Amanda earlier this year in an organic blueberry farm. Should we continue to pollinate, even in pesticide-free places like this? Is this practical and holistic beekeeping? We're wondering. Jeff Lee photo.

Treatment-free beekeeping conference in Oregon: searching for answers

This week we’re heading to a conference on how to manage honey bees without treatment. The question is, can we afford to? And at a time when honey bees and all native pollinators appear to be under grave threat – and as the debate over neonicotinoid pesticides continues to rage, there are legitimate questions about how much we, as beekeepers, should be exposing our stock to chemicals of our own and whether there are suitable alternatives.

Ask any group of beekeepers, commercial and hobbyist, how they deal with problems like varroa mites, viruses vectored through mites, American Foulbrood Disease and nosema, and you will get many different answers.

At one extreme are those who believe you treat bee health problems with medicine, just as you would treat a case of the flu with antibiotics. At the other extreme are those who believe that in leaving nature to take its course you encourage evolutionary robustness; keep only the strong and let the rest die.

I am a proponent of neither position. When I was a kid my parents complied with health regulations and vaccinated the family for the worst diseases we might be exposed to while living in Central America. But we also were exposed to sometimes unsanitary conditions; eating street food in Guatemala, as an example. As a result, I have a cast iron constitution and there’s not much that can easily make me sick.

Kirk Webster

Kirk Webster

At the same time, I am not a fool; while I eschew taking a pill just for any little ache and pain, I draw the line at serious infections and will use prescribed antibiotics, though sparingly.

I’d like to think that’s a proper way to respond to the benefits of medicine. There is no evolutionary benefit for me if I let myself die because I decided not to take the antibiotic that would successfully fight off my infection.

So why should we treat our honey bee colonies any differently? If we have an out-of-control case of AFB or nosema or mites, do we let every bee die? If we had a house full of mice or cockroaches, would we just say “oh well, whichever of my kids survives that infestation will make a better breeder”? Of course not.

The alternative, I think, is to have strong hygienic stock that knows how to keep itself clean and healthy. Just like we teach our children that keeping a clean house reduces the chance of attracting vermin.

The Pacific Northwest Treatment-Free Beekeeping conference Amanda and I are attending this weekend in Forest Grove, Oregon, will feature some bright beekeepers. The two-day event has been organized by Bliss Honeybees.

Some speakers, like Kirk Webster, practice an evolutionary style of keeping bees treatment-free; those that survive become your breeding stock. Others, like Cornell University researcher Tom Seeley, look at how hives are organized and what their colony behaviour tells us about hive management.

Melanie Kirby, Zia Queen Bees.

Melanie Kirby, Zia Queen Bees.

Melanie Kirby at Zia Queen Bees, promotes the ethical breeding of survivor queens with good genetic traits. There’s also Les Crowder and Matthew Reed, two advocates of top bar hives.

We’re still young in our goals as beekeepers, but I know that Amanda and I want to raise bees carefully, ethically and with a minimum of treatments. We’ve already adopted a minimum standard and we use common sense, the cycles of nature and seasons and some basic mechanical systems such as drone comb and screened bottom boards to help manage our mite counts.

But should we be doing more for our bees, as some would argue, or even less, as others would insist? What is the happy medium?

I’m hoping this weekend conference will offer some clarity.

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