Kirk Webster, whose pioneering views on treatment-free bees are helping to influence beekeepers, shows his home-made division board feeder to  Axel Krause, right, a B.C. provincial bee inspector, and Jim Tunnell of Snohomish. Jeff Lee photo.

Kirk Webster on treatment-free beekeeping in Pacific Northwest

FOREST GROVE, OREGON – It’s a contrary argument for beekeepers wrestling with the greatest pest in they’ve ever faced to suggest that you should make the varroa mite your ally.

But that’s exactly the argument Kirk Webster, the pioneering treatment-free beekeeper, made this weekend to a packed crowd.

More than 100 beekeepers from all over the west – California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, British Columbia, Alberta – with a few sprinkled in from as far away as New Zealand and Indiana – hung on the words Webster dispensed this weekend at the first Pacific Northwest Treatment Free Beekeeping Conference.

The conference is the brainchild of Kat Nesbit, an Oregon beekeeper who, she says, waited for years for someone to organize a conference on low-impact beekeeping before realizing she would have to organize it herself. It became an instant success, so much so that she had an overflow of applicants.

There were other insightful speakers at this conference too, such as Cornell University’s Tom Seeley, whose own pioneering research has helped unravel the mysteries of why and how bees democratically decide to  swarm; New Mexico’s Melanie Kirby on the benefits of “rotational grazing” or moving your bees to beneficial forage; even Eliese Watson, an energetic live-wire Canadian who has cracked the code on how to create a sustainable beekeeping community in the urban concrete jungle of oil-and-gas Calgary.

There are also specialist speakers on native pollinators, top-bar hive beekeeping, and even the somewhat regressive Warre hive style of keeping bees.

Kirk Webster showing a pair of beekeepers at the Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free conference how he creates summer splits for overwintering hives. Jeff Lee photo.

Kirk Webster showing a pair of beekeepers at the Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free conference how he creates summer splits for overwintering hives. Jeff Lee photo.

But I secretly think it is Webster’s prophetic views on how to raise bees without chemicals that drew most people to this conference.

Many of us already practice some small amount of treatment-free beekeeping, whether it is using sacrificial drone comb or enforcing a mid-summer brood break to control mite populations. But we all are looking for a better guide map on the routes we can take away from using harsh chemicals or exposing our bees to harmful practices.

Webster, in an aw-shucks and low-key way, reinforced that path by suggesting we should not fear the tracheal and varroa mites we now have to contend with, but rather to embrace the lessons they deliver. One of the simplest: when a hive fails or runs into trouble, it is telling us we are out of balance in our beekeeping. Balance is a strong theme in Webster’s talks.

Most surprisingly, he pointed out that it is entirely possible to be a commercial beekeeper – even, gasp, doing pollination – in a treatment-free way without feeling like you’re selling your sole to a pesticide-using farmer.

In a breakout workshop, Webster also offered two ways to make nucleus colonies, depending upon the time of the year. I’ll post those videos a little later.

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