IMPORTANT: If you want to start keeping bees treatment-free

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IMPORTANT: If you want to start keeping bees treatment-free

Postby ExpatBeekeeper » Wed May 27, 2015 5:08 pm

I thought I'd take some time to make this post since it's really important especially for those that are about to start keeping bees and want to do so in a treatment free fashion.

Treatment Free (TF) beekeeping is not based on faith, it's based on scientific premise that nature knows how to select survivor bees. This is important because it may not be obvious to those just starting out. Treatment free beekeeping happens through genetics, breeding and evolution via one of these following methods.

  1. You purchase bees from a Treatment Free supplier. There is a growing map of treatment free bee suppliers here - - This is the route I would expect most new and expectant beekeepers to follow, as it will provide the easiest way to quick wins. Going to your local supplier of Italian bees that get dragged up from who knows where in Georgia, that have never had to fend for themselves and have been raised on a chemical cocktail for survival, and then going treatment free and expecting them to live, is not a route that has a high chance of success (not to mention likely being ill equipped to deal with a winter further north). It's also important to note that buying treatment free or VSH bees from a reputable supplier is also not a silver bullet, it's simply the first step in the right direction. Your bees still might die, from lack of overwinter food, pesticides from the next door neighbour or the farmer a mile up the road that napalms his crops with insecticide. It simply means that the bees you buy from that TF supplier will be better equipped to deal with the current mite and disease challenges that are prevalent right now. When the next "varroa" comes along all bets are off again. This is not a def
  2. You decide that you want to breed for resistance yourself. This will involve raising new queens based on survivor stock, selecting for resistance and other useful traits, splitting, requeening, and a bunch of other stuff that is probably best discussed in the Advanced Beekeeping forum.
  3. You catch a swarm or buy bees from a local beekeeper. The local bees will likely be much better equipped to deal with your local weather and conditions (assuming that they're not first season bees from a southern supplier that just swarmed from a neighbours hive!). There's no guarantee that they're resistant to mites and other annoyances, but as I said, that's only a part of the battle

So, what I'm saying to summarise is that if you want to be successful at starting out TF and staying TF, you need to start with bees that have those traits. TF bees aren't usually any more expensive than treated bees, just harder to find right now.

The map above is not an exhaustive list of TF bee suppliers, but the start of a list, of completely TF suppliers. To clarify I buy my bees ( the ones I can't catch) from a guy that treats with Oxalic once or twice a year, mostly because he doesn't want to ship a nuc full of mites to customers that may have other less sturdy stock in their apiaries. That's a compromise I'm willing to live with, because I know that I don't need to treat them once they arrive, as they are bred as VSH (Varroa Sensitive Hygiene) bees.

Hope this helps.

Beekeeper, Meadmaker, Teaboy, and Gopher. Richmond, VA

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Re: IMPORTANT: If you want to start keeping bees treatment-free

Postby Solomon » Wed May 27, 2015 8:14 pm

Tony has a great post here, but I'd like to add and reiterate some things, especially to address some very common misconceptions.

You will lose bees from time to time. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to the process. Unless you are actively destroying weak colonies by requeening or combining, you will always lose colonies. And you should expect to continue losing at least a small portion of your colonies every single year. It is the process by which genetics are developed, refined, and maintained.

TF is not simply an competing methodology with treating. It is a whole other way of keeping bees. In treating, you attempt to prevent every loss. In TF, you don't attempt to prevent any loss due to disease. In fact, you may by destroying queens, increase the loss rate. I certainly do. If I hive cannot cut it, the queen gets smashed and the remainder of the hive is united with another colony. You cannot expect the same loss rates as those who treat, nor should you. Early on, your loss rate will probably far exceed theirs, especially if you are starting with non resistant stock. Later on, you should see lower loss rates. But again, it's not a competition. You are doing something they are. Their losses are losses, your losses are gains. To borrow an old saying, if you lose five hives, now you know five hives that were not resistant.

If you have contingency plans, you will never be treatment free. If your contingency is that you'll treat when the mite level reaches X, then you'll be treating when the mite level reaches X, because it will. Oftentimes, especially in the early part of the process, TF colony mite levels can get much higher than many beekeepers would consider survivable. But you don't know what is survivable unless not surviving is an option.

In my view, you must must must get ahead of the disease by multiplying to more hives than you think you'll want. If you want 5, make 8. If you want 10, make 15. If you want 24, make 32. If you want less than five, your chances of losing them all in one year are high so I do not recommend it. But it is very easy to make 5 out of 8. It is much more difficult to make 5 out of 2. Get in the habit before you start of being prepared with more than you need rather than always trying to catch up and regain what you've lost. Learn methods of splitting and rapid expansion. Learn Expansion Model Beekeeping. Pretend you're going to be a commercial beekeeper one day and you need more hives.

Most of all, there is no such thing as magic. No treatment is even 80% effective. TF certainly is not going to compete with that especially the first couple years, so don't expect it to. Do not make it your job to keep your bees alive. That is their job. If they can't do their job, then they lose their job, same as you. Don't get emotionally tied up with bees. Emotionality may keep you from taking the steps needed to eliminate the weak from among your collection of colonies.
Solomon Parker, Treatment-Free 14 years, ~24 colony baseline
Treatment-Free Beekeeping Podcast - - Treatment-Free Beekeepers Facebook Group

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