Thursday, August 1, 2013

Treatment-Free Beekeeping

I spent last weekend in Oregon attending the Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference which was nice change of pace from the typical beekeeping meetings where the treatment free crowd is sometimes an afterthought in the discussion.  One of the lasting sediments I took away from the conference is the idea that going treatment free is a step in the direction towards a sustainable future and leaving something for the next generation.  Before I left I wrote the following short article introducing the idea of treatment free beekeeping and in post conference review I wouldn't change anything.

Globe Thistle (Echinops persicus) is a very desirable nectar source right now.  

Concepts of Treatment-Free Beekeeping

Whether you just started keeping bees or are an old pro you are likely no stranger to the long list of chemicals a beekeeper might use inside the hive to address issues.  The list changes over time as pests adapt relatively quickly to whatever treatments are used and so books and classes devote a good portion of time to discussing when and how to apply them.  However what is often not discussed in much detail is the concept of treatment free beekeeping which is beekeeping that does not use any treatments in the hive.  The generally accepted definition of a treatment is defined as: "A substance introduced by the beekeeper into the hive with the intent of killing, repelling, or inhibiting a pest or disease afflicting the bees."

Going treatment free means you are going down a difficult road were you let the genetically weak bees die and propagate the most resistant genetics.  By selecting from the most resistant bees you help to accelerate the natural selection process so they can develop natural defenses to pests and disease breaking the treatment cycle.  Resistant bees are those that survive despite having been exposed to a pest as opposed to bees that survive because they are in a protected location or fortunate to have been spared exposure.

Taking the treatment free approach is not an easy path and for the most part if you simply stop treating bees that have been regularly treated you will likely have low survival odds.  However there is a way around this problem and that is by getting bees from a breeder that is already successfully raising treatment free bees.  Why start over when you can build on the work someone else has started especially when you may only have 1-2 backyard hives.  Having a treatment free genetics is only part of what is necessary to be successful and you will also want to take steps to maximize bee health and reduce stresses in the hive.

Many ideas exist as to how to reduce stresses and improve health from allowing them to build natural comb to only feeding their own honey.  There are also management steps to allow brood breaks to occur that would normally happen naturally as part of the swarming cycle.  Using natural comb and turning over combs more quickly helps to prevent contaminates from building up in the wax so that larvae can be raised in uncontaminated wax cells.  There is also much to be learned about the natural microbial environment of the hive that exists when treatments are not used and how those microbes can also help to keep diseases in check.  Treatment free beekeeping is not lazy beekeeping and can often be more challenging because you need to be able to make decisions several steps ahead of the hives needs to prevent problems from occurring to ultimately be successful.


I also recently had an opportunity to walk through the UW Medicinal Herb Garden to look at what was in bloom and while many of the plants are not natives they might be great ideas for your late summer gardens to attract pollinators.  Below are just a few of the photos I took of flowers that the bees were interested in.

Inula helenium with a leaf-cutter bee.

Purple Bee Balm provides nectar.

This girl is collecting pollen from a mallow plant.

Guizotia abyssinica provides nectar.

Verbena hastata provides nectar.

Eryngium yuccifolium provides nectar.

Leonotis nepetifolia is a nectar source.

Liatris spicata provides nectar.

Here are a few other plants growing in the area that are attracting the bees right now.

Nectar from a Star Jasmine vine.

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is sadly another noxious weed that the girls like.

Native Spiraea douglasii provides nectar.

Hollyhock provides nectar and pollen.

One of the workshops at the conference was lead by Thomas Seeley and he had a swarm setup so we could watch the decision making process following the methods in his research.  Perhaps next time there is a tough decision to be made we should passionately dance for the result that we want.

Watching the bees dance.

Collecting pollen from clover.

This girl is collecting nectar from this Rose Of Sharon.  Sadly this is a hybrid variety and it takes more work to get to the nectar.

Hive checks (7/21/2013)
Plum Creek was moved to a new location.  I saw a decent laying pattern and a good amount of pollen getting stored.  Added a jar of syrup while they adjust to the new location.

Hive checks (7/22/2013)
Old Engineer Hive
This has the second daughter queen from the Geek queen in it.  Moved them to a new site.  The laying pattern looked good.  Added a jar of syrup while they adjust to the new location.

Hive checks (7/23/2013)
The hive is filling up with nectar and comb production is slow.  The queen is running out of laying space and I added an empty bar to the brood nest to force them to build more comb.  Hopefully it works.  I'm happy to report the daughters of this queen are far more pleasant to work with and they no longer feel the need to bang against my veil.

The queen was moving around quickly before the nurse bees could catch up.

The new queen looks healthy and she is getting attention from the nurse bees.  I saw eggs but no larvae or capped brood yet.  Hopefully her daughters will also show calmer traits, as after only a couple minutes into this hive I remembered how annoying these girls can be with their head-butting.

I really like her tiger striped markings.

Nice frame of stored pollen.

Hive checks (7/29/2013)

Icon Granddaughter
The laying pattern was so-so but it looks like the overall health of the hive has improved and I only saw one bee with DWV.  They aren't making drones but their numbers seem to be growing again and most of the bees have switched from dark to light coloring with the new queen.  I suspect the so-so laying pattern is due to them cleaning out varroa cells.  The queen seems very strong and was laying both sides of the entrance frame, which is something I only see in very motivated queens.

You'd never think that her mother was jet black.

Rosemary Swarm
Well apparently two weeks was too long to not inspect and they built some cross comb on the last bar.  They also picked up some of the foragers when I moved the Geek hive which helped with their buildup.  Since the hive was full I moved them into the Plum Creek hive.  Unfortunately the brand new cross combed bar was full of honey and not wanting to damage it I tried to just separate it from the rest so I could reset them to a straight pattern but just moving the comb to the new hive was enough to make it collapse.  It was mostly capped so I may just harvest it if I don't feed it back to them.

Whatever was slowing them down seems to have passed and they have picked back up again and there were several frames of brood on the way.  The hive in general is getting more defensive as they increase in numbers so I rushed through the inspection and didn't see the queen, but saw lots of brood.  I am thinking of trying to split them to get a new daughter that might be more gentle.

Curious as to why these bees seem smaller I took measurements of cell size. It worked out to 4.9mm which is in line with the other hives.

Ballard Swarm
Lots of great looking frames and brood on the way with and excellent laying pattern.  Comb building has slowed and they have spread themselves a little thin over all the new brood but the weather is going to be nice so they should do really well and increase in size quickly.

Nice frame of brood with capped honey at the top.  They all looked like this with the exception that their mother can be seen if you look closely.

Another nice frame.  I'm not worried about the lack of pollen for this time of year.

Hive checks (7/29/2013)

There was some setback in brood laying due to moving hives, but lots of new larvae and eggs on the way.  The hive was more runny than usual and I'm guessing it was related to the hive move and time of year.

Lots of pollen stores with a decent amount of honey.  I usually see a surplus of pollen stores as a good thing, but will wait and see how they do since they have so much more pollen stored than the other hives.  She does have a good laying pattern.

Nice frame of brood.

Geek Daughter
Lots of brood on the way and they are building up.  There is capped honey from previous years left still but not much nectar or pollen to be found.  About the only place I saw fresh nectar was on the frames just inside the entrance.   The queen does have an excellent laying pattern.  I may have to feed this hive.

Great brood pattern, but low on reserves.

Back to the bees.

- Jeff

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