In order to explain treatment-free beekeeping in a manner that is productive, it is first necessary to understand that there are many definitions of what exactly “treatment-free” means. In this article, I bring to light various opinions that exist and put forth a definition that attempts to clarify the topic of treatment-free beekeeping for the purpose of providing a baseline from which others can follow. As I will explain more in depth later in this article, the main methodology behind treatment-free beekeeping is to let bees be bees as much as possible and to interfere as little as possible for the purpose of producing stronger, more resilient, and pest-resistant bees over time.
Many beekeepers assert that simply not putting chemicals in their hive is a good practice, while others argue that “treatment-free” must have a more strict definition. Along the lines of this latter assertion, anything introduced by the beekeeper into the hive with the intent of inhibiting, repelling or killing pests or disease afflicting the bees should be considered a treatment. And, anything done for the purpose of “helping” the bees to survive when they ought to be surviving on their own is only counterproductive to raising strong, healthy bees.
Contention exists among beekeepers of all experience levels and types. Some commercial honey producers would laugh at the thought of not giving their bees a seasonal dose of antibiotics or other chemical treatment(s), while some backyard beekeepers insist that introducing treatments in the first place actually causes dependency upon these very treatments, making the bees weaker and the pests or disease strong over time. The range of opinions that exist is vast, thus, it is imperative to clearly define “treatment-free” and always be aware of which definition is being discussed at any given time.
As an example, because it is such a contentious topic, in the Treatment-Free Beekeepers discussion group that I help moderate on Facebook, guidelines had to be created in order to help the group’s members avoid heated arguments, so that more effort could be made upon the promotion of treatment-free beekeeping rather than spending time on defending an individual’s own opinions that can lead to futile arguments.
Because the philosophy behind the treatment-free beekeeping approach is that treating bees for diseases actually prevents the bees from developing genetic or behavioral adaptations needed to cope on their own, treatment-free beekeepers choose to allow disease to run its course in a hive. As a result, the weaker colonies die out and stronger, well-adapted colonies survive. Ultimately, pests and issues would cease to be a problem and colonies, both managed and feral, become disease tolerant.
One well-known treatment-free beekeeper, Solomon Parker, states on his website:
“This is not just about protecting my family and myself from harsh chemicals… This is really about returning the bees to a more natural state, one in which they are solely responsible for surviving… I affect them in a way that gives them a home in which to live, I direct certain traits by removing certain members of the population… I harvest some of the honey that they produce. But surviving is wholly their job.”
Personally, I tend to agree with the more strict definition of “treatment-free” because it takes away some of the confusion surrounding the term and because it matches my own beekeeping philosophy. According to Mr Parker, practicing treatment-free is much more than just giving up chemicals. It is not a matter of only using treatments that are seen as “natural” or “organic”. It’s a matter of keeping bees with as little treatment as is humanly possible in order to allow the bees to be bees, even if that means letting them die.
In my own hives, if I had pick a treatment because I just couldn’t face the facts that my bees might die, I would certainly consider giving them something like a Direct Fed Microbial (DFM) supplement as a last resort. Which brings up a topic of contention: “Is feeding bees considered a treatment?” Feeding bees could be considered a “treatment against starvation.” In the case where colonies are poorly adapted to their local conditions, for example if the bees were artificially migrated from Southern California to Northern Wisconsin, the bees might build up too early in Spring, try to raise huge amounts of brood through a ferocious Summer dearth, or not pack away enough stores for Winter. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, colonies can end up short of food. For example, if the beekeeper makes a lot of summer splits while there is no nectar flow, it might be appropriate to feed the splits.
In general though, according to a strict definition of treatment-free beekeeping, it would be best to avoid feeding bees where possible. But, it is sometimes necessary and desirable to do so if the bees are to survive. A beekeeper can take steps to reduce the need for feeding, such as making splits during a nectar flow and leaving adequate winter stores on the hives. Ultimately, the goal should be to keep bees that feed themselves and require no intervention from humans to survive and reproduce.
The “treatment-free” debate never ends. As I heard a treatment-free beekeeper put it recently, the range of opinions seen in treatment-free beekeeping can be compared to the range seen in debates between vegetarians. There’s the lacto-ovo-vegetarians who eat both dairy products and eggs, the lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy products but avoid eggs, ovo-vegetarians who eat eggs but not dairy products and the vegans who do not eat dairy products, eggs, or any other products derived from animals. For example, one person might consider themselves a real vegetarian because they don’t drink milk, whereas another person might feel they are a more pure vegetarian because they don’t ever cook their food to above 107 degrees.
In the discussion of treating versus not treating bees, what matters most is that beekeepers keep an open mind and think scientifically instead of speaking from their opinions. Admittedly, while this particular article is not specifically scientific in nature, I will go further into the science of treatment-free beekeeping in future articles. One thing to keep in mind is that “treatment-free” is not the same thing as “chemical-free” and “chemical-free” isn’t the same as “organic.” Even the phrase “natural beekeeping” has its own set of loose criteria that can be argued endlessly. Sometimes we just have to agree to disagree. In the end, it is important to be aware of the treatment-free beekeeping purpose and meaning and to make a decision that suits ourselves.