Being a treatment-free beekeeper is a marathon, not a sprint. First you must learn how to keep bees, and keep them alive. Secondly, you must acquire the genetics that are resistant, or otherwise cope with the varroa mite. This second option can take a great deal of time. Many of the “successful” treatment-free beekeepers have been breeding their own stock for thirty years or better. It is possible to get their stock, but it is unlikely Dee Lusby’s or Michael Bush’s bees will survive a tough Canadian winter –if we even could import their stock, which we cannot. Finding survivor bees is actually the easy part of the equation. If they survive winter you don’t really have a choice but to breed from the bees that survive. Mites however, are not that easy.
Many people ascribe to the “Live, and let Die,” Bond philosophy of beekeeping. Let nature take its course of natural selection and what you are left with are your survivor stock. The largest problem with this philosophy is that you must ask yourself “Where do the mites go?” Weak colonies or dead outs will simply get robbed out, and the robbing bees will take them back to their parent colony. Perhaps that colony was a survivor stock until those robber bees brought back a disproportionate amount of mites, and will now also die because they have exceeded their mite threshold
“A key point to remember is that the relative infestation (percent, or mites per 100 bees) is more important than total mite population—a large colony can handle more mites than a small one. At much above a 2% infestation in spring, honey production drops off severely. At much above 5% in fall, colony winter survival suffers (although the fall “economic injury threshold” numbers by various authors range from 1% to 11%) (Currie & Gatien 2006). “ (Randy Oliver, IPM 3 Fighting Varroa 3: Strategy – Understanding Varroa Population Dynamics)
This method has a great deal of risk; you could end up with no bees at all! Also, it does not really make for a good business model in the years that it takes to get to that point.
Another method is to treat your bees every spring and fall, do mite counts and breed from the bees with the lowest mite counts. This method gives the bees a bit of a crutch; are they surviving because of the treatment, or genetics? There is also not a 100% they will survive despite the treatments. Testing for hygienic behaviour can also be a key marker for your breeding selection. Hygienic behaviour also reduces other diseases like American Foulbrood, and Chalkbrood.
"...100% of the non-hygienic colonies that were challenged developed clinical symptoms, and only one recovered. All non-hygienic colonies had symptoms of naturally occurring chalkbrood disease (Ascosphaera apis) throughout both summers. In contrast 33% of the hygienic colonies developed clinical symptoms of chalkbrood after they were challenged with American foulbrood, but all recovered. The diseased non-hygienic colonies produced significantly less honey than the hygienic colonies. The purpose is then to develop a system creating a balance between two opposing ideologies: sustain a sound productive apiary whilst developing mite tolerant survivor stock; as well as keeping true to a more natural method of beekeeping." (Spivak, Reuter, Resistance to American foulbrood disease by honey bee colonies (Apis mellifera
My proposal is this. Do not treat your bees prophylactically; let them have normal and acceptable pressures on them at all times. However, if a hive is in danger of mite related collapse treat it as to not contaminate the hives around it. Keeping chemical contaminated comb, honey and stock out of your developing resources is important.
How do we approach this?
There is a hive in danger of collapse, being robbed out and spreading mites. Treat it with an organic acid, mark the hive body and all the frames so that you know those hives have been exposed to this chemical. Once the mites have been ‘knocked down’ let it overwinter. If it successfully overwinters, split that hive up into nucleus colonies giving each a queen cell from the breeding survivor stock. A queen cell as opposed to a laying queen is important; it allows a short brood break to reduce the mite population, and give the new queen a chance to prove herself. Swarm cells in the spring should be rather easy to find.
The marked frames (contaminated,) are then pulled as time will allow and the wax is rendered. That wax is then put in a separate stock from your uncontaminated wax and used for purposes other than foundation.
What we will have accomplished is:
- We have not endangered our existing hives by allowing them to rob out the infested hive
- We have created nucleus colonies from a hive that would have otherwise died
- We have perpetuated the genetics of our survivor stock
- We have isolated any chemical contaminates from our treatment-free operation
How can we model this into our existing apiary management?
Firstly, you have to monitor for mites. Whether it is a sticky board, an alcohol shake, it doesn’t matter. You need a baseline to know which of your hives have a mite problem and which don’t. Which are candidates for breeder stock, and which hives are going to need help?
Secondly, hygienic testing; either begin testing for hygienic behavior or buy bees from breeders who are selecting for these traits and breed from them.
Fall I believe may be the best time for integration: the mite populations are at their peak, struggling hives will be apparent, and winter is coming (had to throw the Games of Thrones reference in there). You take your surplus honey off. At this point we are still treatment-free. We isolate which hives are over their mite threshold and apply a treatment. Those hives/frames are clearly marked, I am thinking green paint marker for plastic frames, or green thumb tacks (green kind of has a chemical connotation to it). Feed and maintain those hives as regular and let them overwinter.
Spring has come. Your non survivor stock has died through the great selector –winter. If your isolated hives have survived split them into as many nucleus colonies as you can, giving each brood, honey, and feed. Acquire queen cells by either: harvesting from survivor stock, or buying new genetics from a breeder. If you let them raise their own queen, you will simply be perpetuating unwanted genetics and you have just exponentially increased them by the amount of nucleus colonies you have made. By giving them a queen cell you create a brood break. This allows the mites developing inside the brood to hatch out, and gives the existing mites no larvae or eggs in which to create more mites. It will not get rid of the mites, but it will decrease their numbers. By the time the queen hatches, mates, and begins laying 16 days +/- will have passed where no eggs have been laid, and the majority of mites will be in the phoretic stage. Nucleus colonies generally do not suffer the effects of mites as severely as large colonies (more bees = more mites). The queen can be evaluated, and the nucleus colony can be put to various other uses.
Summer is business as usual more or less. Monitor mites, and test for hygienic behavior. This is also the time you want to start removing that contaminated comb, melting down the wax, and using it for anything other than new foundation. Any honey harvested from these frames can be sold commercially, but cannot be sold as treatment free honey, or fed to your own bees. Basically treat any product of that frame as like chemical waste, isolate it, get rid of it; minimize the chances of it re-entering your treatment free operation. Remove the marker from the frame and put it back into circulation.
Next fall, rinse and repeat.
Incorporating this into your treatment-free operation will allow you to remain profitable, sustainable, and still retain your core philosophical beliefs without vicariously endangering it by allowing mites to spread from dead hives.