How can we become treatment-free without killing our bees? 

We need to be nicer to other beekeepers and nicer to our bees.

I am writing this article in the spring of 2018 - a time when I am getting lots of calls from beekeepers who lost their bees, and the beekeeping forums are awash with angry, polarized, language about treatment-free beekeeping. I'm just kind of sad about it all. It is not okay that beekeepers are still losing over 30% of their bees every year.  It is not okay that people are turning educational forums into places of tribal warfare.  It is not okay that beginner beekeepers are being set up for failure, because people are more interested in pushing their agendas onto new beekeepers rather than helping them raise healthy bees.  I love working with beekeepers, but this climate is really disheartening.   My heart is telling me to delete my facebook account, not watch the you tube videos with false information, send all the bickering listserv emails to the trash, throw my computer out the window, and get out to the woodshop/bee yard.  However, I really like bees and beekeepers, and I am not quite ready to give up on either.  So, before I get totally burned out, I am going to do some work to make things better.  I have had great success with my bees the last few years, and I am really happy with their health.  I feel that I wouldn't be fair for me to just complain about all the bad information on the internet without at least trying to fix the balance.  Below is an updated version of what has been working for me, and I'll try to add to it and keep it updated.  

This page contains two parts: 

1) The system that I am using to select for bees in the era of varroa.

2) The philosophy / reasoning behind that system.  

I definitely appreciate discussion/questions/ input/ corrections/ opinions, and you can feel free to email me at sandhillbees@gmail.com or call to discuss.  

Here is my new system for identifying treatment-free colonies while keeping healthy bees. 

I don't refer to what I do as 'queen breeding'.  It is more just stock selection.  I am not trying to create a new strain based on a particular genetic trait, that I will maintain over time.  Rather, I am replacing underperforming bees with ones that do well - hoping that my overall stock is improved over time. I also don't refer to myself as 'treatment-free', even though I raise queens from colonies that haven't required treatment.  The main reason is I don't like the values associated with that term.  I also feel strongly that animals that are sick and dying should be treated, so most of my operation does get managed to control for varroa (I just don't breed from those hives).  

My original stock is from a variety of sources: mostly swarms and queens from friends.  I don't pay attention to if someone calls them by a particular race  - my concern is only how they thrive in my environment under my care.  I'll test out bees from anywhere to see who does well.  In the last two years I have also added in queens from breeding programs with known traits against disease (VSH, mite-biters). I've used daughters of these breeder queens to head hives in the drone yards.  

My system for queen selection: Each hive in my operation (usually around 100) has a numbered tag.  I use pig ear tags, which I staple on - they are easy to remove and reattach. The tag is associated with the queen, and each queen gets her own sheet to record her progress.  When I move the queen, I move the tag.  If I sell the queen or she dies, I move her sheet to the back of the binder, and reuse the tag on another hive.   Every time I inspect, I record the information about that hive on the correct sheet.   

Here is the queen monitoring sheets that I am using for 2018.  I am hoping to add a couple more tests to look for hygienic behavior and mite grooming behavior as well, which I'll just add to the back of the sheet. 

At the beginning of the season, all colonies are potential breeders. As long as they are potential breeders, I take a lot of notes, and keep track of all their characteristics on the sheet. As I compare, I can exclude colonies.  If they get chalkbrood, they are out of the program.  If they are mean, they are out of the program.  If they don't make as much honey as everyone else in the yard, they are out of the program.  By mid-summer, it is really clear which colonies are my good performers.  It is also clear which colonies can handle varroa, and I monitor each colony for varroa using sugar rolls.   In practice, this is usually obvious by July, so at the end of July/ early August I make decisions. Colonies that can't manage varroa on their own will get treated (and are out of the program).  Then those that didn't manage varroa or didn't make the cut for other reasons get requeened, or made into nucs, or combined.  Those that are doing well will still be monitored through the winter to see how they act in the fall and winter, and what they look like in spring.   

Usually, only a few colonies will make it through this selection process each year - a lot will have to be treated for varroa, some will swarm, some will supercede, and some will die. Those colonies that make it are the ones that I will breed off of for the next year, and will use for my late summer requeeing.  

The big thing to remember is that the properties of the colony are a product of the genetics, and the genetics of the colony are dependent on the queen.  If you don’t like a colony, you don’t have to kill a bunch of innocent workers, by letting it die untreated, you need to switch the genetics – i.e. – just replace the queen.  There is never a need to let a colony crash and die. Monitor, treat bees if there is a problem – requeen the colony with queens from your best hives that don’t need treatment.   All your bees stay healthy, and you don’t lose colonies to preventable illness.

 

Part II - The theory behind this method. 

Keeping bees with was fun when I was a kid in Northern Wisconsin. I started keeping bees with my dad in the golden era of beekeeping – it was easy, the bees all lived, and I had never even heard about the varroa mite.  Fifteen years later, when setting up my own apiaries in Michigan, beekeeping didn’t seem as fun or as easy. Every conversation that I had with beekeepers centered on figuring out why their bees were dying. Beekeepers were sick of losing bees, and sick of treating for varroa. They wanted treatment-free strong, northern bees. Since I knew how to raise queens, I thought that I could help save the bees by raising these treatment-free queens.  At that time, there was a lot of support for the ‘Live and Let Die’ method – where you let your bees go with no care, and whichever ones ‘survive naturally’ are your new, better stock.  I had some colonies that I thought had a lot of potential, so I let them go, hoping to find out which hives held my new, hardy, treatment-free bees. The outcome led me to reevaluate how I want to keep bees.  While the first hand experience was valuable, I wish that I had learned more about breeding for disease resistance before I let my bees die.  While I now know that this system isn't good, supporters for the hands-off/ treatment-free/ be cruel to be kind/ natural selection/ live and let die methods still abound on the internet.  In this article, I will describe why this system doesn't work, and describe the system that we are now using to get us closer to bees that can thrive in the era of varroa. 

Objective: To select for bees that can manage varroa populations, and to do so without letting bees die and prolong the epidemic

Issues with the ‘live and let die’ treatment-free beekeeping:

  1. My animals suffered.
  2. I put the bees around me at risk.
  3. It was really expensive.
  4. It made me miss good genetics/ it didn’t work for getting better bees. 

1.     Suffering bees. 

My treatment free colonies looked great all year, but when I opened the hives for a late final inspection before winter, I felt sick to my stomach by what I saw.  Spotty brood, melted larvae, and small, demoralized looking bees - colonies deep in the throes of parasitic mite syndrome.  My thriving, booming colonies had been reduced to small clusters, working desperately to raise the few larvae that were left after the viruses had devastated most of the young.  Full supers of honey for winter looked ridiculous now, sitting optimistically on top of colonies that were mere shells of what had gathered that nectar all summer.  It didn’t take a diagnostic expert to know that my bees were profoundly sick, and didn’t have a chance that winter. 

My husband and I have raised all sorts of animals on our little farm – pigs, chickens, rabbits, cattle, sheep, goats, ducks, dogs, horses – you name it.  We have the same philosophy for all our animals: if it is under our care, we will keep it in good health.  Every animal gets good food, clean bedding, and the attention they need.  We would never let our dogs waste away from parasites, leave a sick ewe suffer and slowly die, or let a pig walk around with a devastating injury.  I care for my bees, and it didn’t make any sense to me to let them suffer and die slowly. 

We know that colonies with high levels of varroa have all sorts of viruses, poor nutrition, and very little chance at living through any sort of winter, let alone having the energy to raise brood in the spring.  Part of the problem is that most beekeepers who lose bees to varroa-associated viruses never see it happen – they wrap up their big booming colony in the fall, and then clean up the deadout in the spring.  It literally happens inside a dark box, and beekeepers can skip the sad suffering part.  If you are thinking about not managing varroa mites in your colonies as a way to keep bees, I urge you to open the colony while they are in the dying process. Look those suffering girls right in their compound eyes, and reflect on how you want to provide for the animals under your care.  It just doesn’t feel right to call yourself a beekeeper while letting your bees die a slow, preventable, death. 

Picture1.jpg

 A brood frame from colony with parasitic mite syndrome.  If you look close you can see a bee with a mite on her thorax, a bee with k-wing, mites in cells, and melted-looking sick larvae. This colony was once thriving with lots of nurse bees and healthy brood.

2.     Save the bees?

Like a lot of beekeepers, I take pride in knowing that I am providing pollination services to gardens and plants, and I like to think that I am doing some good by keeping bees.  When I had sick colonies, however, I realized that my beekeeping was probably doing more harm than good to my environment.  I was putting the pollinators around me at risk.  When a colony is sick – like my bees with mites and viruses – it becomes weak.  Weak colonies get robbed by bees from all the nearby colonies.  We also know that bees are more likely to leave or abscond from a dying colony.  Ever had a colony up and leave in the fall?  Think about if you had varroa populations under control in those hives.  Through drifting and robbing, sick colonies can act as  disease reservoirs, with your bees spreading disease throughout your area.  Honey bee colonies are everywhere now days, and it is impossible to know every hive hidden in a back yard, or wild colony that was living happily in a tree until you came along and threatened them with your sick bees.  

mite on bumble bee

Save the bees?

Even worse, it isn’t just honey bees that are at risk - we see deformed wing virus spreading to bumble bees and some of our other native bees. Our native pollinators are already facing huge problems with habitat loss and pesticide exposure. While we don't know if honey bee pathogens are creating disease in other species, I don’t want to be the one with the ‘Save the Bees’ bumper sticker that is quietly infecting my native pollinator population with new diseases.  This photo was taken by Dan Wyns - it appears to be a varroa mite on a bumble bee. 

I’d really like my effect on the environment around me to be positive.  I don’t want my role to be the person that maintains disease and infection and makes it worse for nearby bees and beekeepers by perpetuating an epidemic in my area. 

3.     A bass boat would have been cheaper.

Even if you have an icy, shriveled little prune heart, and it doesn’t bother you to let your bees die or to put the bees around you at risk, it shouldn’t take long to figure out that the economics just don’t work.  Of the 24 treatment-free colonies I put into winter, about 6 made it through alive. This result isn’t unusual for treatment-free beekeeping, and many people I talk to lose 50-100% of their colonies every year.  Others using the ‘Live and Let Die’ method record losses of 95%.  If I had kept my losses to my normal 15%, I would have come out of winter with about 20 hives of the original 24.   I usually split my colonies in the spring, and make an average of 75lbs of honey from each split.  From my 6 hives, that would be 900lbs of honey.  From 20 overwintered hives, I could expect 3,000 lbs.   My little experiment literally cost me one ton of honey.   Let’s say I didn’t care about the honey, but was interested in bees.  I can usually make 3 nucs from every over wintered hive.  Now I have just lost over 40 nucs that I could have made available to beekeepers in my area looking for local bees (at a price of $150 per nuc, I could have made a lot of money that I could have donated to honey bee research at MSU (https://www.givingto.msu.edu/gift/?smid=A1109), or have gotten a new fishing boat. We to try practice sustainable farming, and there is nothing sustainable about losses that high. 

4.     Live and let die doesn't actually work. 

We want to think that the live-and-let-die method will work like textbook natural selection - a population is exposed to a pressure, the weak die, and the strong survive.  Reality is much more complex, and, applying these simple theories to honey bees in the United States demonstrates some profound misunderstanding of disease dynamics. Letting untreated colonies die will not lead us to the end that we want, and we will sacrifice a lot of colonies with little to know chance of getting the outcome that we want.  There are a few reasons why this method will not work in practice. 

1. Natural selection only works if your environment it totally isolated (and most of us don’t live in isolated environments).  We hear about people who are successfully treatment-free. Usually, they experience a dramatic die off, and then rebuild from the surviving colonies.  New colonies are raised using daughters from the survivors.  Those daughters go out and mate with area drones, and the resulting hives will be a combination of the daughter genetics and the drone genetics.  If new bees move in, then the traits that we 'selected' for will be diluted, and the population can become susceptible again.  If not enough bees made it through our genetic bottleneck, then we risk an inbred population.  If you are a beekeeper in a completely isolated area, who is only raising queens from your selected population, and you have enough bees to maintain a diverse population, then you might be able to maintain a population of bees with little to no varroa treatments.  If you are a beekeeper who is not isolated, has less than 100 hives, and doesn't raise their own queens, then you won't be able to select for resistance using this method.  If you haven't stopped buying bees, then you can't use this method at all.   If I replace my losses with bees from outside my apiary (packages or nucs), I am completely negating the bottleneck effect of the losses of the year before, and I am replacing the susceptible population.  If I make splits and raise queens from my survivor stock, but I don’t have an isolated mating yard, then those daughters are going to breed with whatever is out there, and I will have no idea if these new combinations can survive varroa. I’ll have to let them die again to find out, getting me into a perpetual cycle of bee death.

2. It is hard to disentangle true resistance from drops in disease pressure.  A lot of people buy queens from beekeepers who are treatment-free, bring them home, and lose the colonies. The treatment-free bees were susceptible in the new environment. A beekeeper may be able to be successfully treatment free because the disease is not as bad in their area, not because they have bees that are able to fend off high populations of varroa or all viruses.  Remember that varroa acts as a vector for viruses, and that these viruses are not distributed evenly everywhere.  You can think of this in terms of other vector borne diseases, like dengue.  The dengue virus is transmitted mainly by the mosquito Aedes aegypti.   In some places, like Michigan, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is not present.   In other locations, like Florida, the mosquito may be present, but the virus is not.  In other places, both the mosquito and the viruses are present, and we see disease.  If you take a human from Michigan to the middle of a dengue epidemic, they are equally at risk.   

3. You aren’t controlling how your bees manage varroa.  Maybe your colony didn’t have problems with varroa because it swarmed 4 times, so it constantly broke the brood cycle.  This is one way to keep varroa populations from getting high, but now your neighbors have to pay thousands to get the colonies out from behind their siding and your township is putting up an anti-beekeeping regulation.  Maybe your colony survived because it had chalkbrood all season, which prevented it from raising tons of brood and varroa.  You want bees that manage varroa in a way that is good for your future beekeeping – not just staying alive by any means possible. If you only select for a single trait, you lose a lot of other good things.  Let’s say you live in an isolated forest, and don’t bring in any new genetics to your area, and you breed only off of your survivors and control their mating.  There is a chance that you can get bees that are highly hygienic and can handle varroa.   But what if they are jerks, and are so highly defensive that you can’t work with them, or are susceptible to chalkbrood?  It is really hard to breed other good traits back in once they are lost. It is a lot easier to start with good bees chose the ones with the traits we want. 

4. You can kill colonies that you actually want by putting them under too much pressure. Natural selection results in a balance between parasites and their hosts.  If a parasite is so bad that it kills all the hosts, then the parasite dies too.  In a parasite-host balance, the parasites don’t kill as much, and the hosts are able to tolerate some level of parasitism.  In the long view, we are looking for bees that can live at this balance.  We may have some great bees in our yards that can live with some varroa, and would thrive once we reach a balance with this pest.  We would lose those hives, though if we let 12 hives crash around them.  The disease pressure may be too high for them to handle, and we would lose the very bees that we want to keep.  Some of the traits we are looking for may come in through stepwise evolution - maybe each generation grooms just a little more, or is a little more hygienic.  We may be killing the very stock that we need. 

We are doing research into breeding for resistance, understanding viruses, and controlling varroa populations.  We are so far away from having a good understanding of the mechanisms of varroa control.  Vector borne diseases are complex, and honey bee colonies are complex.  We don't yet understand the dynamics of varroa in different environments.  We don't know all of the viruses that it transmits.  We don't know how death occurs from the varroa-virus complex, and we don't know how some bees do so poorly, and some bees do well.  It is going to take a lot more than just some people letting bees die to get to the other side of this epidemic.  

We all want to move to a place where we don’t have to treat our bees, but we want to make sure it is because our bees don’t need treatment, not because we are withholding care.  Because we have the tools of varroa monitoring and requeening, we don’t have a reason to let a colony die while we work towards better stock.   Do right by your bees this year.  To happy beekeepers and healthier bees!