “Queens for Pennies.” The first sub-head, “But First a Rant” explains the treatment-free conundrum in a nutshell.
As Randy so plainly states, the package bees we buy from large commercial producers are raised to perform in certain ways. They are usually good honey producers, they are often gentle, and they will overwinter if managed properly. But they are not treatment-free stock. They have been raised in a treated environment, and once you take that away, they will most likely die—if not in the first year, then in the second.
In my opinion, purchasing livestock that needs care, and then withholding that care, is animal abuse. I believe it is ethically and morally wrong to watch something die just because you want to call yourself “treatment free,” and I think some folks are more interested in wearing the label than in succeeding. “Treatment free” is not a badge of honor if everything around you dies.
The gold standard
Treatment free is the gold standard we all want to attain. But to succeed at treatment free, you need experience, basic knowledge of honey bee genetics, and stock that has potential. Moreover, you need a plan. If you don’t have a plan, if you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there, you will spend your time raising mites instead of bees. We’ve all seen it happen. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Many new beekeepers want to start treatment free without any knowledge or skill whatsoever. Some are into it before they’ve ever lit a smoker or inspected a hive. You can’t race an Indy car before you learn to drive, and you can’t land a triple loop if you don’t know how to skate. Likewise, you can’t improve honey bees if you don’t know how they work.
Pay your dues
In Chapter 21 of the 2015 edition of The Hive and the Honey Bee, authors Currie, Spivak and Reuter say it well:
New beekeepers should first focus on learning best management practices and later, with experience, focus on the nuances of bee genetics.
It’s no exaggeration that I’ve talked to so-called treatment-free beekeepers who don’t know the first thing about bee biology. I even met a self-described “breeder” this past summer who had never heard of a diploid drone. Whoops. It’s not hard to make yourself look ridiculous. So get real. Pay your dues. Learn about bees and mites before you try to change them.
Evaluate your apiary
Then too, be sure to evaluate your local area. If your home-town bee club is importing hundreds of packages every spring, you have a long row to hoe. Trying to influence the gene pool in an area that is constantly deluged with commercial stock will require some serious management, if it’s possible at all. Consider finding a better place to keep your bees.
And be realistic about how many colonies you can effectively manage. You can’t have a treatment-free program with only two or three colonies. If you think you can, go back and study the effects of polyandry and haplodiploidy on honey bee inheritance. It’s a numbers game, and with a small colony count, the numbers are not on your side. Perhaps you would be better off forming a group of like-minded individuals and pooling your resources.
The thing is, there are ways to succeed at treatment free, but you need mindfulness. You need a plan. You need some education. Trying to “save the bees” by letting them all die, is not an auspicious beginning.
Science without politics
My own education is in agronomy (the science of soil management and crop production) and environmental science. I try to use that knowledge to teach others about bees (both native and not) without a particular agenda. I simply believe that the more we know, the better we can understand the nuances, the alternatives, and the consequences. After that, what you do and how you do it is entirely up to you.
Honey Bee Suite