We’re not old hardcore hippies living off the grid somewhere, although we’re not necessarily conformist by nature. I'm a truck driver raised on a small, black dirt, 4 row farm in central Illinois and Colleen, who has worked in food service management, was raised in Lansing, MI. When we decided to start keeping bees we didn’t like the idea of using chemicals with such a natural product as honey. We did a lot of reading. At the time, Russian bees were gaining some attention for their resistance to mites. Seemed like a good idea to us. There was some concern about their aggressiveness (which we've found not to be true), but we figured we'd raised teenagers so we could deal with it. We decided to go the extra mile (or miles) and drive to Knoxville, TN to pick up couple of nucs of Russians. Since then our hives have been increased by purchasing more Russian bees or by the swarms, cut outs, and trap outs I’ve done over the years. That’s the ‘bee’ part of what we do.
We also read about IPM, integrated pest management. All of our original hives had screened bottom boards, but I now run screened and solid bottoms. If you read my Pests page you already know most of the background on how things progressed. Into winter with 6 hives the first year-none lost, 17 hives second year-none lost, 30+ hives the third year-none lost, 40+ hives the fourth year-4 or 5 lost. It’s around that time that most folks doing treatment free talk about having trouble with losing hives, a lot of hives. 4-5 of 40+ don’t qualify as a lot. I read where folks lose as much as 30% of their hives each year, even with treatments. The winter of our seventh year we did lose about 30%. There was nothing in that loss that indicated anything that the use of chemicals would have changed. We had a bad spring, a bad fall, followed by a bad winter. 4 of the 7 feral hives I knew of that year didn’t make it through the winter either. Some hives don't make it through the year. The fellow we got our first Russians from had the “if they die, they die” attitude. I’m not sure I go that far. There are way too many variables affecting the life of a hive, far too many to list here, to assume that just because a hive fails they had bad genes and didn’t deserve to live. That’s the ‘management’ or maybe the ‘lack of management’ part of what we do.
Small hive beetles (SHB) are something we just started dealing with last year. Other than the annoyance of having them we did have 2 hives strongly affected by them. One was a cut out in a single deep with a lot of irregular comb with stores. Between having a lot of places for the beetles to hide and the time and trouble the bees had to take to rebuild their hive, it weakened them enough for the beetles to take over. I can't say for sure if the beetles were in the original colony or they invaded the hive after being placed in the yard. The other in another yard had trouble requeening itself, weakened, and was taken over by wax moths and beetles. Even though we have SHB in all but 2 of our beeyards those were the only ‘casualties’ due to the beetles. A few other hives failed to requeen, but SHB were not a problem in those. Even when the observation hive weakened into winter the SHB in there didn’t take over. I’m not sure the limited experience we have with the beetles qualifies me to give an answer on how to deal with them. I do know the beetles made it through the winter. There are many opinions and suggestions out there. Many involve chemicals of some sort. I’ll probably just try to keep strong hives and keep an eye on them, being careful not to leave too much comb unguarded with bees and extracting as soon as the supers are pulled.
So, I just keep reading more and more about ‘treatment free’ beekeeping as each year goes by in articles and on bee forums. There have been books, grants, blogs, and long, sometimes almost hostile, postings on bee forums about it. All in all, I guess I’d have to say I’m a little puzzled by how much of a big deal is made over it. I’d like to say part of our success with being treatment free is due to our use of ‘survivor bees’, those that haven’t been treated, but I can’t say for sure that some of the bees I retrieve, trap, or cut out didn’t come from treated hives. The only thing I can tell you that I’ve done to keep bees treatment free for 10 years is simple..........
............I just didn’t use chemicals. And the bees did the rest. Hope the bees don't find out it's supposed to be more complicated than that.