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.

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 and former state bee inspector who maintains 100 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.

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