Thursday, September 25, 2014

Barely Cohesive Ramblings about Treatment-Free Beekeeping

If you haven't guessed by now, I started off with a pretty hippie-leaning attitude toward beekeeping. Now that two seasons have gone by, I can say that my overall approach has been refined and aligned with "treatment-free beekeeping." Essentially, this philosophy boils down to not adding any chemicals to the hive in an effort to preserve its ecosystem. The colony, as a superorganism, is teeming with thousands of different bacteria and fungi that are necessary to the bees' health. For example, bees use pollen to make fermented bee bread that they feed to their babies. Fungi is essential to the fermentation process. Using chemicals in the hive, whether they are treatments for mites (i.e., pesticides) or antibiotics for disease, throws off the delicate balance that exists.

What about "natural" treatments?
For example, some beeks use essential oils to treat hives.  Last year, my first season, I got some Honey-Bee Healthy at the advice of another beek. This is basically a sugar syrup that contains essential oils from lemongrass and mint. However, this year, I only  broke it out twice, once when installing packages and once when combining hives because I wanted to mask the different colonies' odors. Over two years, my thinking has evolved, and the conclusion I've come to is that in beekeeping, "natural" does not equate to the same thing as "occurring in nature." Let me 'splain (in my best Ricky Ricardo voice). Yes, essential oils are natural substances produced by plants. However, in nature, they do not occur in the highly concentrated forms that beekeepers use them.

Essential oils are something plants produce as a defense mechanism against insects that eat them. Putting unnaturally huge, concentrated doses of these oils into a colony of insects... well, it just doesn't make sense to me. Many essential oils also have anti-microbial properties which can upset the balance of bacteria and fungi in the hive. Plus, odiferous oils mask the pheromones bees use to communicate, so again, that's not something I normally want (though there are exceptions, like when I'm combining hives).

For the same reason, I rarely use smoke. I'm not against smoking bees (you know what I mean, blowing smoke on them, not stuffing them into a pipe) because I've found it very useful on several occasions, However, unless I'm in a bad way, I skip it. I'd rather have the bees able to communicate. Plus, listening to their noises also tells me a lot -- like for starters, when it's time to close up the hive.

What about dusting with powdered sugar? 
Powdered sugar is a common treatment that manipulates bees to pick mites off. A real treatment-free (TF) beek will tell you that this is a no-no because in addition to contaminating honey with sugar, it presents another form of interference. A hard-core TF beek will let bees that can't handle the mites die off because interference only postpones the day when we have actual mite-resistant bees. It's better to bite the bullet and take our losses now so that in the end, we have survivor bees that can take care of themselves.

As an aside, my first-year colony (purchased from a treatment-free beek) had a ton of mites. I never did a mite count, but the buggers were everywhere. I never dusted or treated them. Still, they were robust and healthy and went into winter with all their mites. In the end, parasites did not kill them; starvation & possibly lack of a queen did. Unfortunately, they were attacked by a bear three times in November, and even though I tried putting the hive back together, I did a crap job. They were still alive in February, but they just couldn't break cluster to move the the next honey-filled comb.

I guess this experience of seeing bees that can survive and thrive despite mite infestations really gave me confidence in the remarkable adaptability of bees.

How about monitoring?
You might be asking yourself why I bothered to post about powdered sugar rolls if I don't actually believe in treatment. The truth is that I'm on the fence when it comes to monitoring. Some TF followers don't see the point of monitoring if there is no intention to do anything about it. I can concede to that point of view because there is no sense in doing pointless work. However, other people feel that monitoring provides valuable information that can be used to gain a wider insight about bees, mites, overall health, habits, etc. Being somewhat naturally curious, I can totally get on board with that, too.

Even though I've never actually performed mite counts, I could see it being a cool science-fair project with my kids someday (always looking for those). If I decided to monitor, though, I'd have to make up my mind beforehand regarding my goals (which would be collecting data only) so that I wouldn't freak out if I saw any undesirable test results. (I have a low freak-out bar.) Michael Bush commented on a thread in BeeSource, and he sums up how I feel pretty well:

I did monitor for several years and I agree you may learn something in the process. If I had the time I would love to monitor what infestation levels are on small cell worker larvae and drone over the course of the year. In my experience often a colony would get bad before it got better. The numbers would go up and this would seem to motivate the bees in some way and then the numbers would go down. If you don't let the mites get bad this doesn't happen. Obsessing over counts can easily lead you down the wrong road and cause you to intervene when things were on the verge of resolving themselves...
Fetal monitors have become a "necessity" in labor rooms around the US. The mortality of babies in childbirth has not improved. The number of C Sections has skyrocketed... people often have too much information. "Blink" is a good book on the phenomena of too much information leading to bad decisions...

Do treatment-free beeks feed?
Generally, no. Bees are supposed to eat honey and not sugar. For the most part, feeding is done for reasons such as stimulating brood production, providing a substitute for honey that has been harvested, and administering chemical treatments (whether natural or unnatural), All of these reasons go against the grain of TF beekeeping.

An exception to the rule is preventing starvation. This is a great reason to feed. Even the best of bees can't control flows and dearths. Then again, there are those hard-core beeks...

You use "bee tea" in your syrup. What's up with that?
I'm a self-admitted proponent of bee tea . I don't know how a hard-core TF beek would feel about that, but I rationalize it to myself by saying that it provides essential micro-nutrients from plants that plain ol' sugar syrup lacks. Additionally, I've watched bees choose some of the nastiest puddles for collecting water. The lovely, clean bee waterer I've set up will go virtually unnoticed while they sip from brown puddles, full of leaves and organic debris. (Sounds kind of like bee tea, right?) They will go for the wet ground around the compost pile. They even like scummy water from buckets that haven't been emptied in weeks. I've also read accounts of bee-hunters using hollowed out pieces of wood filled with salt water to attract bees, so I'm thinking that bees probably actively search for micro-nutrients.

What if I go treatment-free and all my bees crash?
In the various forums and clubs I belong to, I hear about people who have bees that are used to living with treatments. They try going treatment-free, and all of a sudden, their bees are succumbing to every known disease and parasite. The problem is that most treatments create a vicious cycle. The treatment alleviates the problem for awhile, but then it creates treatment-resistant diseases and pests. These have to be treated with harsher chemicals, and so on.

I heard about one beek who went treatment-free, and in the first year, lost something like 70%  - 80% of his hives. However, the good news is that the bees that didn't die off were survivors and bred more survivors. After years of being treatment-free, I think he still loses about 20% of his bees over the winter. Not great, but certainly manageable.

However, even if one loses a bunch of hives (probably easier for a hobbyist than some one who makes a living keeping bees), one needs to start somewhere. Better now than later.I suppose an alternative would be to simply re-queen with a TF queen during the spring or summer. That way, they have a chance to build up TF brood before winter.

Of course, if one is just starting off and doesn't yet have bees, I would recommend getting bees from a local beekeeper with treatment-free bees. Local is important because those bees will be adapted to conditions in your area. Getting treatment-free bees puts you just that much ahead of the game since you won't be starting from scratch. (Naturally, if you can catch a swarm or get wild bees from a cut-out, that's even better, but in my area, there don't seem to be too many of those.)

More info on treatment-free beekeeping
There is an excellent Google-talk by treatment-free beekeeper Dean Stiglitz, author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, from Golden Rule Honey. He discusses what it is and why it's important to the future of sustainable beekeeping. If you want to learn more about it, that's a good place to start. There are more videos on YouTube and also forums for treatment-free beekeeping at,, and on Facebook.

Finally, someone in a forum I belong to commented. I really liked this comment, because it sums up my goal so well:
The fundamental difference with TF is that we are not trying to keep bees alive. We are trying to multiply living bees. Do not sprinkle them when [sic] anything. First of all, it doesn't work, surveys show that. Secondly, any treatment that does work does the multiplying for you, giving you (and the rest of the world) bees that cannot survive in the given conditions. Treated bees are unfit bees! Instead, learn methods of expansion, splitting, queen rearing, nucs, etc. Multiply your living bees. Forget trying to keep them alive. That's not treatment-free beekeeping.


  1. If you're rambling then so am I.... to be honest that is quite likely.
    I have ping-ponged a little in my thoughts and feelings on these topics. It is good to have a high-minded principle but as you know whens you bees are clearly struggling you just want to help them.

    With regard to treatment I am still a little unsure. It's really tricky as what we are dealing with in the modern honey bee is very much a dog rather than a wolf. I think it may take a couple of generations of nursing before we have varroa competent colonies. To drop them in it completely unaided after so many generations of selected breeding would be a little like rowing someone to the middle of a lake and then throwing them in to see if they can swim. To let some colonies just die because they don't cope with mites might well lose us genes which are of great use in other environment stresses.

    When it comes to feeding I have definately decided on an apporach based on the seasons and forage of where I live. Any new colonies pre-July will not be fed. If they cannot generate enough to feed themselves in that time then they are not viable. Any July-onwards will get fed to get them though winter and give them a fighting chance and then no feeding. A tough line I know, but I hope I can stick to it :s

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Dewey. I always appreciate your thoughtful responses.

      I definitely understand your point. It doesn't seem fair to take bees that are reliant on treatment and drown them in a lake. On the other hand, I think if one did something like requeen early enough with a TF-queen, let them make their own comb, etc., they would have a fighting chance by the time winter came.

      As for losing genetics, I can't really comment on the state of things in the UK. However, in the USA, I think I heard that something like 70%-80% of bees come from the same handful of bee suppliers. By deliberately choosing to get bees that are 1) from surviving stock 2) from cut-outs 3) locally bred and 4) open-mated, we can actually improve genetic diversity. Also, by doing this, I don't think that we'll necessarily lose all the positive characteristics of treated bees, either. Of course, I have limited experience here since this is the first year I've watched my bees make queens. However, my queens are from local, feral stock and have open-mated with whatever is flying around here (there are a few professional apiaries near me). Despite my poor management, they've proven to be hardy, prolific, and gentle.

      I completely agree with you about feeding new colonies started in July or later. Might not be considered truly treatment-free, but there are some really good queens (like my Hippolyte that I had to pinch) that get started in July. No need to let them die out because they got started at the wrong time of year and didn't have resources.


Thank you for your comment! I can't wait to hear what you think!