Updated Content and Dates: Jan 2017
A Practical Plan For Removing All Treatment From Commercial Apiaries
Hobby beekeeping in America is obviously going to survive and thrive in the future. A small, but certain percentage of the population will always be fascinated by honeybees and want to be around them as much as possible---even if they don't make a living from them. During these times when honeybees are always facing possible destruction by parasites, weather, pesticides or some combination of factors, and the basics of successful beekeeping have become unclear, these "amateurs" are the people who can and do experiment with every conceivable management practice until some of their methods succeed on a regular basis and then spread throughout the community. This pool of energy and enthusiasm, along with a strong and growing dedication among hobbyists to keeping bees without treatments, will ensure that a new, healthy beekeeping will eventually emerge, and also create a new generation of professional beekeepers who started with one colony, and eventually gave up other work in order to pursue bees full-time.
But it's the commercial part of our industry that's really having trouble now. There are a much smaller number of commercial beekeepers today than there were ten years ago, and no matter how much economic success someone may have had in the last few years, most of the community considers everything to be at risk, and watches with great concern the continuous decline of honeybee health and resilience. In an attempt to maintain a certain cash flow or standard of living, the focus remains fixed on killing mites and other parasites instead of using them as allies and assets, and on artificially propping up the bees in unhealthy situations (like almond pollination). In a large apiary with many investments spread out in different parts of the country and relatively few skilled people riding herd on all the bees, it can be very difficult to make basic changes, even when the desire is there.
I don't think any of us who have managed to live from treatment-free beekeeping for the last several years would claim to be immune from the problems and concerns of the industry in general. But in the end the focus in health and the work of making the transition to non-treatment has made beekeeping much less stressful and more enjoyable, and has given us much hope for an interest in a positive future for beekeeping. It's arguable now that treatment-free beekeeping can be just as profitable as any other beekeeping scheme. But these things were not easily won.
In a certain sense it's not all that complicated. My friend Chris Baldwin likes to say: "The people who are succeeding with untreated bees now are the ones who quit treating their bees." But these were not people who were giving up or looking for an easier way. They were people who had made a commitment to a healthier future for beekeeping and had already done considerable thinking and working in that direction before they backed off their treatments. When I went through the process of gradually eliminating the treatments from my apiary, I didn't know what I was doing and made many costly mistakes. There were no good models to follow at that time---at least for bees in the kind of environment where I live.
But things are different now. The number of beekeepers who are functioning without treatments is larger every year, and their collective experience and knowledge is growing and becoming more solid. As usual, there's lots of speculation about what is really happening, biology-wise, in these cases. Don't waste too much energy worrying about this. Scientists get paid to study these kinds of problems, and they will certainly share their results with you after they have impressed their peers by publishing an elegant paper in the right journal at the right time. Meanwhile, it's much more fun and profitable to focus on the basics of healthy beekeeping, pay attention as you work, learn from your mistakes, and build on your successes. In North Carolina last fall, Greg Rogers summed up honey production in the Smokey Mountains for me this way: "We know where, but we don't know why." In getting rid of the treatments in your apiary, you don't always have to know why in order to know how.
After watching this process go on for more than ten years, and listening to and observing others as they go through it, I think it's possible now to recommend a more specific, 4-year plan to other commercial beekeepers who want to continue with beekeeping in the future, and who understand that the underlying health, stability and resilience of their bees is the only really stable foundation for such a business in the long run. Short-term profits (sometimes very large ones) have been made in the past by exploiting the bees and using them as hard as possible. In the future, and over a working lifetime, the largest profits (in both money and a decent lifestyle) will go to those who abandon the focus on profit and concentrate instead on the "wild" health and resilience of their bees, while resolving to live themselves on the by-products of this process. The self-organizing, creative power of Nature needs to be tapped as the primary energy source, and this is accomplished by working with the four essential elements of "Wild Farmers Getting Horizontally Minded" (explained last month).
If Nature is willing to move from point A to point B, she always has more than one way to make the journey. There are undoubtedly more ways than one to eliminate the treatments from an apiary, but I'm describing here a way that has already been pioneered by myself and others. I made the transition without going into debt, but I made many mistakes, and the overall economic trajectory of the apiary was disrupted while the transition was in progress. Some income was lost as the mites carried off the poorly adapted bees, but this income has been largely or entirely recovered in recent years as the industry in general declines, and the value of bees, queens and honey from untreated colonies increases. With what is now known and available, I have no doubt that many apiaries could go through this process with a much smaller immediate economic disruption, or even none at all. The key is to re-organize the apiary around the principles outlined above, and take advantage of the growing demand for untreated bees, and the queens that produce such bees.
There are six things an apiary must have at the outset in order to successfully make the transition to non-treatment. I would be afraid of investing time and money in this direction if any one of these six were missing or unobtainable.
1. Good Food for the bees.
2. Clean Combs and/or the ability to draw new combs quickly.
3. Resistant Bees---Stock that already has proven itself capable of surviving and thriving in untreated situations for at least two years.
4. Mating Control---one way or another, at least 75% of the drones mating with your queens must come from your own colonies.
5. The ability to Raise All Your Own Queens and Requeen all your colonies annually.
6. A good Attitude.
Now let’s go back through these in reverse order, starting with the most critical one---having a positive Attitude:
I remember hearing a radio spot about an Iowa farmer who consistently produced the highest per-acre yield of corn in the state, by quite a wide margin. Eventually he was persuaded to give a series of workshops about his methods. He always began by stating: "The most important thing in growing a good crop of corn is having a good attitude..." After a few more minutes of talk like this you could hear the pencils snapping in the background as the assembled farmers broke them with their hands or their teeth in frustration. They came to find out how deep to plow or how many pounds of this or that to spray on the crop in order to achieve a record yield. But instead most of what they heard was about how important it was to imagine what it's like to be a corn plant, and what's necessary to keep growing rapidly through changing extremes of moisture, heat and drainage. When he finally mentioned his choices of varieties and fertilizers, it was almost identical to what most people in the room were already using. It was his genuine love of the corn plant, and his constant attention to his plants and all aspects of the growing environment over many years that enabled him to consistently produce a record crop.
Commercial beekeeping without treatments is only for people who love Nature and their bees, who personally manage and work with their bees every day, and want to stick with beekeeping over the long haul. It's important to be a farmer first, and a broker of bees and bee products second. Embracing the methods of Nature can mean opposing or ignoring the recommendations of the larger community or their spokespeople, who may have something to sell and are still operating on the assumption that pesticides and other agricultural chemicals are and always will be essential. Let's not forget that beekeepers have always been among the most inventive and independent-minded people in every society.
One of the extremely important and powerful tools that Nature uses to help insects recover from a serious shock is the process of rapid decline and then expansion in a population in order to change the genotype and activate defenses that were not functioning previously. This is one of the most difficult things for production and profit-oriented beekeepers to embrace in a positive way; but so far all the evidence says there is no way to move to a stable and resilient beekeeping future without using it to our advantage. Look at the way varroa mites recovered over and over, after out most determined efforts to kill every last one of them, and how they adapted and became immune to even the most deadly poisons. Honeybees have the same ability to adapt, rebound and become stronger than they were at the beginning of the process; but only a few people have so far made good use of this principle. With what we know now, the process can be controlled, and the declines kept to a manageable level. There still needs to be planning and preparation for a possible loss of production and income, but this is no different than having contingencies ready for poor weather or low prices---things farmers and beekeepers have always had to deal with. Over the last few years several beekeepers have told me they'd like to give up their treatments, but they could never withstand a 40-50% loss of their colonies. The trouble is that many commercial beekeepers have now experienced losses on this scale (sometimes more than once) and have not been able to use the situation to create better bees and beekeeping for the future.
The second prerequisite for moving away from treatments is having the ability to Raise Your Own Queens and Requeen at least 75% of your colonies each year. This is important for "pulsing" new stock rapidly through the apiary as treatments are withdrawn. The first couple of years when colonies are left unprotected are the most difficult, and having all young queens of a tested stock is the best offense here. Embedded in this suggestion are two important principles: The first is to reduce the number of colonies per beekeeper---in large part to make sure all colonies can be requeened every year, at least for the first few years. In the end this will lead to greater intensity of production (explained in the March 2008 ABJ) and much more enjoyable and profitable beekeeping. The second is to utilize Nature's ability to recover after a shock by increasing the rate of reproduction when conditions are favorable. In practical terms this usually means increasing the rate of making new colonies. A powerful way of doing this is to start two nucs in each box instead of one. Then, when mites and parasites weed them out, even a 50% loss will only take a few boxes out of productive use. I've described my methods for doing this in detail in the past, and so have several others.
Mating Control is the third essential ingredient in this recipe. Your new queens must mate with your breeder queens from the previous year (via drones from the daughters of those breeders). Any of the three methods of mating control (Instrumental Insemination; Natural Mating in Isolation; and Drone Saturation) can be used to produce bees that don't need treatments. It's interesting that each of these three schemes will lead your apiary off in a somewhat different direction genetically, over several generations, even if they start with the same breeders. Drone Saturation shifts the apiary genotype more slowly than the other two options, but this method yields the most stable and diverse gene pool in the long run, and is in any case the only practical option for most commercial beekeepers.
Most of my own bees are located in the Champlain Valley of Vermont, where it's very crowded with bees belonging to several different owners, each pursuing a different program. I first set up an isolated mating yard in the mountains above the valley when tracheal mites came, and I planned to use it for breeding bees resistant to this parasite. The extra time and effort required to mate queens in isolation proved unnecessary in this case because most stocks already present in the valley already had the ability to adapt quickly to this new pest, after recovering from the initial shock and after the most susceptible colonies had perished. Few treatments were applied, and soon the open mated daughters of outstanding survivors were doing just as well as sister queens mated in isolation. But the experience gained in setting up that first isolation apiary served me well later when varroa came and it became clear that queens grafted from proven survivor stock had to mate with drones representing other proven survivors in order to eliminate treatment pressure on the mites, and make steady progress from one generation to the next. I'd be afraid to start on this now unless I was quite sure that at least 75% of the drones mating with my new queens were coming from my own selected colonies.
Before you start eliminating treatments across the board, you want to stock your equipment with Resistant Bees---daughters of proven survivors if possible. Even here you want to be careful and seriously consider what to start with. Some colonies that can live without treatments with no problems do not pass on that ability to their daughters, even when carefully mated to other survivors. It's safest to get your foundation stock from a large pool of bees, collectively managed and succeeding without treatments---or at least with very infrequent treatments---over several years. This is evidence that the ability to co-exist with mites and viruses is both present and heritable. The only bees of this sort that I can recommend based on experience are the Russian stocks, which are soon to be available from an expanded network of certified breeders. They already have a large enough gene pool to prevent inbreeding depression, and a carefully worked out mating scheme---so you can purchase unrelated stock every season for several years if necessary. The Russians have advantages and disadvantages for most beekeepers. On the plus side I put first of all their strong and easily heritable ability to co-exist with mites and virus, as well as their overall resilience and "wildness". They are at the same time very gentle, frugal bees that winter exceptionally well with small clusters. The main buildup starts later than with most other bees, but then proceeds very rapidly, and they are extremely good honey gatherers. The only things I don't like about them are the frequency of swarming, and a relatively weak desire to draw comb in the spring. (It's not an issue for me, but they also don't mix with other, non-Russian bees as well as Italians do). The people who are doing well with these bees and really like them are all removing brood in the spring, creating a smaller brood nest during the swarming season; and then producing a honey crop in mid-summer or later. Beekeepers who need a lot of bees in the spring or depend on an early honey flow have difficulty dealing with the strong swarming urge.
I hope there are other broad-based survivor stocks out there that are suitable for others to use for beekeeping without treatments. A few are being advertised---you should question both the producers and some of their customers closely if possible before devoting a lot of space to them in your apiary. The purpose of writing this is so that you can create your own uniquely adapted stock of healthy and resilient bees---so this gene pool of untreated bees can continue to grow.
Clean Combs are the next requirement for any kind of healthy beekeeping. This implies the ability to draw new combs rapidly---at least 20% of your total comb number per year, and more is better. The source of wax for your foundation is a concern, but the truth is I don't know of the best plan for dealing with this problem, or how important it really is. I devoted a huge amount of time, energy and money setting up a system to make the small number of sheets (2,000-4,000) that I need every year, from my own wax. Now that it's done I consider it a vital and fascinating part of the apiary but I'll be the first to admit that it takes a lot of time. Finding a manufacturer who will make foundation for you directly from your cappings wax would be theoretically the best of both worlds, but this is hard to arrange. According to the folks at Penn State, there may be some effective techniques for filtering contaminates out of wax, so this may recede as a problem as time goes on. I don't like plastic foundation, but I do keep some of it on hand for emergencies, and buying it unwaxed and rolling on wax of your own sounds like a workable compromise to me.
I should say at this point that it is not necessary to have some certain cell size in your combs in order for bees to adapt to non-treatment. Now, if I am found dead with a stake driven through my heart shortly after you read this you will know where to find the murderer---among the small-cell people. I tried to work with smaller comb size, but my breeding program progressed much faster than my ability to change combs. Now I have combs with worker cells throughout the natural size range (5.1-5.4 mm), and my foundation mill prints out a 5.2 size pattern. It's far more difficult and costly to establish a large number of existing colonies on small-cell combs than it is to propagate promising stock and survivors, and step up the rate of colony reproduction to offset heavier than normal losses during the "collapse" phase. As far as I can tell, every commercial apiary that is functioning successfully without treatments went through exactly the same pattern of collapse and recovery---no matter what size combs they were using. They did share one thing when they made the transition however: They all had combs that were not seriously contaminated. So, replacing your combs and stabilizing mite control with formic or oxalic acid are important things to accomplish before the transition to non-treatment.
The last requirement for that transition is the most obvious of all; Good Food and a healthy environment for the bees---as essential to their health as it is to ours. Having the opportunity to visit with beekeepers from several different parts of the U.S. and Canada has made it very clear that I have better, natural food, and a more healthy environment for my bees than many commercial beekeepers have access to. This is partly because I live in a relatively clean, dairy farming region with a wide variety of good nectar and pollen sources, and partly because my bees are not subjected to the stress of moving. A lot of research and work has been done recently around supplemental feeding, and hopefully this can fill some of the gaps in our environment that industrial farming has created. But I don't think there's any real substitute for clean, bee-gathered nectar and pollen, and I'd be afraid to try weaning bees off their crutches and props if they couldn't stay in one place, with good nectar and pollen, for at least six months of the year.
So now, after all this preparation, the actual 4-year transition process is fairly straightforward. Be prepared for a period of comparative chaos as unselected stocks are mixed together in the first two years and losses increase in the third and possibly fourth year.
Year 1: Management can vary, according to location and whether you migrate or not, but the goal is the same: Requeen all colonies with queens raised by yourself from promising survivor stock you obtained from elsewhere. Graft from several different queens and raise extra small nucs to replace queens that fail later in the season. Keep track of which queens came from which breeders, and continue treating the apiary with formic and/or oxalic acid.
Year 2: Same as year one, except graft from different promising stock obtained from elsewhere. This year your new queens are getting mated (75% or greater) with your breeder queens from the year before. By the time your new queens are laying their second round of brood, your apiary is filling up with worker bees that have promising survivors for both mothers and fathers. Keeping track of the families is more important this year because these queens will be the foundation stock of your own untreated families in year three. Decide whether to make one last treatment in the spring of Year 2. Carefully evaluate the necessity of artificially lowering the mite population on more time against the possible damage to your new, extremely valuable queens and a longer wait before being able to tell for certain which colonies are really thriving without treatment. Begin propagating nucs at a faster rate to compensate for the increased loss of colonies in Year 3.
Year 3: Now you've reached the really chaotic part. Your bugs may be a hybridized mix of stocks you were not familiar with in the past, and their behavior is all over the map. Even worse, colonies are starting to fail, and you will feel like someone trying to quit smoking and have to force yourself not to get out the heavy artillery and kill the mites another time. Don't panic. You've allowed the element of Wildness to come into your apiary, and now is your chance to get it to work for you. This year you should graft principally from your own stock---the best of what you raised the year before. This is when keeping track of the families is important to avoid inbreeding depression in the future. Resist the temptation to graft entirely from just a few of the best looking colonies and try to find at least two good daughters from each of the breeders you used the year before. From this point on, each time you choose a grafting mother you are potentially starting a new family that could be very important in your apiary for many years to come. In year 3 you are mating the best of the crosses you made from imported, untreated stock, with the total gene pool you have so far imported. I recommend that in Year 3 you do about 20-30% of your grafting from more imported, promising stock---as a source of new, unrelated families, and because your own bees are not fully tested yet; not enough time has elapsed since the last treatment. Year 3 is also when you really see the importance of increasing nuc production and/or starting two nucs in each box. The extra queens and colonies keep most of the equipment in production as the apiary goes through the "collapse" part of the natural cycle, while bees and mites begin adapting to continuous co-existence.
Year 4: With a little luck from the weather, during Year 4 you should start to see and feel some really positive momentum resulting from all your hard work, as the apiary calms down and enters the "recovery" part of the natural, insect-challenge cycle. By the end of the year, the great majority of your worker bees will have both fathers and mothers selected by a joint committee consisting of yourself, the two mites, viruses and all the other known and unknown parasites and challenges that are part of the environment where you live. Mites and other factors select for survival, vigor, overall fitness and resilience; and you finish the process by selecting again for the desirable economic and beekeeping characteristics. Over the next few years, the bees will become much more uniform, as you have "boiled down" your gene pool until only combinations that are both good survivors and good economic producers remain. The important thing now is to start the gene pool growing again, first by maintaining at least 12-15 families, founded upon unrelated, or only slightly related, breeder queens; and second by starting a new family each year from a small amount of outside stock. This provides a constant source of unrelated genetic material "bleeding" slowly into your apiary to compensate for that which is lost as you continue to select for your favorite traits. Hopefully in the future there will be many more untreated apiaries to buy and trade stock with.
There will be other downturns and challenges in the future---but now you have a way of dealing with them, and also benefitting from them. By selection, rapid turnover of queens and the acceleration of nuc production, many difficulties can be overcome. After the bees recover from a shock, the work habits already in place will yield a surprising number of extra colonies, queens and queen cells. The sale of these products can equal or exceed the income lost during the "collapse" years of the cycle. These extra bees and queens can help reverse the nationwide downward trend in colony numbers and serve as the foundation for a more stable, healthy and satisfying beekeeping in the future.
As long as this essay has become, the information and advice it contains still needs to be amended and adapted to each new situation. You can get suggestions and hear about the experiences of myself and others, but only you can figure out the best way to run your apiary without treatments. We're not using the healing and creative power of Nature in commercial beekeeping now; and we never will until more people stop treating their bees and propagate good stock out of that new environment.