Treatment vs. Treatment-Free Beekeeping

There is a lot of debate among beekeepers whether you should treat, or not treat your hives. The primary argument for treating your bees is that you’re helping them survive; while the primary argument for not treating your bees is that bees have stayed alive just fine without human intervention. In talking with beekeepers in every camp, it’s important to say that some treatment-free beekeepers will NEVER intervene while others are open to interventions like food for nutrition and to prevent starvation as well as monitoring behaviors and traits in order to requeen the hive with a stronger genetic line.

When deciding what to do with our bees, these were some of the biggest factors we used to work through what our philosophy would be. I’ll add the disclaimer that we are not the type of people to get our ways “set in stone” to begin with, but at the same time, it’s nice to have some guidelines to start with.

I’ll add that since this is a career for us, longevity, sustainability, and practicality are all very important factors. We love our bees and want them to do well both short and long-term.

The Catch 22

Treatment:

  • There’s only a handful of things that bees struggle with and as a beekeeper you can control most of them for your bees – this gives them a much higher rate of survival, at least from season to season.

Reasonably Treatment-Free:

  • Providing everything for your bees creates weak bees and hinders the genetics of your apiary. Could lead to a larger crash down the road rather than from one year to the next.

This is the hardest one for us – we want our colonies to live long and fruitful lives and we are willing to do some of the more manual controls that treatment-free requires like splitting heavy to give brood breaks, requeening weak hives, and an pest management approach that gives our bees a better chance at handling pests without chemical intervention. The flip side is that we’ve inherited hives that are crippled by Varroa and need intervention – they were commercially bred queens that were not made to sustain a treatment-free apiary. So what do you do?

A reasonably treatment free approach seems to be a growing group of beekeepers. This consists of beekeepers that default to no treatment but if things are out of hand or the bees need help, will intervene to do what they can to help. The theme here seems to be that whatever chemicals or medications are used should be naturally occuring and only applied when there’s evidence the bees need it.

The perfect example of “reasonably treatment-free” is the Varroa situation I mentioned earlier – in this case, only hives crippled by Varroa would be requeened, monitored and then (maybe) treated. If treatmeent was necessary (or decided upon by the beekeeper) to ensure survival and a naturally occurring chemical like Oxalyic Acid would be used in order to make sure there are no harmful trace chemicals left in the hive. There are strong, less natural approaches to attacking Varroa – taking the least chemical path is the least we can do.

We’ve learned to be open-minded and accept advice from beekeepers of all thought camps in order to continue learning and make good decisions for our bees. There’s no right or wrong answer although there are certainly “best practices”.

There’s a theory called Integrated Pest Management (IPM) that gives you a hierarchy of treatments from mechanical (non-chemical) to chemical treatments depending on the ailment. Similar to what happens to humans when they consume too many antibiotics – the bacteria builds a resistance to the antibiotic and becomes stronger, makes them sicker, and can even become untreatable. With an IPM method, you wouldn’t jump straight to antibiotics and medications and you would only use them when necessary, not as a blanket treatment.

My biggest takeaway in talking with all beekeepers is that although it may seem easy to do blanket treatments, it isn’t a very sustainable approach to beekeeping and therefore is not, in my opinion, a best practice. The larger beekeepers know which yards are struggling and what hives are struggling and can usually spot when a Varroa related collapse is happening – what do you think, should they do something about it?

 

2 Comments on “Treatment vs. Treatment-Free Beekeeping

  1. The problem with the “reasonably tf” approach and the “save ’em all” treaters is that when confronted with a colony that has proven itself worthless, with genetics that have no place in the current pest situation, they often pull out the OA and drag those genes, kicking and screaming into the next generation of bees, polluting the feral gene pool, and those of serious tf beekeepers.

    • I agree to an extent. The fact is we won’t be able to control all of the beekeepers, but when faced with a decision of treatment vs. treatment free, I think it takes some people longer to accomplish this. The reality is that it could take 3 years for a collapse due to mites, so those vulnerable genes are out there for years anyway and often go undiagnosed as mite levels creep up. Rather than letting the colony die a slow death, a beekeeper may decide to help the bees out and wean them off treatment and chemical management practices while monitoring their progress. This is especially true in the case where beekeepers have invested in their bees rather than collecting surviving feral stock. We have built our apiary on survival stock and I believe that genetics is the long-term solution to strong bees, but I can also relate to wanting to help the colony along until they’re ready. Rather than promoting welfare bees or killing off a hive, beekeepers could take a responsible approach to rehabilitating a colony to create strong, contributing bees. I’m, admittedly, a pretty moderate person so I can relate to both sides of just about anything. What I cannot get behind is a blanket treatment of all hives and all yards just because it’s “in season” – responsible management using an IPM approach is the only sensible method in my opinion.

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