The July 2022 issue of the BBKA News features not one, not two, but THREE articles on treatment-free beekeeping. That’s three out of eight (37.5%). Given that this is an association consisting of primarily hobby beekeepers with less than five hives each, I find it odd that so much space is dedicated to such a tricky subject. Before a load of beginners plunge headlong into the idea that they don’t have to treat their bees, I’d like to add my views. Unlike the BBKA, most beekeepers have never heard of me, so I’m whistling in the wind, but what the hell?
How do we know how well our bees are doing? Experienced beekeepers can often tell when something is wrong early in an inspection. Maybe it is dwindling, some bees are trembling or have deformed wings, or the brood looks odd. However, there are two elementary things anyone can do to measure success. One is the number of colonies alive and well in April compared to the previous November – the winter losses. The percentage of colonies that die over winter will depend on many things, but consistently low winter losses suggest that you are doing something right. The old adage, “take your losses in the autumn”, holds true. Taking small weak colonies into winter is a sure way to have high winter losses. Your bees need to be in tip-top shape by September.
The other simple way to record your performance as a beekeeper is the amount of honey obtained per production colony. Good strong, healthy colonies will make more honey than sick ones. I think that using the honey crop as a measure is appropriate because, all other things being equal, it shows which bees are thriving. Mere survival is not good enough, in my opinion. The weather hugely impacts honey crops, so it’s not perfect. I don’t know why people approach bees differently than their dog or horse, or any other livestock. Would you be happy if your dog was alive but covered in ticks? I reckon most good owners would treat the poor animal, and if they didn’t, they might be accused of cruelty.
It seems reasonable that one principle in beekeeping should be that if your bees are afflicted with some disease or parasite, and you have the power to help them out, then you should do so. This will benefit your bees, you, and possibly other nearby beekeepers whose bees may catch whatever yours have. A critical part of managing bees must be knowing the difference between thriving and sick bees. In the case of Varroa mites, this means monitoring mite levels in your hives.
Some Bees Can
One reason why taking the decision to try the non-treatment route is tricky is that you have more work to do. If you know that your bees are overwhelmed with mites, you can let them die or treat them. Or maybe they won’t die but will struggle on for another few months – what a miserable existence. Indeed the proper way to proceed is to monitor mite levels regularly and breed from queens that head colonies that manage to keep mite numbers down. We know that some bees cope with Varroa better than others – the uncapping and re-capping behaviour. I agree that we should identify these bees and propagate them, assuming they are good bees (gentle, low swarming, and produce good honey crop).
But that doesn’t mean we should let the others die, does it? Once we know that a colony is not coping with mites, we can treat the problem and ensure they are not included in the breeding program. When Randy Oliver started doing this, he found that out of 1,000 colonies, only about 50 (5%) kept mite levels low without treatment. If he did not treat the other 95%, he would lose 950 colonies and be out of business. He bred from the 5% but treated the 95% and continues to work this way. Over time the percentage of bees that keep mite numbers low has grown, but it’s slow progress.
I don’t dispute that some beekeepers in some areas have bees that thrive without treatments for Varroa. That’s fantastic. I use low mite count as one of my criteria when selecting breeder queens. I have hundreds of apiaries near mine. It’s a place where it’s impossible to significantly influence the local drone population, so I’m constantly paddling upstream. That doesn’t mean I’m not trying, but I know that going treatment free is a sure way to kill most of my bees.
- Varroa management is an ongoing task which should be practised throughout the active season, not just in autumn
- Aim to have healthy bees with minimum Varroa levels to go into autumn and winter
The best practice factsheet on Varroa says:
- It is not possible to eradicate Varroa, and they will always be in honeybee colonies. Try to maintain Varroa populations at below 1,000 mites, which is the UK recommendation to keep all colonies safe.
- Do not allow mite levels to exceed 2,500, as this will put a colony at significant risk of collapse, especially if viruses are also present.
- Some bee colonies appear to show a tolerance to Varroa. Retain these colonies and incorporate them into queen-rearing programmes.
Unless beekeepers are monitoring and controlling Varroa by ‘best practice’, the VERY LEAST that successful beekeepers now do to control Varroa is:
- In early August, treat bees by using an approved varroa treatment such as APIGUARD®, API LIFE VAR® or THYMOVAR® immediately after honey crop removal.
- Between late November and January, when there is little or no bee brood applying oxalic acid by the ‘trickling’ method.
The National Bee Unit (NBU) delivers bee health programmes on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Welsh Government (WG) in England & Wales. It has been involved in the management and control of bee pests and diseases, along with training and dissemination of information to beekeepers for over 60 years. The current team of 80 people comprises laboratory diagnostics, programme support, research personnel and 60 home-based Bee Inspectors managed by the National Bee Inspector (NBI), the head of field inspection services.
Mythical New Beekeeper
I don’t know why the BBKA decided to push the treatment-free agenda. Perhaps “push” is putting it too strongly. It’s excellent news that science shows us that honey bees have mechanisms for fighting mites. I believe we should try to identify such bees and breed from them – it’s what I’m doing anyway. But let’s not get too carried away – most bees can’t cope with mites, and if we fail to treat them, they will die. Then we really will have a crisis in honey bee numbers, one inflicted by beekeepers.
So, mythical new beekeeper who reads my blog – where will you get your advice? Will it be the NBU? I hope so.