For first half of my beekeeping years, I caught swarms, bought nucs, bought packages and over the years, I have lost many, many bees. I will never buy bees from a commercial dealer again.
Now all of my bees are treatment free and all have made it through the winters. Over the years I have caught swarms and some of those appeared to be from feral/treatment free sources. Every spring I make splits. When I can, I'm generous with my friends who are treatment free or with other beekeepers who want to try.
I had a discussion over dinner with Jennifer Berry this week and she thinks that one must be an experienced beekeeper in order to succeed at treatment free beekeeping. It does help to know what you are doing, but the real key element in treatment free beekeeping is the source of your bees.
If you buy nucs or packages from a commercial source, they all treat their bees heavily and you will have bees in your yard that must have treatment to survive. They have not survived the varroa mite and meanwhile the varroa mite who survives the treatment gets stronger and stronger. Tom Seeley says our bees need to be resistant to the varroa mite. Your bees from those commercial sources are not resistant to the varroa mite. They might last through one season, but they are highly likely to die the second year.
It's easy to say that it requires experience to be a treatment-free beekeeper, but what does that mean? Does that require you to start with bees from a commercial source who require treatment and then, when you decide to go treatment free, to kill all of your hives? That idea feels awful to me.
So how does one start out as a treatment free beekeeper? I have several thoughts:
1. Spend at least your first year as a beekeeper with no bees.
- Get a jacket, a veil, and a hive tool.
- Find someone in your area who is keeping treatment free bees and ask if they will be your mentor.
- Accompany them as they inspect their hives. Help them with their work as a beekeeper.
- Make a friend of that person and learn as much as you can about beekeeping from them.
2. The next year of your beekeeping experience (or longer if you need it), learn to set swarm traps.
- Then get on your bee club's swarm call list so that you can get a swarm or two.
- Chances are higher with a swarm that the bees from a tree or from the walls of a house. They may also be from a treating beekeeper's hive which means they are less likely to survive.
- You can hive them, practice on them, not treat them, and if they live through the winter, split them in the spring.
- Better yet, get two swarms! It's always better to start with two hives.
3. If you have a swarm hive that looks weak in midsummer, go to your treatment free mentor and ask him/her if you could have a frame of brood and eggs from one of his/her survivor hives.
- Kill the queen in your swarm hive.
- Wait five days (to make sure there are no available eggs from the old queen).
- Then get the brood frame from your mentor and allow your bees to make a queen from a survivor frame and you are in business.
Midsummer splits can be made successfully, so your new queen should get mated. And the new bees from the survivor queen should have inherited her survivor traits.
4. If you don't get a swarm, see if you can convince your treatment free beekeeper who you have helped over the last year or two to make you a nuc from her/his survivor hives.
5. Once you have a survivor hive going, give up your dreams of a bountiful honey crop for that year, and split, split, split in the spring to make sure you now have several hives of survivor bees.
6. Also if you get a swarm and don't know where it came from, then plan to requeen any swarm with a frame of brood and eggs from a survivor hive. The only swarm I got this year issued from the attic of the house across the street from where the swarm landed. So I had faith that they would be survivors. I do always ask if the person asking for the swarm to be collected knows where the swarm originated.
7. When it is time for honey harvest, err on the conservative side.
- Leave the honey for the bees. How can they survive if you take all of their stores?
- And don't tell me that you feed them to make up for it. Feeding sugar syrup doesn't come close to the nutrients provided in their own honey.
- Leave plenty of honey for your hives' survival.
That is my philosophy for all of my hives: never take so much honey that the bees can't make it through the winter using their own supplies. Feeding the bees in spring is confusing and makes them build up before the nectar source is available to support them. If you leave them honey, they know what to do and when to build up their population.
8. If a hive dies, so be it. It's sad to lose bees, but I'd rather lose bees that can't live without my putting poison in the hives than keep them alive artificially.
And despite what all the guilt-inducing conference speakers may say, bees are NOT our pets. Hold to your values and avoid the poison.
9. Finally - keep learning and discerning. Don't believe every speaker you hear. Don't do something to your hives without making a studied conscious decision. Be a good beekeeper and the best one you know how to be.
10. For the record, here is my current roster of hives:
- My hives at the elementary school haven't been treated in seven years. We've made several splits from those two hives this year.
- My little swarm hive from last March at the railroad yard is going gangbusters this year and I have made a split from it. The rail yard is thirty acres and I believe they came from a building or a tree. But if they die at the end of this, their second season, so be it.
- My top bar hive holds a swarm that issued from a girl's hive which hadn't been opened or treated in four years. She saw the swarm leave the hive and land about twenty feet away in her yard. I collected it and it is doing well again this year. It is in my top bar so I didn't split it but will next year in its third year at my house (its seventh year of survival).
- And I have a survivor hive from a swarm that I collected in my neighborhood six years ago that is rocking along. I took one box of honey from it last year and may again this year. It never looks like a rock-em, sock-em hive, but every spring it has a healthy awakening.
- I have several splits that are made from the above hives and hopefully will be in full sized hive boxes before winter.
It's not easy to start out as a treatment-free beekeeper, but once you have survivor hives going, you will feel great about your bees, your honey, and your contribution to a healthier environment for both bees and people.