What is Treatment Free Beekeeping?

What is Treatment Free Beekeeping?

You may have heard the term “Treatment Free Beekeeping” or “Treatment Free Beekeeper.” You also many have heard a beekeeper or two get riled up in great support or vehemently against this type of beekeeping. This term draws great criticism and emotion from many beekeepers. But why? What does it mean exactly? What is all the fuss with treatment free beekeeping about? What is this great divide?

Top Bar Hive Anarchy Apiaries

One of my treatment free top bar hives.

Treatment Free Beekeeping means that nothing is put into the hive that bees do not put there, except hive parts and occasional feeding (although feeding at all and feeding sugar instead of honey is met with great debate among treatment free beekeepers).  Anything a beekeeper puts inside the hive in order to kill or prevent pests or disease is considered a treatment. This includes all pesticides, antibiotics, essential oils, organically approved mite treatments like Apiguard (thymol) and even things like Honey B Healthy, mineral oil and powdered sugar, since these are treatments for some “condition” in the hive.

treatment-jpg

So why would a beekeeper want to do this? Wouldn’t you want to get rid of pests in the hive? Bees across America are dying out and struggling, wouldn’t you want to help them out?

brianhoney2

Brian who is 6′ 4″ is checking if the honey is capped in one of our treatment free hives.

hiveclimbing

This is me checking the same hive via my new sport  – hive climbing!

Why Do Treatment Free Beekeeping?

The answer is simply a philosophy that goes something like this ~ any time you treat your hive for any kind of pest or disease you are selecting for bees that cannot take care of that pest or disease without your help. By continuing on the path of using treatments you end up breeding stronger pests and diseases resistant to treatments, instead of breeding better bees resistant to pests and disease.

A bee with a varroa mite on it’s back. Varroa mites,  similar to ticks, are a pest to honey bees and responsible for spreading many bee viruses.

By helping out the bees, by killing the pests with a treatment, you are selecting for pests that are resistant to that treatment.  When you treat, most pests die, except for the ones who can survive in spite of treatments. These survivor pests are the ones that go on to propagate and make new pests. Then you need a new treatment to combat them. This puts you as a beekeeper on a treadmill for using new treatment after new treatment to kill the pests as they develop resistance. Clearly time and evidence have shown this way is not working. Many mite treatments are no longer as effective. Mites are becoming resistant to them, and treatments need to be switched up or altered to prevent resistance. Even a disease like American Foulbrood is showing resistance to antibiotics used prophylacticly to prevent it from occurring.

chimneybees2

These bees had been living on their own “treatment free” for several years before we rescued and relocated them from a chimney.

Everything alive wants to survive and learns to adapt to selective pressures and this includes pests and diseases. Man cannot beat nature, nature always finds a way. So instead of putting the selective pressure on bees to adapt to these pest and disease pressures and survive in spite of them, (which is what we should be doing as beekeepers),  by using treatments you are putting pressure on the pests and diseases to adapt and survive. Treatment free beekeepers believe by using treatments you may be doing more harm than good for bees in the long run.

One of my hives with foundationless frames.

A foundationless frame from one of my treatment free hives.

There are other reasons people are treatment free beekeepers, such as wanting to keep bees as natural as possible and keeping your honey and wax as clean and free from beekeeper applied pesticides as possible. As well as the understanding that a bee colony has a unique set of microbes (similar in some ways to our gut microbes) that help it to function as healthy as possible and any type of substance you introduce into the hive has the possibility of altering these microbes.  And I’m sure there are more reasons that I have not mentioned.

DSC_0037b

A foundationless honey frame from one of my treatment free hives, harvested a few weeks before my son was born.

So why are people against treatment free beekeeping? What is the opposition all about? I think mostly it’s fear. Fear of the unknown and worrying about your bees dying if you go treatment free. Fear of losing money and investment in your current stock of bees that may not be able to survive without treatments.  Fear and concern about being harmed by someone else’s bees who may be sick with a contagious disease.  But it also includes beekeepers set in their ways, money backing treatments and simply feeling you need to do something and everything possible to keep your bees from dying.  And not wanting or having the time, money and effort needed to get local survivor stock that works in your area.

DSC_0134

Teaching my son how to be a beekeeper while holding up a small cell brood frame from one of my treatment free hives.

Will My Bees Die If I Become A Treatment Free Beekeeper?

Yes the harsh reality is that bees will and do die when you start keeping them treatment free, but bees also die when you keep them with treatments, so either way bees die,  as a beekeeper you need to accept that. The difference is when bees die treatment free you are letting genetics die out that need your help in order to survive, you are not propping up sick and chemically dependent bees and allowing them to propagate.  The fear is when going treatment free that your bees will die and if you have the wrong bees they will, so it helps to start with bees breed from a treatment free beekeeper, or mite resistant bees or local bees.

solidbroodsm

These bees are rockin’! Small cell and treatment free! This is one of my hives that has been around for over 2 years without treatments and is using a mixture of small cell and foundationless frames.

Please understand this does not mean as a treatment free beekeeper you put your bees in a hive and do not do anything at all.  It does no one any good to keep sick bees. There are many things you can do as a beekeeper to alleviate some conditions bees have. Many times simply requeening changes the genetics of the hive and can be very helpful, as well as breaking the brood cycle to break the mite cycle by letting the hive swarm and/or raise their own queens. Some management methods such as using local stock, small cell foundation or foundationless comb work for some treatment free beekeepers. As a treatment free beekeeper you are signing on to help bees in the most natural way possible as well as become a bee breeder of your local survivor stock.  You need to make you own splits and queens from hives that survive without treatments. You need to help propagate these survivor stock bees. If you want to go treatment free you need to learn the methods of keeping bees alive this way, that are the best for your local area (since all beekeeping is local). I encourage you to learn treatment free methods from people who are successfully doing it and keeping their hives alive year to year.  Some gurus I would recommend listening to if you want to be treatment free include – Dee Lusby, Michael Bush, Sam Comfort, Solomon Parker, Dean Stiglitz, Laurie Herboldsheimer, Les Crowder, Kirk Webster, Jason Bruns and Tim Ives.

DSC_0148a

Another one of the small cell frames in my treatment free hives.

If you want to have only one or two hives and buy packages every year or so, or take all the honey you can get, then treatment free beekeeping may not be for you. It is up to you to decide if that is how you want to keep your bees.  There are many ways to keep bees and treatment free is just one. It is the method I use and strongly implore others to follow, but it is not the only way to keep bees.

For more information on treatment free beekeeping click here.

Copyright © 2011-2014. Anita Deeley, BeverlyBees.com. All rights reserved.

Author: Anita Deeley

Anita Deeley is a biologist who maintains 30 honey bee hives. She is the beekeeper, writer, owner and creator of BeverlyBees.com. When she is not spending time with her girls (the bees), she enjoys being a wife to her beekeeping cohort, Brian and mother to 3 little boys (the beekeepers in training). Read more about Anita here >>
——————————————————————————————————————–
Connect with Anita on Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ or Facebook here.

17 Comments

  1. what do you do during catastrophic nectar collapse or pollen collapse ??

    a commercial beekeeper in Australia told me if he is willing to feed pollen he can make a honey crop about 200 kilos or so pre hive. If he does not do this the bees will die for there is no natural pollen to be had.
    PS. I have no way of proving this statement.

    do you feed honey from other hives if available ?

    do you move bees to a better location for a nectar flow if a catastrophic nectar collapses is all around you ??

    I do believe honey is the best over wintering food available if you have it .

    I just can not let the bees starve to death.

    are you running three deep boxes for a brood chamber ??

    if so how is that working out for you ??

    I do hope the best for you and your family and your adventures in beekeeping.

    • Since I switched to the Tim Ives method and started using 3 deeps for brood I have not had to feed those hives at all. They end up storing enough honey and pollen all by themselves. I leave them heavy with honey and they have honey left come spring, which I leave for them. They have a deep and a half or more (conservatively) of honey going into winter. They like to fill the bottom box with pollen in the fall which makes fat healthy bees next spring. I try not to move my bees because using the 3 deep method they are very heavy hives! I do move bees permanently if the location they are in is not a good nectar producing area, as some areas in general are better for bees than others. Feeding bees is very time consuming so I try to avoid it at all costs if the bees are strong enough. But I still feed nucs for overwintering and late swarms and removals (late August/September) if needed. I try to feed my honey from other hives first, then sugar water if I have too, to prevent starvation. Hope this helps! Are you using the 3 deep method?

      • if I use a deep configuration two deeps for winter since I went to Russian bees about 6 years ago need a lot less honey for winter feed.(had Itwinter. for about 50 years) With Italians I needed about 12 to 14 frames with Russians 10 to 12 frames one good thing I like about Russians is when they start laying a brood in about January they will follow the honey stores what I mean is the Queen will lay eggs towards the honeyside of the frame not on the empty side they do not stay still like most Italian I ever had and can only move on the comb on a warm day to get extra food and or pollen.
        one thing you might like to incorporate in your fall emanagement
        on about september first I will inspector hive and look for two frames of pollen I will take those two frames of pollen put them into the top box at number 3 and number 7 the bees will top them off With honey and capping and them.in the springtime bees will be in the top box most of the time and be right near the pollen honey mix combs this has worked well for me over the years.
        I do know in northern Vermont and New Hampshire a lot of beekeepers who do use 3 deep configurations for winter.
        I use all 10 frame equipment

        • Interesting observation of the Russians. I have all mutt bees, but some seem to have Russian type characteristics. Also the bees in one of my top bar hives somehow seem to “make honey” in the winter. No idea how they do this but I have definitely observed honey stores being moved around to different frames in freezing cold temperatures. I have also seen some of my bees out flying in very cold weather sub 40F and somehow finding pollen. I use all 10 frame equipment too. The bees will usually fill some of the frames in the top box with pollen before capping with honey, so I usually try not to move frames around. Using 3 deeps the bees tend to fill most of the entire bottom box with pollen stores going into winter, by the spring they have used it all. They are pretty amazing!

  2. Hi – thanks for this treatment-free article. I’m a first year beekeeper and had wanted to go this route but with just one hive and pretty high mite levels, I felt treating (with formic acid) was the right thing to do. I still do, in this particular case, but I am concerned with resistance. I did a little research and couldn’t really find any info that bees were developing resistance to formic acid. I did see one statement somewhere that said they have been using it in Europe for 30-40 years without any signs of resistance, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of studies or scientific info out there. Do you have any knowledge of this? Clearly resistance is occurring with some of the chemical pesticides.

    • I don’t think there is anything that is resistance proof. Eventually nature will find a way, she is smarter than we are. Did you do mite counts before, during and after treatment? I doubt formic killed all the mites in your hive and this is where is starts. Randy Oliver has a good article about this and I encourage you to read it – http://scientificbeekeeping.com/the-arsenal-natural-treatments-part-1/ In it he states “It’s been frequently asserted that the natural miticides will be “sustainable,” that is, that the mite is unlikely to develop resistance to them. I don’t buy this. Milani (2001) speaks for biologists when he states: “There is no reason to believe that the varroa mite cannot develop resistance against acaricides of natural origin or simple molecules (e.g., formic acid). There are hundreds of species of insects and mites which feed on plants containing natural toxins.” Even though formic acid has been used for some 30 years in Europe with no apparent sign of resistance, with continued regular use without rotation, the tolerance of the mite to formic would likely approach the tolerance level of the bee. In other words, you’d kill your colony before you killed enough mites to make it worthwhile. My point is, it would be unwise to use any single natural treatment as a Silver Bullet.”

  3. I have been beekeeping since May 18th 2014. Yeah, 4 months.

    I have NOT treated my hives. I did put Diatomaceous earth
    around my hives and I am allowing fireants to buld in my bee yard.

    I just returned from the GBA (Georgia Beekeepers Assoc) Fall meeting and was told I must treat if I want my Bees to live.

    My bees are local. A Russian/Italian mix. They seem to be doing well. I have beatles. I kill them by hand and I guess I will wait and see if my girls make it through the winter.

    I live in Northwest Georgia. Our winters are on the mild side.

    Is there anything else I could possibly do?

    • Learn as much as you can from everyone who is successfully keeping bees treatment free. There are many similar methods but also differing ones. Try a few ways and see what works for you in your area. Read as much as you can about bees, go to meetings and workshops. The more you learn the easier it will be to care for them treatment free. Good luck!

  4. I am not applying treatments to my hives. I do feed sugar water when needed. My girls are Russian/Italian and they are doing good so far.

    Thanks for providing information on Treatment Fee Beekeeping.

  5. If someone is keeping bees in a place where “catastrophic” nectar shortages occur it’s a problem with hive placement. A treatment free person would have to concede that it was a bad location…. that’s what I’d have to do.

  6. First off..LOVE your site! It is helpful in so many ways and has got me excited about really digging into the idea of beekeeping. I would like to begin my first hive this year, however we are currently purchasing a home and will not be moved in til mid April. I live in Ohio and the winter has been beyond cruel this year. Would June be too late to start a hive that can produce enough food to sustain itself through the winter months?

    Thanks!!

  7. Thank you! Is there a list anywhere of treatment free beekeepers in Massachusetts who sell their honey? I would like to support them, though I am in western massachusetts.

  8. Love the advice, and I try to add nothing to the hive but am curious what you do for wax moth prevention l, especially in stored frames this time of year.

  9. How do you get your bees to dtaw out 4.9 i use5.1lost alot befor they took to it i have italian and allamerican cross hope you can gibe some advice i mever use chems.thanls