So you want to be treatment free

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.

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  • Rusty,

    I’m not sure I was advancing any agenda. I enjoy your website and simply answered the questions you asked. I have kind of stumbled into being treatment free. It wasn’t some pre-determined choice. I don’t go around preaching.

    I’m not convinced that you have to be a bee expert to be treatment free. I am not an expert, and I have been treatment free since I started beekeeping five years ago. I live in suburbia and most of my bees are in Park where they get good and more or less unpoisoned forage, so I have some advantages. Although I didn’t know this when I started, there are some wild bees in the Park to contribute their good genetics. Also, I live in the UK where we don’t really do packages, we usually start with nucs.

    I’m not convinced that you need to be a self conscious bee breeder, or that you need a large number of colonies to be treatment free, either. I started with two colonies, peaked this summer at six, and now I have four, having lost two this autumn. It’s working for me, and my bees are generally speaking healthy, although of course they have varroa like anyone does, and one had nosema last year. One hive has been inspected by the local bee inspector and he was very impressed.

    You seem to be very didactic about the level of knowledge required to be treatment free, and also about the particular way to go about it. I listen to Solomon Parker’s podcasts for example, and his style of beekeeping is quite dissimilar to mine. We’re both “treatment free” but we seem to have quite a different outlook. He is doing what seems to me to be a kind of semi-industrialized, quite high intervention style of treatment free beekeeping. I’m not critizing that, but I am just saying that it’s not the only way of doing it.

    I started with a lot of help from the regional bee inspector, whose course I attended before I started, and another member of the local beekeeper’s association. Neither of them agreed with my approach to beekeeping, but they offered their help and I learnt a lot from them, as I am from your website.

    I do intend to expand the number of hives and other nesting sites in the Park, and there is another beekeeping group not so far away ( within drone flying distance ) practicing a similar style of beekeeping with a couple of hives. There are also some more traditional beekeepers around, although not huge numbers. Given the existing wild colonies and the gradual build up of well adapted colonies, it should be possible to build up some genetic strength over a period of time.

    I wonder why you use language like “ethically and morally wrong” to describe the journey I have been on and am still on ? I am learning from you and your website. Perhaps you could listen to, if not learn from me and others like me ?


    • Adam,

      I had to look back to see what you wrote. In no way were you in the group I was referring to, some of whom have been harassing me for years. Most are so vicious they wouldn’t dare post their words in a comment. You are totally in the clear.

  • Thank you for this. I’d like to be treatment free at some point. But I don’t even have my first hive. I’m starting two in the spring. I do have a background in biology so I hear you loud and clear. Baby steps. I’m in this for the long haul.

  • Thank you, Rusty! Your message is so welcome and so important. There are many of us beginning beeks that would love to be raising our bees without chemicals but, as you point out, we just don’t have the knowledge or experience yet. So it’s nice to hear that we are still doing something worthwhile, even if we’re not perfect. I’m a farm girl, born and raised, and I could never consider not caring properly for a creature I’ve taken responsibility for. So, for now, I’m a MAQS gal!

    Please keep,up the great work!

  • Thanks, Rusty. I was one of those who started with the idea of treatment free. In October I finally measured might levels in my hive and found a 4% load. I was interested in “keeping” the bees through to Spring, and it was warm enough to use MAQS (which is organic), so I did. I plan to do a better job this coming year checking my mite loads and actively deciding what to do about them.

    I love Randy’s “Queens for Pennies” article, definitely a classic. He also has a great summary for new beekeepers that I have referred to more than once (in addition to your site, of course!). Here is a link:

  • I would be curious to know the survival data on treated and untreated hives. I would like to know if treatment-free folks really lose that many more bees?

  • Michael Bush has a reassuring video & blog on this subject and his points seem substantial enough. The chemicals used to control varroa ARE insecticides and bees ARE insects. What are the chances that the so-called colony collapse disorder has more to do with bees being overtreated and medicated.
    Want to stress that I’m not one of the ‘anti-vaxxers’ for humans (i think their stand is nuts and detrimental to their children and all around them),,, but in the case of bee management, Michael seems to make the point of ‘less imposition is better’.

    Here’s a link regarding mite drops resulting from treatment… message seems compelling enough when you look at the numbers:

  • I hadn’t realized what a rarity treatment-free beekeeping is. I’m a relatively new beekeeper, having adopted my first feral swarm 18 months ago and then taking on a rescued hive a couple of months ago. Both hives are thriving in standard Langstroth boxes with foundatonless frames. Both colonies are docile and treatment free. Because of our drought here in Southern California, I fed my original hive some sugar syrup over the summer. And my newest hive came with some bagged honeycomb that was too unstable to frame and I’ve been feeding back to them. But otherwise I haven’t supplemented or treated them in any other ways and now that El Niño rains have given us a drenching, my bees are thriving on their own. I open them up and check on their well-being every week or two. I think the key factor in my own treatment-free beekeeping situation is the climate…I live in Los Angeles and our bees don’t have to deal with over-wintering. I don’t know that much about bee biology yet, but I’m learning as I go and my treatment free bees seem to be doing just fine. Most of the backyard beekeepers I know around here use feral stock and are treatment free.

  • Rusty,
    When i started reading this post, I thought you may have stepped into the dreaded “on line, you can never disagree with me” territory. Post the slightest disagreement with people’s “political” position and you are in internet hell. Amazing to me. Opinions are not accusations. They are opinions. Opinions are ideas. True believers will brook no dissagreement. None. For myself, I like finding out I was wrong because then I know I am learning. Speaking only for myself, I am ashamed I killed so many thousands of faithful bees with my ignorance. I will treat when needed. I will feed when needed. If they die from here on out, so be it but I will try my best to not kill them with my arrogance and ignorance. Thank you for your blog.

  • I read for hours daily books and web sites for 8 months before touching my first bee and continue researching as time allows to this day. The local club had a 5-day course, which I took, but didn’t have a mentor program at the time and I didn’t find someone on my own. I watched 2 packages disappear in days before buying two horrible local nucs. My first cutout was out of a 3’ diameter limb lowered in my truck by the tree trimmers. My wife and I removed them in 103 deg weather in the sun and they couldn’t leave fast enough. They were going to kill the hive before I got involved. Not a good start but I learned a lot that can’t be found in a book. I next coaxed a swarm out of the grill of a guy’s car (he drove on the highway for an hour and went through the car wash twice before calling me) and did a cutout from a smoker (the guy tried to get rid of them with a torch before calling me) and finally had good strong bees. That was my first summer. All 4 of the hives wintered even though I inspected and took photos of every frame or top bar once a week until it got cold. Not only did I learn to coax bees, I learned that good bees can only be earned.

    It took another year to find a good location and found that some areas don’t do well no matter how good the food sources are. The current location sounds familiar. It backs up to a large park with several wild areas and has a housing addition near-by. The only drawback is that the area I have available to me is in full shade under a grove of pecan trees, next to a creek. Small hive beetles are hard on small or weak hives. I continue to improve food sources in the area with focus on summer. Beekeeping has been much easier at the current location and the surrounding wild population is a great source of drones.

    I started working with a new beekeeper with similar styles about 4 miles from me and we increased and maintained our hive count around 10 to 12. We shared equipment as needed and worked on many swarms and cutouts together. If he lost all his hives tomorrow by let’s say a flood, he would have 5 hives at his house the next day. I try to encourage people with a few hives to find others close by to work with and share resources. That is how to have an apiary bigger than just what you have.

    My agenda is to provide honey, pollen, and propolis that is as clean as possible for food and medicine for my family and select friends. I rarely post blog comments. Though I don’t agree that it takes a degree to keep bees, I agree with most of what you say. There is a price to know how to keep bees these days. You seem to have knowledge on both sides of this coin and could provide insight to both to ease the price. However, this is your blog and you have every right to focus on treatment styles only and keep away from taboo subjects like non-treatment.

  • Thanks Rusty. I do get sad for beekeepers I see losing their colonies year after year – but I feel even more sad for their bees, as I think many of these deaths are avoidable.

    I’m most impressed by the ‘treatment free’ beekeepers who use husbandry methods like shook-swarming, artificial swarms or queen trapping to keep mite levels low. These do require more skill than shaking sugar over the bees now and again.

  • I am quite new to beekeeping, being on my second year, and having started with one hive the first year and having two on my second, so my experience is short. Nevertheless, I am going to play ‘devil’s advocate’ a bit for argument sake.

    I feel the circumstances where a beekeeper can be a responsible member of the beekeeping community and treatment free are very very few.

    I am going to write about the concept of herd immunity as I feel it applies to beekeeping. Herd immunity is (and I quote Wikipedia) «(…) a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, thereby providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune.»

    I would like to imagine Varroa for a minute as a virus and not as the external parasite it is to make my argument. The herd immunity threshold is the percentage of the population that needs to be immunized for a disease so that the disease can not survive in that population. It can vary substantially but i put forward a guess that for Varroa it must be >99%. So my assumption is that over 99% of colonies would have to be Varroa resistant/free/treated for a non-resistant colony to survive without intervention. In humans, for measles and pertussis (whooping cough), for example, this threshold is around 95%. As the rate of children vaccination started to decrease lately in some communities we are starting to loose herd immunity and new fatal outbreaks of these diseases have started to develop.

    Now, Varroa is not a virus and a colony is not one individual and that would make these calculations much harder to achieve. My point is that the Varroa load in the environment is every beekeeper’s responsibility, as very very rarely does a colony live in isolation and very rarely are there genetically resistant colonies.

    If all colonies keep a low load of varroa everyone needs to treat less and losses are fewer. Treatments are more effective if the environment load is lower, the same way antibiotics are more effective if the number of bacteria is fewer. Higher loads lead to higher treatment requirements, treatment failure and possible resistance development.

    So, having colonies that are not treated is in most cases, I imagine, increasing the load of Varroa in the environment for everyone. Even a resistant colony who can survive with Varroa, doing well with a certain load, can still be increasing the environmental load, making it harder for those who do not have resistant stock.

    So, in my mind I have these questions:
    1. Is not treating able to keep Varroa load as low as treating can or it simply accepts a higher baseline load of varroa in the colony?
    2. How could one ascertain if a beekeeper that does not treat is or is not a responsible member of the beekeeping community? Or putting it another way, what conditions are necessary to say that not treating is acceptable?

    Sorry if I am simply adding fuel to the fire but this reminds me a bit of parents that decide not to vaccinate their children to take advantage of the heard immunity achieved by all the other parents that do vaccinate but by doing it end up destroying herd immunity for everyone else and put the entire population at risk (and unfortunately people are dying because of this, either children that are too young to be vaccinated, people that simply weren’t vaccinated or people with decreased immune response who cannot resist the disease even if vaccinated). Is this an unfair comparison?

  • I LOVE this site and it is always my first go to when I need advice, help, words of wisdom. I am beginning my second winter with my hive “Ivy” and my first winter with my hive “The Mustard Brigade.” Both are doing beautifully and thriving snugly in their hives with bee quilts and candy boards in place. I am still learning, still unsure about how to do soooo many things, and still determined to not treat my bees chemically. I appreciate those who do, it is simply my choice not to do so. I just want to say that some of us newbie Beekeepers CAN successfully go treatment free without knowing bee biology and without having paid any dues. A love of nature, a love of animals, a desire to help our planet, a hunger to learn more about the honeybee, and awesome resources like this site can help even newbies achieve the dream of chemical free. Thanks so much Rusty!

  • I really enjoyed reading Randy Oliver’s article “Queens for Pennies”, good eye opening stuff in there. Your blog always has such good stuff, thanks for keeping it going!

  • Two other qualifications about treatment free beekeeping, which I support in theory :

    1. One’s apiary must be sufficiently distant from any other colonies, managed or feral, to prevent the bees from being re-infected with mites from visiting drones.

    2. One must be willing to suffer significant losses, possibly in the region of 90%+, for several years.

    A presenter at EAS in Guelph last year (it might have been Dennis Vanengelsdorp) suggested that a beekeeper has an ethical responsibility to treat for mites in that not to do so means that his or her bees are infecting other hives in the neighborhood and negating the attempts to those beekeepers who are trying to control their mite population???

    • 90%+!! Where did that statistic come from Jeremy? We run near 30 colonies treatment free and our highest loss has been 30%, in 5 years. This winter is yet to be seen.

      A very recent IBRA study across Europe was undertaken to investigate the relationship between environment and survivorship of Honey bees. 600 colonies across Europe were standardised and kept untreated over 3 winters. I’m working off the top of my head here but I will post the link for you…..16% survived the 3rd winter. However, of the 84% of lost colonies, varroa was accountable for 38% of those losses. What should be of greater concern here, is what is causing the other 62% of those losses, surely?? Especially when that 16% of survivors will form the basis of a considerably more varroa resistant future population.

      It is a common misconception held by beginners and long term treating beekeepers that being treatment free is purely a case of not treating your bees. You have to do something to help the process either directly by breeding from survivors or indirectly by acknowledging the faults in modern management styles and adapting your techniques.

      For us it’s a mix. We attempt to elevate the stressors that could cause that other 62% of our losses and aim to reproduce from that crucial 16% of survivors that will hold the key genetic material which will allow bees to be less susceptible to varroa mite and viruses in the future. We all should employ the power of adaptation and natural selection, not hinder or work against it. We are very lucky with our local environment and a decent feral population too. We are seeing success and with our method we haven’t had a single mid year collapse (varroa bomb disclaimer there folks!!) Incidentally the study also showed that locally adapted colonies lived on average 80+ days longer than non local colonies. You can’t get to a point of having a locally adapted population of Honeybees by buying in ‘foreign’ packaged bees or queens. You can’t get there if you are afraid of loss either. Neglect is a point of not being concerned about your bees health. Not treating for varroa, is a case of allowing a natural process of adaptation that will stand beekeeping in the future in a far better position.

      So education is important, I commend Rusty for pushing that whole heartedly but it’s not just for beginners that want to go treatment free. There are lots of long term beekeepers out there that don’t know what the honey bee super organism is or the affects of sugar feeding on hive and gut microbes, let alone sugar syrup’s relationship to virus titres and the honey bees immune response. The synergistic affects of multiple treatments or even the full role of drones within a colony (they’re not just mating machines you know). The effects of using natural comb on varroa population build up, how queens can be raised automatically by a colony to be more disease resistant or the necessity of moisture in an overwintering colony to allow it to utilise its crystallised winter stores. There is a lot to learn aside from how to make more bees, stop swarming and just how much smoke it takes to make you smell like a bonfire.

      I can see everyone here likes a bit of Randy Oliver, so I’ll sign off with this quote from the man himself.
      “If you’re not part of the genetic solution of breeding mite-tolerant bees, then you’ re part of the problem.”

      The IBRA study

  • This is not about treatment-free beekeeping per se, but the discussion here, and the previous one about yellow jackets has got me wondering. When we see yellow jackets around a hive, and that hive later collapses, we naturally assume that the yellow jackets attacked and weakened the hive to the point where they couldn’t survive. I wonder, though, if we are blaming the messenger rather than exploring to see if something else might have done them in. With our very early spring last year, many people around here, including Dr. Dewey Caron, predicted that we would have very heavy mite infestations by the end of summer. I can’t speak to the mite infestations, but we certainly had a bad fall for yellow jackets. Is it possible that the yellow jackets sensed which colonies were weakened to the edge of collapse by mites and came in to finish the job? Or, since collapse can happen very quickly (it is said), perhaps the hives that looked healthy on the bee keeper’s last visit had already collapsed a week later and the yellow jackets were just enjoying the leftovers, including the remaining brood. Do you know if anyone has tried to correlate yellow jacket attacks and approach to treating mites?

    Anyway, you and Randy O. have just about convinced me that I need to initiate some sort of mite treatment this year. Problem is, I keep Lang, top-bar, and Warré hives. I guess I’m stuck with powdered sugar or formic acid for the two hives in which the honey is stored in last year’s brood nest— I hear that powdered sugar has limited effectiveness and formic acid scares me (reported queen kills, etc). I guess I could start supering the Warré hive and treat it like a Lang, but seems I’m totally stuck with the top-bar. No wonder they say it lends itself well to treatment free beekeeping! Anyway, love your site. Gonna make a small donation when I finish this….


    • Ken,

      I think yellowjackets will try to get in any hive, but they succeed with some and not with others. It’s always going to be a weaker hive that they succeed with, but I don’t believe they know why it’s weak. It could be any number of reasons from queen failure to mites to Nosema to pesticide kill to hunger to AFB. But the fact remains, they will find the weak ones and once they do, they go for it. In that sense, yellowjackets are like small hive beetles and wax moths: you rarely have problems in strong hives but frequently have problems in weak ones.

      As for mite treatments, of the available suitable-for-organic types (which I definitely prefer), I think that oxalic acid is safest for the honey bees with the fewest side effects.

  • I agree with most of what you have written here, but is the problem really treatment-free beekeeping or is it just new beekeepers not really knowing what they are doing? You say, “It’s no exaggeration that I’ve talked to so-called treatment-free beekeepers who don’t know the first thing about bee biology”, but I have that experience with most new beekeepers. It seems to me you are just holding TF beeks to a higher standard, but in my opinion these issues have more to do with new beekeepers not putting in the effort to really learn about bees than it does TF beekeeping.

    Also, in response to the popular notion that treatment-free beekeeping is a form of animal abuse. What about the ethics of breeding animals that are doomed to get sick who will go on to pollute the gene pool with their weak genetics?

    • Hilary,

      I do hold treatment-free beekeepers to a higher standard. Absolutely. Every time their colonies die, they send that batch of mites out (via drift, absconding, or swarming) to infect the colonies of beekeepers who are doing their best to control mites, whether they be treated hives or other treatment- free hives. So while everyone needs time to learn, I believe newbees should be treating (either chemically or mechanically) while they learn the ropes. Otherwise, the mite problem gets bigger, not smaller. When Randy Oliver and others talk about “mite bombs” they are referring to beekeepers who inadvertently raise mites for other beekeepers to contend with. If you’ve been rearing treatment-free stock for ten years, and I move in down the road and just raise my bees with the “live and let die” philosophy, I can wreck your work in one season. Even treatment-free bees can fail when they’re exposed to an unfair onslaught of mites and thousands of drones with no genetic advantage.

  • Rusty, I have to chime in here…I think I must clear up something right away…treatment-free (TF) does NOT mean do nothing. In fact, it means TWICE as much work. There is a major misconception about folks who are TF beekeepers. Successful TF apiaries work much harder in order to stay ahead of things that happen inside and outside a colony, must constantly make decisions and plan about actions months and years ahead of time, be an expert phenologist of the area where the bees are being kept to ensure proper nutritional needs, and overall be highly proactive to the needs that every colony may have during everyday of the year as well as investing a lifetime to caring for honey bees and making a huge financial and emotional investment. The bees we buy, packages, nucs, queens, have been raised by folks who have bred these bees with their own interpretation as to how a bee is supposed to behave. Most spring bees and queens are raised during unnatural times of year and fed artificial diets, which in itself is highly problematic. Bees have been bastardized into a critter that is prone to terrible diseases, pests, and abnormal behaviors. In my opinion, why does a honey bee have a defense mechanism if all we want are bees that NEVER sting nor defend their home? Should the bee be bred for the convenience of the beekeeper? Lets face it, many beginners have the serious misconception that beekeeping consists of throwing bees in boxes and harvesting 100s of pounds of honey every year. Far from it!!! Most have no idea whether their area can even support honey bees. Here in Maryland, and many areas of the US, most of the state CAN”T support honey bees, but beginner classes don’t even mention this important fact. The entire USA suffers from a severe lack of abundant forage which honey bees rely on. A successful apiary relies on abundant forage, without it there is no way a colony of honey bees can be successful without constant intervention, including supplying a constant flow of artificial diets and treatments for the honey bee colony’s compromised immune system. Abundant forage becomes even more important for a TF apiary. Without highly productive forage, a colony will even struggle to raise their own queens during swarm season.

    Beekeeping in general is not a spectator sport. It requires an enormous amount of time, energy, well rounded education on bees, high degree of knowledge about the local phenology, a serious financial and emotional investment, and overall a lifetime of dedication by the beekeeper to strive to provide their bees a viable natural life and fight to encourage others to provide for our bees.

    I must now apologize if I am part of the group of folks who have invaded your website and used my own propaganda to criticize. I am a passionate apiarist who takes every death of a colony in my apiary very personally and wish we were not at this moment in time. It is quite shocking to see how the commercial end of the industry is now in serious decline. Many of these commercial operations are no longer viable and won’t be able to participate in this years almond pollination due to the radical decline in their colony populations. We, the beekeeping community, must start working together or there may not be a viable beekeeping industry in the USA in a few years.

    Best of 2016 to everyone.

    • Bill,

      I’m so glad you wrote. It turns out I had another sub-section in that post called “Treatment Free Does Not Mean Hands Free.” I didn’t know where to put it, kept moving it around, and finally forgot to put it back in (the perils of self-editing) so I’m glad you mentioned it. And I agree, that successful treatment-free beekeeping is at least twice the work, maybe more.

      I also agree that lack of meaningful forage is a critical factor that is hardly ever mentioned. As I often ask, how can we keep “natural” bees when nothing natural remains in their environment? The fact they survive at all is nothing short of amazing.

    • Bill,

      When you wrote “… but beginner classes don’t even mention this important fact. The entire USA suffers from a severe lack of abundant forage which honey bees rely on.” it sounds like you’re saying in modern times the land has been deforested and denuded of plant life such that there is no place that can really sustain bee populations…

      I’m picturing the planet before modern man, covered with foliage and bees and pollinating plants evolving side by side. Over the last 11,000 years or so we have been denuding the planet. And planing mono-cultures.

      At what point have we taken too much away?

      I don’t know if there really is an answer to this. It’s probably more of philosophical question. But it did come to mind when I read your post.

  • Hi Rusty,

    During all the recent discussion about Varroa I have not seen much mention of viruses. As I understand it, in a hive with high levels of Varroa infestation, the bees are usually killed off by the viruses transmitted by the mites, rather than the mites themselves. In particular, we are talking about Deformed Wing Virus (DWV).

    Here in the UK there is a beekeeper in Swindon, who has been keeping his bees treatment free for many years. Rather late in the day scientists became involved in an attempt to discover what it was about these bees that allowed them to survive without treatment. In a paper published last October, they have revealed that success has been because a non-lethal variant of DWV has replaced the normal lethal variant, and the colonies are surviving in spite of high levels of Varroa.

    The paper makes interesting reading and can be found at

    • Excellent point, MerryBee. Yes, I did read this and I’m sure others would like to read it as well. If we could control the virus, the mites would lose their power.

  • Thanks for this article. As a newbie myself I agree with your sentiment. As a beginner, this year is a perfect example of what can happen. My hives were varroa free all summer, and fall I did 3 drop tests with my SBB and no mites.

    Two weeks ago I saw the bottom boards covered in mites.

    I’m not treatment free, however I plan to only use “non-synthetic” treatments such as formic, thymol, oxalic. I think that could be a noble compromise for newbies.

  • Rusty,

    I love your blog and have learned a lot from it. I agree 100% that beekeepers wanting to go treatment-free should not use packaged bees from commercial producers. But I would submit that new beekeepers, if appropriately educated, can do more good than harm going treatment-free.

    IMHO the bigger culprit is packaged bees. Beekeepers, especially any wanting to be treatment-free, should be getting swarms, cutouts, or splits from a local source. Favor swarms of feral or treatment-free origin. Don’t obsess about prevent swarming, as it disrupts the varroa life cycle and reduces generation time so bees can adapt faster. We need to develop locally-adapted populations (which will eventually adapt to varroa and other threats) instead of constantly diluting the gene pool with non-adapted and treatment-dependent bees. Getting swarms is harder work and less predictable than ordering a package. But it’s also more sustainable.

    I don’t know any beekeepers that want to treat, but they feel they have no other choice. Which is probably true if they are importing bees from across the country which have been chemically treated for generations.

    As a backyard beekeeper I cannot run a robust breeding program. But I can provide a space for bees to live as naturally as possible (no foundation, no treatment, no feeding, etc). Honey a bonus, not the thing I optimize for. So I can provide a place for natural selection to do its work, and the tiny bit of selection I get to do (in obtaining swarms) I can favor bees that don’t need treatment. Fortunately there is sufficient forage in my outer suburban neighborhood, and there are feral bees in the nearby rural areas.

  • Rusty,

    I’m newbee, and will be getting my first 2 nucs in 2 weeks. My varroa management plan is to use a screened bottom board, a drone frame (for drone trapping), and powdered sugar shake every 1-2 weeks. I figured that I can keep a mite count based on the combined bottom board and sugar shake. The colonies will have a VSH Italian Queen from a local breeder (who is breeding specifically to be treatment-free). Does this sound like an acceptable varroa strategy?

    • Adam,

      The VSH queen will definitely help. If you haven’t already, read Randy Oliver’s post on powdered sugar treatment. He found that once a week was about the minimum you could get away with. The only other thing I would recommend is doing a sugar roll test now and then, to make sure you know what your mite levels actually are.

  • Hi, Rusty,

    First of all, I’m very sorry you’ve run in to virulent non-treaters who’ve obviously been terribly rude. Yuck. For myself, I tend to run in to virulent treaters.;o) Just last week while teaching at a bee school, I heard the old mantra, “If you’re not treating yours, you’re killing mine.” Well, that depends on what you call treatment…

    I don’t use any chemicals in my hives, so no chemical treatments. BUT, I do use a hive management style that supports the bees in maintaining their own health. (Warren-style hives and management). Keep in mind that both AFB and EFB came on the scene at the same time as frame beekeeping, and are still considered stress-related diseases.

    Wish I had time to be more complete in my explanation, but this will have to do. Maybe this video will help

    The fellow in the bee suit, Dr. David Heaf, is the moderator of our Warre yahoo group.

    Best regards to you, Rusty. I really appreciate your blog.


    • Katherine,

      Thanks. Could you supply your source for this interesting statement: “Keep in mind that both AFB and EFB came on the scene at the same time as frame beekeeping”? I’d like to know more.

  • What is your recommended approach to assessing and controlling Varroa, etc. for a new beekeeper? Is oxalic acid your preferred treatment?

    I’ve read about checking the bottom board, but with the screened bottom there is no BB to check? What else can I check?

    • Kim,

      I recommend a sugar roll or alcohol wash two or three times a year for monitoring mite loads. I recommend rotating mite treatments to avoid (or at least slow down) resistant strains. I rotate between thymol, formic, hop beta acids, and oxalic.

      With a screened bottom board you slide in the tray to do your mite monitoring, but monitoring natural mite drop is not nearly as accurate as the sugar roll or alcohol wash.

  • I also am a new bee keeper having kept bees for only five years and with top bar hives. I have never treated my bees for mites. The first year I started with six hives and all my bees died. I don’t give up easily so I started again the second year with five hives, all but one died. From that one hive I have built back up to eight plus one captured swarm for a total of nine. The interesting thing is we are now in the Fall nectar flow and all the eight hives are flourishing. The one hive from the swarm is dying from mites. The swarm did not come from my hives and the bees were bigger than mine. I think they came from another apiary that uses large cell foundation and treats for mites. My bees build without foundation and they build comb very fast. Each day the swarm hive has many bees on the ground in front of it with shriveled wings and bees that can’t fly. Their numbers are declining fast. The eight treatment free hives, with queens they produced themselves, have no sick bees on the ground in front of them and lots of workers foraging. Now I realize I should have killed the queen in the swarm early on and requeened it with a queen produced by one of the eight treatment free hives. Even though I have been doing this for only five years it seems to be working well. It can be disastrous at first but in a few years things start to work out okay. I don’t attend the bee club meetings anymore because they are strictly Langstroth and mite treatment bee keepers. Any bees that can’t deal with mites are not bees that I want. The state bee inspector agrees with me and likes my healthy treatment free bees. This is working for me and so I’ll keep doing it.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I have been reading everything I can get ahold of about bees. I’m a second year beekeeper, and have made many mistakes I’m sure. I was reading about how rhubarb contains oxalic acid naturally, and how beekeepers throughout history would use the rhubarb leaves to treat bees for mites by putting a leaf on top of the brood bars and making the bees remove it piece by piece, thus releasing the oxalic acid into the air and killing the mites. What are your thoughts on this as a natural mite control? Have you heard of this before, and have you tried it? Should I try it?

    • Maryanne,

      I actually don’t see how beekeepers throughout history controlled mites that way since we got both tracheal mites and varroa mites in the 1980s. I hear about rhubarb leaves all the time but, in my opinion, it won’t work. If mites were that easy to control, we wouldn’t be having the problem.

      • You know, I never thought about the fact that mites weren’t a problem until the 1980’s, so they couldn’t treat for mites. I got the information from Wikipedia, so I don’t know just how true any of it is.

        Thanks for your knowledge!

  • I was called out last night at a bee meeting dinner in front of more than 20 people and was asked “When are you are going to start treating?” I’m in my second year, never bought a single hive, I get all my bees from removals, and in which case hasn’t been treated for years. I think I am in a good position to never go with treatment. I am up to 18 hives now with starting with only 2 this Jan. Guy was worried my bees would carry mints to his hives a mile away. So far, I have only seen 2 mints, and I am in 3-5 hives every week. If population stays strong, I have no problem with continuing to be treatment free. I believe as mentioned above, it all depends on your “stock.” Thanks for writing the article and encouraging me to stay treatment free. One day, the conversation will turn from “YOU NEED TO BE TREATING” to “Bees are better off not being treated.”