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The Challenges of Treatment Free Beekeeping

Each year thousands upon thousands of new beekeepers gather in rooms across the country, soaking up information from, as one of my college professors in Education called them, “the Sage on the Stage.” Well-seasoned beekeepers who know volumes about honeybees and can talk endlessly about them are selected for presentations intended to help guide a new generation of beekeepers, most of whom have no idea what they’re getting into. In those courses aspiring beekeepers are taught the basics – where to put beehives, different types of equipment, managing for honey yields, safety in the bee yard, how to establish nucs and packages, and many more. Inevitably the Achilles heel of honeybees comes up – managing varroa mites.

Starting with Mite Resistant Bees

When I was introduced to beekeeping in 2010 my mentor talked about Russian honeybees, how they were mite resistant, and how you’d never have to treat them with chemicals. This appealed to me greatly as I keep my bees on my family farm a good distance away from my home in the suburbs of Atlanta. As a farm kid I understand the need for good genetics, but at the time I was not considering gene pools in nature and how I might impact or could influence them; I was merely considering my own success which hinged upon the success of the bees.

Not having to treat my bees was appealing because it meant less management overhead, less money spent, and greater chances at survival and success. I wanted, from the very beginning, for my bees to be able to survive on their own. I had no idea treatment free beekeeping was even a subset of the beekeeping world. My ideas and philosophy around the topic have grown and shifted since I began, and there have absolutely been challenges over the years, but I don’t regret any of it for one minute. But, is it right for all beekeepers, or even a majority?

What Made Me Think About This

Recently I presented at one such course and I absolutely loved it. Being able to share the knowledge I've gained over the years in an effort to help other beekeepers become successful was tremendously satisfying to the soul. Later on, I posted a picture of my naturally mated bees in my apiary engaging in varroa sensitive hygienic (VSH) activities, specifically the uncapping of brood.

Workers from a naturally mated colony in my apiary engaging in VSH
Workers from a naturally mated colony in my apiary engaging in VSH

This led to several comments from those beginning beekeepers on how they were stoked to become a treatment free beekeeper, and I was honestly excited to hear that! But then one of the other presenters came back and made some fantastic points about the priority of the new beekeeper, that learning to perform accurate mite counts and taking notes for data points is a more critical skill for the newbie than trying to raise treatment free bees. I don't know how I feel about that, as I've been successful without ever doing a count or treatment. While he stated that our long-term goal should be treatment free, he implied that starting that way would be more likely to set the new beekeeper up for failure than success. Please understand the conversation was more detailed and nuanced than what I want to delve into here but suffice it to say he did make some great points, and more importantly, he got me to think a bit about my own influence on beginning beekeepers and why we don’t start beekeepers out on the treatment free path. Again, this is a highly experienced beekeeper, and his thoughts are absolutely worth consideration.

Difficulties of Being Treatment Free

In my apiary I have always seeded it with pure Russian queens or nucs (a small core of bees, consisting of a mated and laying queen, three frames of brood, and two frames of food) from a member of the Russian Honeybee Breeders Association with the exception of one instance where I bought some mutt nucs a few years ago to do some testing. I have never lost a colony of pure Russian bees to mites, and I want to say the same for the daughter queens, but I cannot be so certain. This is a testament to the amazing job the members of the RBBA do in preserving those genetics without inbreeding, but taking this approach is costly in terms of money.

Each year I do walkaway splits for swarm control, and some years I can’t get to them (remember I’m remote) and they all swarm, requiring me to purchase more pure Russian queens to strengthen and ensure the stability of my stock. Because of this constant reinforcement over the years, the swarms of Russian bees and survivor stock seem to have become the dominant genetic source in my area. The effect is that in the context of the varroa mite these bees have the genetics to not only survive but thrive. They are highly hygienic, meaning they resist just about every form of honeybee disease there is, and they also handle mites (under normal circumstances) with ease. But again, this was costly and a long-term commitment, and I’m concerned that most new beekeepers won’t be so dedicated. There is also a benefit that I enjoy that most beekeepers do not, and that is that my apiary is largely isolated,

How We Can Become Treatment Free

I think understanding a bit about the genetics aspect is helpful here:

“Suppressed mite reproduction SMR, (now renamed VSH, varroa sensitive hygiene) is the latest trait we have to work with… There is something about the bees that carry the trait that inhibits the varroa mites from reproducing normally… Also, we don't know how many genes are involved. Fortunately, it's not necessary to know all these details to select for and utilize the trait.” - Tom Glenn, Glenn Apiaries

Tom goes on to say that these traits are additive, meaning that multiple genes all influence and accumulate in VSH behavior. Practically speaking what we need to do is reach a point where all of the necessary genes and alleles are prominent in our local gene pool, and that’s a tall order. For the hobbyist beekeeper, manipulating the local gene pool is like trying to save the Titanic with a cereal bowl.

Interestingly, natural selection for these traits has happened and stabilized in several places in the world, primarily where the bees are mostly or completely isolated, and humans have not interfered with the process. The Russian honeybee is a perfect example of this phenomenon and yes, there are several other documented cases involving African, European, and Italian populations.

“A valuable feature of VSH is that bees will express a high level of mite resistance when a colony contains as little as 50% of the alleles for VSH. A simple way to produce such a colony is to raise daughter queens from a VSH breeder and allow the daughters to naturally mate. This is good news for queen producers. They can rear VSH queens, mate them to any drones, and those queens will produce colonies that require no chemical control for varroa. Another benefit is that beekeepers can have mite resistant colonies without destroying their existing bee populations - populations which may be well adapted to certain locales or have desirable beekeeping qualities.” – John Harbo, Harbo Bee Co.

So, if new beekeepers bought pure VSH stock, such as Russians, from a certified and reputable source, they should be able to be treatment free for the first two years, assuming their colony swarms in the first year. If the colony does not swarm until the 2nd year, they can be treatment free for three years. With the first naturally mated daughter queen of a pure VSH stock, varroa resistance potentially decreases by 50%, and by another 50% with the granddaughter. This is too low for my liking and requires purchasing of new VSH queens every other year, and this is an added expense to the beekeeper.

There’s a potential downside with letting your queens mate naturally, and you’ve probably heard it said that “Russians are aggressive!” Well, that’s definitely not accurate. Pure Russians are perfectly ordinary in their disposition and not overly defensive. You may have also heard they like to swarm a lot, and there is a reasonable explanation for these reports. As Brother Adam outlined in his books “Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey” and “Breeding the Honeybee,”, as well as the RBBA site has documented, F1 crosses (meaning the first-generation crosses between two lines) tend to have heightened defensiveness and excessive swarming impulses, especially where western European drones are concerned. America is covered in western European drones (the most popular bee is the Italian). It also seems VSH bees produced by other means, usually II (instrumental insemination), typically share these traits. It seems to be the side effect of crossing two separate but stable strains. Russians perform spring buildup super-fast and catch the beekeeper off guard. Russians simply operate on a compressed timeline and most beekeepers simply aren't prepared properly for that.

When someone claims they’ve worked with Russians and have these two opinions I have challenged them, and each time it turns out they did not get Russian bees from a member of the RBBA. What this means is the beekeeper started with a Russian hybrid, or an F1 cross at best, sourced from a beekeeper who may or may not have bought pure Russian queens, allowed them to mate naturally, then sold them off as Russians. The good news is that subsequent generations of the crosses tend to lower these tendencies, but VSH is also gradually lost unless it is crossed back in.

Why Don’t We Start Beekeepers Out This Way?

When I start talking about bees, you’ll hear me circle around to two topics – Russian/VSH bees and hive thermodynamics and design. I personally believe that these two things combined could solve most, if not all, of our beekeeping woes in this country and possibly around the world. I realized we don’t touch on either of them in our introductory classes especially the topic of mite resistance. Why? As you can see, they are complicated topics and most new beekeepers aren’t prepared for, and few can handle, such an in-depth information dump. Not to mention there is a ton of misinformation and bad press surrounding Russian and VSH bees. Sitting through an introductory class for an entire day already feels to like drinking from a fire hose. Laying this complex topic (not to mention the scientific and technical nature of thermodynamics) would certainly overload new beekeepers and possibly drive them away.

As you can see, continuing to use non-VSH bees and prop them up via treatments is possibly doing more harm than good by allowing non-VSH genetics to continue to dominate the gene pool when mother nature would quickly remove them within one year. And once a beekeeper has chosen a bee and gotten used to them, they’re not likely to change in the future unless there’s a really bad experience driving them to. Also, being treatment free is different than just keeping bees according to the status quo. Shifting new beekeepers onto VSH stock is a sizable shift in our approach, but ultimately one I think is worth it with long term benefits. And also, there is probably a smaller pool of experienced beekeepers that can handle the topic appropriately. I'm wondering as I've re-written this blog several times if I'm handling it properly, but whether or not I am, it has to be said and someone needs to start the conversation.

For Consideration

I don't think most folks perceive treatment free beekeeping to be real, achievable, or sustainable, especially in the near term. Where does this mentality or bias against treatment free beekeeping come from? I and many others have been doing it for years, but the bias is probably rooted in the past when it actually was impossible, and then passed on to every new class from the mentors of the day. These mentors either lived through or were taught by those that lived through the time when varroa destroyed this country's bee population. Back then we had to teach beekeepers to get bees then measure and treat for mites, but much has changed since, so should we still be teaching the same things we were teaching immediately post-varroa? I think it is time to adjust our approaches and curriculum accordingly to incorporate treatment free beekeeping as a valid option, especially in the face of continuing resistance against varroa treatments.

We realize that converting a treatment dependent beekeeper into a treatment free one would induce a learning curve and require practical changes on the part of the beekeeper. I think we then project that learning curve onto the new beekeeper and consider that a roadblock. But let me remind you, I started with VSH bees and so I learned to do things accordingly from the start. If I can do it then I think others can, too. Maybe not everyone, but certainly a lot more than there are. If you start someone out with VSH bees and teach them to manage them from the start, there's no new learning curve to go through and they'll never know the difference.

What would a new approach that is inclusive of treatment free beekeeping look like, and how would it impact us down the road? What if we introduced and encouraged new beekeepers to start with VSH bees and prepared them adequately through updated and revised curriculum and validated VSH bee breeders for them? If we established a properly adjusted new status quo through our curriculum, wouldn’t tomorrow’s new beekeepers have an easier time? Wouldn't all beekeepers eventually have an easier time? Moreover, wouldn't the bees, themselves, benefit? It seems like the least we could do for a creature we are largely dependent on is enable them to survive on their own. VSH isn't the only reason we treat bees, but it's by far the largest.

I'm not calling for the elimination of teaching people about doing mite counts mites and how to treat for them - not at all. I am calling for us to consider adding treatment free beekeeping practices into our curriculum for new beekeepers. I'm certain there are challenges, but remember, there are no problems, only solutions!

Thank you for reading and remember – let the bees be bees!

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