So you want to join the ranks of treatment-free beekeepers? Congratulations! It’s a worthy, data-backed cause. It’s important to do some research and plan ahead of time to set yourself up for success. You wouldn’t attempt to climb El Capitan without some leg work, would you? Would you?
Treatment-free beekeeping is no different, and many treatment-free beekeepers find themselves on the wrong end of a catastrophic deadout in their first year. We don’t want that to happen to you, so read on, dear friend. Learn 5 Things Treatment-Free Beekeepers Wish They Knew When They Started so you can bee ahead of the game.
Let’s start by getting clear on what it means to be treatment-free.
Ask any 10 treatment-free beekeepers what it means to be treatment-free, and you will get 10 different answers or at least answers with some level of nuance. Some people use essential oils while others consider essential oils treatment. One beekeeper may define treatment-free as abstention from chemicals, antibiotics, and pesticides, while another may consider any human intervention meant to help the bees survive as a treatment, including supplemental feeding.
Like many things in life – autism, sexuality, colors – treatment-free beekeepers exist on a spectrum, and your job is to figure out where you land. Preferably before you have live bees in your possession.
Here are some general definitions for you to think about:
Consider these options, choose what resonates the most, and use it as a framework for your beekeeping. Once you’ve decided what kind of treatment-free beekeeper you intend to be, consider how you source your bees.
If you decide to be treatment-free, that’s great, but something many beginning treatment-free beekeepers don’t know is that when you order packaged bees or nucs, they are often reared in a treated environment.
Large commercial operations that raise packaged bees for sale raise them to behave a certain way: docile and good at producing honey.
Why does this matter?
If you raise bees with treatments and breed this treated stock year after year you’re breeding bees dependent on those treatments. Then, when you thrust them into treatment-free living, they tend to die. Maybe not immediately, but eventually, because they were bred to be dependent on human intervention.
In order to successfully raise treatment-free bees, you need to understand how bees work. Then, you can master the crucial management techniques that take the place of chemical interventions or eliminate the need for them.
When you first get started in beekeeping, you need to understand basic bee biology. Ya just do. Regardless of what definition you fall under, being treatment-free means letting bees do their thing, unimpeded by human influence. If you don’t know how bees behave, what they eat (more on that later), and how their bodies work, you can’t assess whether they are successfully navigating their existence.
Example: swarming. Swarming gets a bad rap, but can be an incredibly useful management technique when you pursue treatment-free beekeeping. Since Varroa mites live largely in capped brood cells and not on the adult worker bees, a swarm only takes a portion of the Varroa mites with it when it leaves. While this doesn’t rid you of your Varroa mite problem, it leaves you with lower numbers than in the original hive and a colony of bees strong enough to set up camp somewhere else.
Even those who use chemical treatments for Varroa mites use thresholds of infestation to determine whether to treat. This is just another reason why it’s important to inspect your hive regularly and have a finger on the pulse of the hive. Allowing your hive to swarm, safely, can keep your mite counts down low enough that you wouldn’t need to treat.
Plus, nonreproductive swarming is a behavioral technique the bees use to manage not just Varroa mites, but other stressors including pathogens and physical threats to survival (lack of forage, for example).
By swarming, bees control their own populations. This is Darwinism at its best; sick, weak bees will not be able to swarm with the rest of the colony. Thus, bees, when left to their own devices, perpetuate strong genetics in their own populations.
If you don’t understand basic bee genetics, you will likely struggle to create a successful treatment-free operation. A deep dive into bee genetics is the next level of your bee education after you’ve mastered the foundational skills of beekeeping and have a basic understanding of bee biology.
The theory behind treatment-free beekeeping is that if you allow bees to live and die on their own, nature will strike a balance. Instead of traveling down a path, desperate to treat increasing resistance of Varroa mites to treatment, we step back. We let Varroa mites kill bees, and the bees that survive will continue to live and reproduce bees like themselves; hardy and able to naturally combat Varroa mites.
There are some bees that engage in what is called Varroa Sensitive Hygiene, a series of behaviors that identify, remove, and/or kill Varroa mites. Breeding bees to pass this trait on to their colony members can help the bees combat Varroa mites on their own. However, you may consider this an intervention of sorts, and it’s certainly an advanced beekeeping skill.
Similarly, in order to keep your apiary treatment-free, you need to understand genetic diversity and how to achieve it. It may involve requeening, becoming a breeder of your own stock, and making splits from those who survive. You can’t learn these skills without understanding genetics.
You also need to understand bees with adequate nutrition are more likely to survive stressors like diseases, pests, and dramatic weather shifts.
Bees need proper nutrition to survive and they also need the microbiome of the hive in order to stay healthy. Don’t take it from me. Take it from the respected and renowned treatment-free beekeeper, Michael Bush:
Basically, bees need an uninterrupted microbiome in order to process their own food. Bees can’t just eat pollen. They use the yeasts and bacteria in the hive to help process pollen into a digestible form: bee bread. When you treat with chemicals, you destroy the superorganism in a hive, making it difficult for bees to stay well-nourished. Weak, hungry bees are more likely to succumb to stressors.
Furthermore, bees consume honey as a source of carbohydrate, but they also obtain micronutrients from this sweet concoction, including various vitamins and minerals. They aren’t meant to consume simple syrup; honey is their carbohydrate of choice.
It’s why we recommend using honey and bee-friendly herbs to create supplemental feedings. If you have to feed, you have to feed. We don’t believe in letting your bees starve, but we do believe in feeding them what they like best.
Even if you opt out of treatments, know your beehive is not a hermetically sealed environment. Bees are part of the superorganism of their hive, a buzzing part of their forage area, and ultimately play a role in an entire ecosystem. If they do not have the resources they need to survive nearby, they will suffer, and the ecosystem will also suffer. No bees, no food, no flowers.
So, go treatment-free, but don’t forget that there are many actions you can take to ensure your ecosystem is healthy, which will, in turn, help the bees live a life that doesn’t necessitate treatment.
Bees are not just a set-it-and-forget-it hobby; they are living, breathing creatures that require care and attention, not unlike other domesticated animals such as cattle or puppies. Treatment-free doesn’t mean completely hands-off, but if you’re considering this method of beekeeping, it’s good to get clear on what it means to you.
Going treatment-free is an admirable decision and one that is often met with challenges, whether they come from naysayers, inevitable deadouts as you build more robust colonies over many years’ time, or from the inevitable failures you will endure as you learn and refine your beekeeping.
If you keep these five things in mind when you join other treatment-free beekeepers, you create a sturdy foundation upon which to help your bees be bees. If we could give you one piece of advice when starting your beekeeping journey it would be to get to know your bees.
Spending time in and around your hive, assessing your bees regularly, and truly noticing the shifts and evolutions of their lives forms the undercurrent of treatment-free beekeeping. Welcome aboard.