Let’s face it, the allure of treatment free beekeeping and being in tune with nature was just too much to bare. You wanted to start beekeeping for some reason, and you chose to add the extra hurdle of treatment free on top of that. Why am I writing this article? I notice that many (myself included) go on to treatment free forums and ask the exact same questions many have asked before. They might do this because they have not found the search button, or that there specific case may be unique –it’s probably not. I know this because I have scoured through every single article on Beesource’s treatment forum, and STILL managed to ask the same questions, so on that note do not feel bad –I am not scolding you. The reason I mean writing this is because I want to save you the trouble, answer a few of your questions, and set you on a path.
Now, that in mind, I am not an expert I am a new beekeeper just like you! I got bee fever a year ago, read everything I could get my hands on, watched every Youtube video, and awaited spring where I could get my own. I now have six happy little colonies of girls: still don’t know shit, have made some mistakes, and ran into a great deal of hitches along the way.
So let us continue, I am going to coin a term for you called the GI JOE method. Why? Because knowing is half the battle! I mean that both optimistically and pessimistically. Knowing everything there is to know about beekeeping (and as you’ll learn there is always something else to know), is only half the equation. You still have to learn the practical aspects of how to be a beekeeper, treatment free or not. Now optimistically knowing is half the battle in the sense that, you are better off having a solid plan going in, and to understand the reasoning of “why” you are doing the specific things that you are doing.
How to Learn
Start educating yourself long getting bees. Luckily information is relatively free in this work: YouTube, has an absolute plethora of bee related videos on there; Beesource, has an awesome collection of articles by many well-known beekeeper (btw, read all of them! Not just the Dee Lusby and Charles Martin Simon ones), as well as a massive archive of forum posts; Michael Bush, has made a great deal of information available on his website ; and the Library, grab every single book you can get on the subject.
Next start thinking long and hard about buying books, and start absorbing them. Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is something I would consider essential. He offers most of the information on his website for free, but he’s a nice a guy, and chances are when you ask a question on a forum about beekeeping he will happily chime in. Dean Stiglitz’ The Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping is also an excellent primer to treatment free oriented beekeeping. Guess what? He also answers a ton of questions on the forums! But don’t stop strictly at treatment free books! Kim Flottum’s books are great! As are many of the other simply beekeeping oriented books. If you get a chance read some of the more historical books like Langstroths Hive and the Honeybee, AI Root ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, etc. They will all teach you something, and help you get a plan of attack. Here is a few links to get you started:
Main Page of Beesource’s Articles (note: Dee Lusby, and Charles Martin Simon)
Michael Bush’s Website
Natural Beekeeping Symposium in Philadelphia - has amazing presentations by Michael Bush, Sam Comfort, and John Seaborn –absolute much watch
Towards a Treatment Free Apiary - the people who wrote “the idiots guide”
Organically Managed Beekeeping Podcast – some great Podcasts by great people!
Develop a Plan of Attack
A common quote that is brought up is that “If you ask ten beekeepers a question, prepare to get eleven different answers”. This should precipitate you to learn that they all have their own opinions, their own ideas, and what works for them. There are only two things I have ever seen beekeepers agree on: the first, most of them hate Neonicotinoids; and the second, develop a plan early on and stick to it! Every good introductory book will stress this point! Why? Because they probably made that mistake!
The list of choices you have to make can quite literally go on. I spent two seasons researching and am still coming across situations I did not think about!
Is this a business I plan to make money off? How am I making money off it? Pollination, honey, beestock? Or, am I going to define success by simply keeping bees alive and at what point do we define that success? Seasons? Years? Or, is your goal management oriented? I want to regress my bees down to a 4.9 cell size, integrate foundationless to get rid of contaminated wax, and be treatment free? All of these are noteworthy goals, but depends solely on the beekeepers intentions. However with: CCD, weather/climate, varroa, AFB, etc. Many of these things are out of your control!
What strains of bees do you what? Where do you live? Do you have cold winters? What types of bees are less susceptible to this? If you live in the North as I do you probably want to find an overwintered nuc (so it’s proven to survive the winter) from a local breeder. Russian, and Carniolan bees tend to do well in these climates. Some will survive, some will not. I stress finding the best, most acclimated bee to your area, so do some research, pick some brains! Conversely, do you want a bee that’s going to pile in the honey for you? Perhaps getting that extra few pounds of honey might be worth the extra winter loss in terms of monetary gain. What about something that’s proven disease resistant? Or demonstrates hygienic behaviour?
What kind of equipment do I want to use? Many older beekeepers with botched backs will not smirk at you for going with all mediums –it’s a smart idea. It is not traditional. Find out what works in your area, what other people are using, and make your choices. Your budget is also a consideration, working with all mediums costs more than a traditional deep brood box setup. Or, maybe you want backyard top bar hives! What kind of shape are you in? Boxes full of honey are deceptively really heavy! One deep can weigh over 100lbs, are you ok lifting that? How many times?
If you decide to adopt an all medium, topbar, or other setup, you have to think about how you are going to get there? Will a breeder make a package for your topbar, or a medium nuc?
Do you really want to be a treatment free beekeeper? There are many things you must consider, as this is not an easy question. Firstly, are you OK with your bees dying? They will either way, but how much are you willing to tip the scales in the survival category? This is something many beekeepers fight over. However it is important to note that the guys, who do treat their bees, don’t do it because they want to, but because they have to. Don’t begrudge them for doing so! They probably have more to lose then a first year knows it all beekeeper. Conversely if you do decide to go treatment free, the guys who do treat will tell you that your bees are going to die, or they might shun you completely because IF your bees get AFB, mite infestations, etc and swarm (remember you are a newbie, and will make mistakes!) It can find its way to their hives and ruin everyone’s operation! So, there is something to think about there. If you decide to be treatment free, you are probably best to keep your mouth shut, and keep those older beekeepers accessible for their knowledge…
Big Brother likes to get his dirty hands on everything and strangle you with an endless supply of red tape! Now you have to look at what is in place regulating what you want to do. You have to look this up for where you live. These will usually entail federal, provincial (state), and municipal laws. I can only speak about the regulations for where I live, and how it frustrated the hell out of me!
I wanted bees in my backyard, but then I found there was a city bylaw preventing that. I had to go find land I could use. Before I could sign a land lease, I needed liability insurance. Luckily the Ontario Beekeepers Association provides that (at a cost) to its members. Once you have that in place, then you can get your land and start preparing it for bees. Then you need to register your colonies with the provincial apiarists and conform to their regulations (may need to put a sign up, fence, etc). Then you can pick up your bees! Sounds easy? Not really. All this took over 4 months to get going, and it wasn’t until mid-May that I could even get my bees.
What happens once you want to sell your honey? In Ontario there are a shit ton of laws regulating this! Firstly, you must have a certain type of jar. Jars are sold by liquid measure, honey is sold by weight, so you have to find jars that will accommodate this –note mason jars don’t work here). Then you need a food inspected place to process the honey. The jars have certain labeling requirements. Fuck me, if you want to export it you get into federal laws and you have to get it graded, tested, etc
Assuming you are reading this, we are much the same: Eager new beekeepers, or those eager to get started. I will give you my personal story of beekeeping and how I got started. Hopefully it helps you make your own plan, or helps you make your own plan. My genuine hope is that it answers some of those new treatment free beekeeper questions. It might save you from looking like an idiot or feel like an ass, because this year I did it for you!
My Plan of Attack
I am a Chef by trade, though I don’t do fancy fine dining shenanigans anymore I still make my living cooking. I spent ten years or so in the woodworking field, gone to college for it, did everything from working in a cabinet shop to framing houses. The recession hit, there was no work, so I took the chance to goto culinary school. After culinary school I worked at a few very high end restaurants, kicked ass, and took names. However, what I learned was that I liked the process of creating fine food products more than slinging the plates. I started learning more about how curing meats worked, how to brew wine and beer, and even how to identify wild edibles and mushrooms. After several years I simply burned out. It’s a pretty common occurrence. I did however realize I wanted to do something more agricultural. Bees became quite the obsession. It was affordable, profitable, knew there was a ton to know about it, and it combined my two skill sets –food and carpentry.
So I did some searching on the Internet, learned a bit there, but didn’t find it quite as absorbing as a book. Meandered to the library, took all the books out, and very obsessively read. Drove to chapters, bought every book they offered. Now up until this point I started to grasp how beekeeping worked, but something seemed really strange to me. I never realized so many chemicals went into the hive. Frankly, it never occurred to me. I couldn’t understand how working at ‘farm to table’ restaurants, watching a million food documentaries, reading an endless amount of literature, how not once had I not known chemicals went into bee hives. Sure, I think I recalled something about sugar syrup in a CCD documentary but that’s about it. So I bought the idiots guide, already had the dummies one, figured it was the same thing. Then the whole treatment free/organic beekeeping world opened up to me, and I realized I had a great deal more learning to do! Long story short, months of research I decided this is what I was doing, and that was how I was going to do it. Boy was I wrong.
I was going to be treatment free, all medium, foundationless, narrow frame, and small cell. Oh, and I was going to make all my equipment myself!
Having decided to go down this path, and adopting support and enthusiasm from my father, it was time to start getting this in motion for the upcoming spring. First, I had to prove it was going to be profitable, so I spent a month or so crunching some numbers, calculating costs, generally seeing it was going to be a viable business. Initially I was going to start very small in my backyard to test the waters. Although I would fail the minimum requirements in the provincial laws, I learned that they were kind of lacks and I could “get away with it”. Unfortunately, the municipal bylaw was not. Two hives in the backyard was going to be out of the question. So the search for land started. My father working for the county, and being generally more bureaucratically savy then myself decided to approach the local conservation authority. Turns out the conservation authority was very enthusiastic about this idea as they had just retired an old field and repopulated it with wild flowers. However in order to sign a lease with them I needed liability insurance. Now, I didn’t know shit about insurance. But I learned that the Ontario Beekeepers Association actually sold it as part of their membership. So signed up for that! In order to have colonies in Ontario you have to register them. So here I am… in April, waiting for my insurance paperwork to come in, to get a hold of the guy to sign the land lease, to register bees. Nightmare of paper, and I needed to get bees shortly. Well that got done; it wasn’t pretty, it was frustrating, and was very glad to have my Dad sort it all out. By the time everything was kosher and sorted out I had to pick bees up in two weeks.
Now to find some bees! I did a great deal of research on the different varieties, genetics, etc. I even by chance ran into a cute beekeeper girl who I expressed an interest with in getting into beekeeping who suggested catching swarms, letting weak colonies die, and other ideas I had never heard. This was pre learning about treatment and whatnot. Frankly, I think I made an ass of myself… having never actually talked to another beekeeper I was pronouncing nuc like a popular swearword instead of “nuke”, and I can’t even remember how I pronounced Carniolan! Learning curve. Did I mention she was cute? Damn.
In Ontario we are kind of blessed with some very great breeders, and a proactive academic community. I knew I wanted something locally acclimated, and something disease resistant. I decided honey was not quite as important as genetics. I ruled out Italian, they just didn’t really seem my style. There is a Russian breeding program in Ontario, I heard they were aggressive, but they would survive the winter. So I looked into Russians only to find out the only breeder I could find was way up north and their website was defunct. Ontario has probably one of the best Buckfast breeding programs in the world, and frankly after reading about the bees, and the history, I was sold. Now I did some more research and learned that the former University of Guelph head of apiculture (the guy who helped bring the Russian and Buckfast stock to Ontario) had his own business with his son selling bees. So I looked into Szabo bees, and found they were breeding a locally acclimated, mite resistant “Ontario bee”. Frankly, I can’t even tell you what kind of bees they are, but if a guy spent a lifetime developing a bee less than an hour away from my house I was totally sold. So I noticed on his website something I’ve never seen before, they would sell a whole hive body instead of a four frame nuc (yes four frame up here). So I called him up and placed an order for six colonies. Now I was committed.
PS: I know you Americans are reading this, and before you lynch me I am already setting plans in motion to set up a Buckfast yard using Ferguson stock next spring. Yeah… I saw your eyes rolling a minute ago ;)
Well push came to shove, realized probably didn’t have the room to make my own equipment, and was a little nervous because I didn’t even have a template to work from. Lent my table saw out, came back broken, and now that was out of the question -Which was a blessing in disguise. I now had to look up where I could locally buy equipment, and realized I drove by a place on my way to work every day. This introduced me to John, the local beekeeper, supplier, teacher. I will say this once: go meet local beekeepers, you WILL learn a great deal. Now that blessing in disguise came in the form that although most literature, online suppliers, and plans indicate ¾” pine, that is not the case in Canada! I would not have known that in Ontario they use 7/8” pine to help with overwintering if I had not met that local beekeeper. So if I had made boxes myself, or ordered online, I would have learned the hard way and wasted time, cash, and equipment. I bought a bunch of medium boxes with some frames, and no foundation –don’t want any of that nasty contaminated wax. Oh, and this was days before I had to pick up my bees, so naturally this equipment HAD to be built. Many tired eyed days at work. Note, there are some great plans for building jigs for putting stuff together, I really suggest you take the time to build them. Crown stapler is a great idea as well. At least that worked out right! Well kind of, didn’t have “time” to build a jig to assemble frames, God those were long nights.
So fast forward, time to get some bees! Borrowed an Avalanche off a friend figuring my open top pickup probably wasn’t a great idea, and really had no idea what to expect. I show up at Tibor Szabos places, and we drive out to one of his yards. I brought all my equipment with me: suit, gloves, veil, smoker, brush. He gets out, lights a smoke, get his smoker going and makes small talk. Talk about one cool guy. After some questioning finds out I am new and asks if I did the course. I said it filled up too fast (and they do fill up really quickly so keep that in mind). OK. So smoker going, cigarette hanging out, no protection, starts getting to work and giving me a bit of a schooling. So naturally I figured if he could do it, so could I. So never seen a colony, no protection, I start helping loading stuff up, and find out to learn you DO NOT want them covered. These things need air! Take the detachable tonneau cover off, load up the hives, shoot the shit for a while, pay the man, and we are off!
I got the bees to my yard, and realized… I’ve never lit my smoker before! Well I got kind of lucky with that, there was some cardboard in the truck, some pine needles; it stayed lit as long as I needed it to. But it occurred to me… maybe I should practice lighting a smoker, and maybe become even proficient at it. So every day before work I lit the smoker, played with different fuels, and finally got something that worked. Sounds like a stupid mistake eh?
Anyway, dropped the bees on the stands, made sure everything was level, let em out, and went home. One or two days later I REALLY couldn’t help getting inside of them, which was about that time I also learned… I didn’t really know how to manoeuvre that damn hive tool! It’s a glorified paint scraper, how hard can it be? Well let me tell you, people on Youtube videos, and old hands at it make it look a lot less awkward then you WILL be.
A week later it was about time to super a few, and a thought occurred to me. I have a box full of deep frames, and only medium boxes with no foundation to super with. I read it should be ok, the little 90 degree wedge turned and stapled in should be enough of a guide. Well, I wasn’t feeling that comfortable with this idea, and decided to ask on the forums.
It was too late to put some cut up plastic foundation in as a guide, they were already made. Someone mentioned putting a medium foundationless into the deep, let them draw that out, and put that in the super as a bit of a guide. Well a few hives had not fully drawn out frames 1 and 10, so I wouldn’t be sacrificing too many of their resources by taking one out. So I tried it, and it worked! The weaker hives I did that on have ended up drawing out more comb then the ones without, and have been more productive! A technique I highly recommend.
Through sheer unpreparedness, when I supered the last hive, I was a frame short, I only had nine. This was also the time it occurred to me, all my deeps were nine frame brood boxes, if I made a nine frame super would they draw it out better? Sure enough they did, but not by much. Out of the six hive, two drew it out great, two needed moderate fixing, and two were screwed.
A lesson about fixing up that crazy comb: I watched Kirkobeeo of the Backyard Beekeepers do a million cut outs on Youtube. I couldn’t find much in the way of rubber bands, but I did have lots of string. Out to the bee yard I go. I elected to actually wear protection this time; until now I haven’t used any, and haven’t had to. But I figured messing with their comb might get them riled. Suit on, gloves, on I open the first one up, get my string, cut the comb. Then I realized, it is basically impossible to tie a knot with the gloves on. Imagine this, you are trying to hold a frame, hold the comb that’s supposed to go in that frame, there are bees everywhere, you trying to be gentle, and you can’t perform a basic knot. You feel like a kid who cannot tie their shoes, an adult who needs an extra set of hands, and like a monkey screwing a football, because yes, it is that awkward. What did I learn? Go buy some damn rubber bands you lazy bastard.
So treatment free is working out, because nothings gone wrong in that sense yet. Foundationless has been a bit of a fun learning curve, and still is until I have some great guide combs.
How are all mediums going? So far alright, but how am I going to phase out that deep brood box? In Ontario everything comes as a four frame deep nuc (or box in my case), there are not any packages available, and never bothered to ask if he would do mediums. Well that is an interesting quandary if I do say so myself. Having been a beekeeper for all of one month, with the better part of a year of planning, yet another thing I failed to think about. Back to the good old Beesource forum!
Bees like to keep things organized. They will keep their brood in the middle, at the bottom; it is just their nature. They keep frames of honey and drone closer to the outside, and above when we trick them by adding supers –basic bee behaviour. So it was suggested to me that if I add the mediums to the bottom, underneath the deep brood box it should coax them to move the brood down. Consequently, they will fill the top deep with honey which can be harvested. Then cut down the deep box and frames into a medium over the winter. You needed something to do anyway. Presto! All mediums accomplished, and moving both large cell foundation, and contaminated wax out of the hive! This is too good.
But how is this small cell thing going? So I measured some of the new foundationless comb, not so small, not much of a difference at all. It will come right? It just takes more work, and more time. Since you are currently still reading this, it is safe to say you have bee fever. Its night, maybe raining, maybe it is just over casted; In other words, not good weather to go play with the bees. You are at home, on the computer reading more about bees. If you weren’t doing that you are reading a book, watching a movie, or in the workshop, but all having to do with bees. Well that’s how I feel, and that’s what I was doing when I learned something new. Many proponents of treatment free beekeeping will indicate that small cell is imperative to the survival of your bees. In order for this to work you need to get them down to 4.9mm! Well foundationless has been slow so far; maybe I should just order up some PF-120s from Mann Lake and get them regressing faster. No problem, I just got paid, and have some money to spend on the bees. Boy I was about to learn something!
Well here is a lesson to those not living in the lower forty eight. Total up the amount for a few cases of frames, about fifty bucks give or take, not too shabby right? So go and send off an email for that shipping quote. Grin. I sent off a quick email for a shipping quote and word for word:
Postage for 1 box of each is about $165.00.
Jesus Christ! That quadruples the price! What the hell! I have ordered tons of things out of the states and shipping is never that bad! Well that was clearly not a feasible option. The nice fellow at Mann Lake was kind enough to give me a list of some local suppliers that “might” carry it so I start calling. One of them is close by, out of business. One is way too far up north. Finally get a positive response from the last possible option. Yes they have them, an hour and a bit away, I have a day off coming up, great. Well something you learn about Canada is that we don’t use the terms medium and deep. They use Dadant terms, you have hive bodies, and supers. So when I say I am going with mediums for a brood box I can get weird looks. Keep this in mind.
So I am as happy as a pig in shit. They have PF-120s. I am saved! Gas up the truck, get coffee, and I am spending my day driving, it’s worth it right? So I pull up to the place, and mention to the very nice lady at the counter I had emailed about these small cell frames. At which points she gives me the most confused look ever. She then pulls out a PF-100 (deep) frame, and asks if it’s those ones. I pull out a ruler, double check to make sure, get all excited when it measures out to 4.9, “Yes! That is exactly what I want, just in mediums,” “oh.. Well, we only have them in this size. “She says. Well kind of dejected I buy em. They are my only option for small cell in Canada, without paying an arm and a leg. On the plus side they were also a meadery, and the nice lady offered us many samples. We also left with many bottles.
So now I have drive to my local supplier, ask to by some deeps, and explain to him why I don’t need frames in them. I felt like shit, but being an awesome sport we got into a great talk about regression and cell size. On a side note, a few weeks later I was in there and he introduced me to another guy as a natural beekeeper. I never told him, I suppose he figured it out on his own. Hilarious.
So now we are up small cell, down all mediums, added more plastic, and now I needed some wax so brush onto the plastic frames. Well guess what guys? Treatment free wax really doesn’t exist…and you just started out so you don’t have any… back on the chemical treadmill. This treatment free thing is fun right? Also its worth noting your 5.4 bees will muck up 4.9 a bit drawing it out. Be prepared.
So what have we learned about my experience so far? The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry. Your own personal goals are important to set out in the beginning, but they are something to strive for. If you have the means to make it work from the beginning, by all means best of luck. I do not regret my mistakes, miscalculations, and experiences. Conversely, I feel in this very short time of having bees by virtue of confrontation, and complication it has imbued me with a better understanding of them, and a larger conviction to achieve my goals.
I hope this helps.