Something we must learn from bees

Over the last couple of weeks I have been wrestling with an idea that I am still having trouble conveying.  I listen to a bee podcast, and the guy is always going back and forth on whether to feed and/or treat his hives.  He also makes statements that infer someone is an irresponsible or bad beekeeper if they don’t feed or treat for mites.  I have not been beekeeping for a lifetime yet, but I think the exact opposite may be true.

I remember having similar notions in the fall of 2010.  That is until honeybees taught me an amazing lesson.  To honeybees preservation of the group is always more important than any one particular individual.  This is always something we must have on our minds.  Human beings for whatever reason seem to want to value the individual more than the group as a whole.

This is 1001 back in 2010 (the one on the left). It was a strong hive at this time 05/13. It had been fed all spring and treated the year before.

1001 was my very first hive.  It came to me as an established colony in May with honey supers already on it.  The guy I bought it from had been feeding and treating for many years.  That first summer it produced almost a hundred pounds of honey, but it was heavily infested with varroa.  In the fall the entire powdered sugar dusting regimen was performed just as described all over the internet.  There was a hitch though, two weeks after completion of the third sugaring there were still varroa all over in there.

I was perplexed and frantic just like most first year beeks.  So I ordered some ApiGuard, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it after reading all of the directions and warnings.  I was eating my honey and didn’t want to be eating out of a hive I was putting poison in.

I remember telling my wife that I was going to see what happened If I did nothing.  I didn’t have a lot invested in beekeeping, and if I couldn’t have them without all the complicated feeding and treatment regimens I just wasn’t going to do it. I knew it would be hard seeing a hive going into winter with less than optimal stores, or knowing that mites were in there and doing nothing.  It was then and still is, but the story doesn’t always end badly.

1001 in the Spring of 2011 (left-most hive). It was reduced to two deeps last year. Never even got a honey super.

One of the greatest success stories for treatment free bees in 2012 is hive 1001.  It limped through the winter of 2010 and was only covering 2 frames in the Spring of 2011.  I stuck to my guns and refused to feed it.  It struggled through 2011 and produced no honey, but sometime during the year a new queen was reared in there and by the Fall of 2011 something had definitely changed.  Instead of all the bees looking “Italian” as before, there was variation among the workers coming and going from the hive. The new queen had mated with a good number of different drones and the workers reflected it.

This is 6/27/12. 1001 is the left-most hive.

Last Spring when I got in there I was surprised to see that they were covering almost 6 full frames.  They were under-supered with another deep and given two honey supers which they filled by extraction time.

The take away message here is that just because things look bad you can’t give up on your bees.  Sure this hive could have died back in 2010, but it didn’t, AND IT’S BETTER BECAUSE OF THE TRIALS IT HAS BEEN THROUGH. This hive has gone from feedings and treatments to treatment free and surviving.  I consider it a success story.

The advice of most old school mentors would have been to either combine 1001 with another hive or requeen back in 2010.  I am glad I didn’t know what I was doing and my mentor had gone AWOL.  I am going to tie this all together by saying that it doesn’t make you a bad or lazy bee keeper if you don’t feed and don’t treat.  I don’t know who started that, but it’s bunk.  What does it make us if we keep following the advice from the last 50 years? If all of these mentors knew exactly what to do there wouldn’t be concerns about all of the bees dying.

We can take a lesson from bees.  If we look at the big picture it is better for weak genetic material to expire even if it our individual hive.  It is bad for our pride and maybe our bottom line, but in the long run are we more worried about ourselves or bees?  The genetics that are left will be better for honeybees as a species. I have gone from 0 hives to 20 in just 3 short years with no treatment and honey-crops to boot!

Who knows, you could do nothing and find out it was the right course of action.

Have a nice weekend….  Feel free to leave questions and comments.


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12 Responses to Something we must learn from bees

  1. Bill says:

    I also sometimes feel “judged” for not treating when I talk to other beekeepers and I mention my treatment-free approach. And it can be very intimidating for someone like me, in my first year of beekeeping. There’s so much literature that goes on and on about treatments (even “organic” or “natural” treatments). And so many experienced beekeepers that also stress the importance of treating and feeding. I sometimes find myself having doubts or second guessing.

    But I’m also very stubborn, and I’ll stick to my guns no matter how bad I fail. Reading success stories like yours helps me feel more confident in myself and my bees.

    The way I see treatment is: even people who treat are experiencing losses, so treating isn’t a guarantee to success. I’ve also read enough about how the chemicals and medicines weaken the bees, so I’m not seeing it as a humane solution either. And I don’t consider natural oils or organic chemicals to be a good alternative either since neither of those things are found in a natural hive environment (and just because it’s natural and harmless to people doesn’t mean it’s safe for bees).

    • Jason says:

      I felt the same way particularly the first year. I had two of 5 hives die that year. One starved the other died of varroa. My dad asked me at the time, wouldn’t it have been better to try to keep those hives alive? I said I didn’t know, but I was not going to find out (because they were already dead).

      So many beekeepers pour so much money AND TIME into preserving bad genetics. Going this route takes a strong stomach at times, but it has been totally worth it.

      Losing a hive sucks. I am going into this winter with a couple of hives looking less than optimal and I have one that I know there are small hive beetles in. I didn’t move stores around or anything in any of my hives. Bees should know how to do that. I know there is a definite possibility I could lose two. Heck I could lose a couple of the ones that look good.

      In the event you feel you are being judged and you are feeling confrontational ask the other beekeeper, “What do you suggest as a plan so that I never lose a hive again. If you will guarantee to replace anything I lose I will follow your plan to the letter.” Life is just too fragile and there are too many variables.

      There are no “Experts”. Heck man question even everything I talk about too. I don’t know what has happened with people in the last couple hundred years. It seems to me that people used to experiment and discover on their own. Now that we are relying on experts it seems we have taken a huge step backwards.

      I agree with you Bill. If the bees have it in the hive environment it should be there. Otherwise we are probably doing more harm than good. Don’t lose hope. Do you have any swarm traps for next year? Any plans to build some? Things really began doing well for me after I started having home grown genetics. Thanks for reading.

      • Bill says:

        I have 2 swarm traps right now, but they were literally hacked together. I plan on building some new and improved ones over the winter to prepare for spring. I’m also building a beevac just in case I need it. I definitely plan on catching a bunch more swarms next year.

        • Jason says:

          Use this time to get ready for next year.

          How many hives are you wanting to have?
          Do you know anyone else close that would be interested in overflow catches?

          I know you use all mediums, so beat the bushes and see how many old used ones you might be able to come up with over the winter to use for traps. If you were to have 5 traps constructed by next spring and select good places to put them I believe you could catch 2-3 anyway perhaps more. I will help you in any way possible. If you have a couple extra hives around it is not as hard to justify not feeding or treating them. 🙂

          If you get that bee vac set up let me share 1 thing. If you are using it for cut-outs do yourself a favor. On any cutout you perform rob a frame of eggs from your best hive. That way they can raise a queen if need be. Of all of the cut-outs performed this year I had no laying queens afterwards. Furthermore I have 3 other beeks around here who had the same outcomes using vacs. If you are using it to just gather swarms… you should be fine. One of my friends did that this year to gather 5 and everything went well in all cases.

          • Bill says:

            I’m going to try to get 6-8 more hives next year. I have 4 friends that are interested in hosting hives so I can get them a little more spread out. (Mostly to keep the neighbors from getting worried/upset.) Thanks for the tips.

          • Jason says:

            Are any of those potential places in an area where you won’t have to worry about neighbors griping if the hives swarm? I don’t practice swarm suppression. I would rather just LetMBee.

            Until I can clearly see that their swarming has decreases my honey yield I am going to let them do what they need to when they to. I know that they clearly could make more honey if they don’t swarm, but it is still in their interest to make a surplus. Time will tell.

  2. Anita says:

    Great post! More people are starting to realize treating is not the answer. At EAS many people talked about how they never should have treated for varroa in the first place and if they hadn’t the bees would have adapted by now. At the state meetings here they are also talking about it. Change is slow but people are coming around.

    • Jason says:

      It has seemed like a snowball here. The more bees I am getting locally the more they are surviving the winter. I always have trepidation about going into winter. I could be wrong about my approach and lose everything. I don’t think that it will happen, but man I hate eating crow.

      Going treatment free to me was like learning to ride a bike. I never had training wheels. My Dad ran around the yard steadying the bike for me over the course of a couple weeks. He would get me going then just let go. I remember there being times when I thought he was there steadying me, only to discover seconds later that I was all alone. In the beginning just that realization would make me wreck.

      It was hard to let go when I started down this road with my bees. Most people learn to ride a bike, but when I decided to say to heck with all of it, I was going headlong into uncharted waters. I had read about people not treating on the INTERNET, but no one around here was doing it. I had no support group to keep me up when hives died.
      I had a lot of biology in college and understand principles of genetics (a little). I understand what happens with medications and resistance. Why not experiment. I am ready to see what happens and I will report it ON THE LEVEL no matter what happens.

  3. Sam says:

    Not treating not feeding and letting them raise as many drones as they like is a good way to improve their genetics, I think thats one reason why foundationless seems to work well.

  4. Jason says:

    I love with foundationless frames especially for brood chambers. It has been working so well for me I can’t believe it. There are times there will be an entire frame of drone brood in one of my hives. I have seen similar slabs of comb in cutouts I have done, so I see no reason to change it.

    Others I have been speaking with tend to believe that the importance of drone genetics have been downplayed with too much emphasis being on queens. I don’t know for sure, but just leaving things alone seems to be the best course of action to me. I think bees can sort it out, just as they have for the millions of years.

    • Sam says:

      I think queens are the most important aspect in genetics but thats the thing, queens need strong drones, I have seen so many drones outside my hives unable to fly (depends on the hive) that it made me realize if they are sickly they simply cant fly, no fly = no mate, amazing selection inside just one hive. Plus if you treat your hives you are letting the sick fly and mate, hampering adaptation.

      • Jason says:

        I don’t know the answer to which is most important. Without both we don’t have future genetics. The drones undoubtedly provide for a lot of variability genetically since the queen mates with multiple drones on the mating flight.

        I have always been perplexed as to how drones are selected for artificial insemination. My thought has always been, “If they were good drones why weren’t they out flying around looking for queens instead of walking around on combs….”

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