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Why I don't consider using treatments of any kind

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"All the boring and soul-destroying work of counting mites on sticky boards, killing brood with liquid nitrogen, watching bees groom each other, and measuring brood hormone levels---all done in thousands of replications---will someday be seen as a colossal waste of time when we finally learn to let the Varroa mites do these things for us." --Kirk Webster, What's missing from the current discussion and work related to bees that's preventing us from making good progress.
"I’ve thought a lot about how in the world to describe what’s really happening in an apiary that hasn’t used treatments of any kind for more than five years; where mites are now considered to be indispensable allies and friends, and where the productivity, resilience, profitability and enjoyment of the apiary are just as good as at any time in the past. I wouldn’t dream of killing any mites now, even if I had an easy and safe way of doing so."--Kirk Webster, A New Paradigm for American Beekeeping

A recent discussion has brought up what I think now about treatments as opposed to what I used to think. So I’d like to explain how I got to where I am now. These dates are off the top of my head, but I think they are pretty close. Back in 1999, frustrated by losing all my bees for the second time, I was looking for some way to keep them alive. I had not paid much attention to the current discussions in beekeeping magazines for many years. I just kept my bees in the backyard and we got along fine and I couldn’t see that bees changed and it seemed to me the magazines were more about the latest gadget than about beekeeping.

Once I realized it was Varroa, of course I started researching that, and everything I could find said they would die if I didn’t treat. I was not finding any dissenting voices. So the next year I got more bees and that fall I used Apistan. It was not what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know what else to do. After using it, they were still badly infested, but some of them survived that winter and some died. The next year (2001) while searching for some solution that wouldn’t require treatment I ran into "small cell foundation" in a Brushy Mt. catalog that said that it was "for experienced beekeepers only". I was thinking, I’ve had bees for 27 years, but I don’t have any idea what I’m supposed to know that would help me use small cell foundation any better than a new beekeeper. So I started searching on line for information about small cell. I found it on Beesource. I read all of Dee Lusby’s writing and all of Eric Osterlund’s writing on the subject and found information on Dave Cushman’s site and Allen Dick’s site. Being a natural skeptic, the idea that bees had been enlarged was documented well enough, but if foundation was the cause of the problem, why not forgo it instead of making them go to 4.9mm? I tried both 4.9mm foundation and starter strips at the time to see what the bees would build. Eventually I decided I needed to discuss things and joined Beesource so I could ask Dee and other small cell people questions. That was about 2002.

The first year I tried natural comb, I was running behind trying to change over and things didn’t go so well. The mites were already pretty populated and I treated with Apistan again only to lose them anyway. The next year I started with some established hives I bought and started regressing those early in the year. When I was seeing natural comb in the 4.6mm range I decided there was nothing unnatural about 4.9mm foundation, but I was really more interested in natural comb. I was concerned about treating while regressing (the skeptic in me) so I used FGMO every week during the year on most of the hives. The bees did pretty well and by the next year (2003) oxalic acid vapor was being discussed on Beesource. I decided I would finish the year out by using the oxalic to see what the mite counts were. Judging by the first week compared to the second week, I concluded that oxalic vapor was very successful at killing mites, but also that small cell had been working and that, while FGMO kept the numbers down somewhat, it was more trouble that the benefit. I was also concerned that FGMO would soften the wax in the long run, and blowing up a hive when the flames ignited the vapors once, was a bit disconcerting. I had been hearing Dee talk about the microbes and how fumadil, terramycin etc. were killing the beneficial microbes. Having never used any treatments from 1975 until 2000 and never having used fumadil this didn’t seem to matter that much to me, but as I looked more into microbes and their effects on the bees, I become more and more concerned about a lot of so-called organic treatments.

Dean Stiglitz and Laurie Herboldsheimer did a lot of searching on the research and presenting that research and they got a hold of Gilliam’s studies and made them available and that was some amazing stuff. I began to realize that a lot of the things that helped hives, might actually be because of the microbes and not because of the obvious things like giving them brood. Things like giving a frame of brood to a languishing hive, might just be inoculating them with the microbes from the strong hive. Essential oils were not only disrupting the smells in the hive, but the microbes and the more I observed and read studies, the more convinced that the microbes were very important. As I started raising queens I had already noticed that how well they were fed had more to do with how good they were then their genetics. What if the genetics of the microbes were just as important as the genetics of the queen? So what are the problems with treatments, besides the obvious fact that you can’t breed for bees that do well without treatments if you are treating? You also can’t breed for microbes that keep bees healthy if you keep killing them.

There are over 8,000 microbes that have been identified (source USDA and Martha Gilliam’s research) that live with bees. Of these only a handful are pathogens. The rest either fill a niche in the ecology of the hive (and therefore crowd out pathogens) or they have an actual beneficial effect. Recent studies have shown some of the mechanisms by which these microbes protect the bees from Nosema, AFB, EFB and chalkbrood and that the preventative treatments for these diseases kill off the very thing that is protecting the bees from those diseases.

Essential oils: Kill a broad spectrum of microbes including yeasts, fungus, bacteria and viruses. They are basically the immune system of the plants they are derived from. Essential oils includes thymol, wintergreen, menthol, lemongrass oil, spearmint, peppermint, neem, tea tree etc.

Organic acids: Kill a broad spectrum of microbes including yeasts, fungus, bacteria and viruses. They do so because of a dramatic shift in pH in the hive. Several of these are routinely used as antiseptic solutions in labs including formic and oxalic acids. They also kill off those other 160 some mites that live with bees and probably a lot of insects that have beneficial relationships, such as pseudo scorpions who eat Varroa mites.

Acaracides: These are just relabeled insecticides. They have all of the disadvantages of the Organic acid with the addition of building up in the wax and affecting fertility of drones and queens.

Antibiotics: It’s obvious these kill microbes (after all that is their purpose). I think the current CCD issues correlate chronologically to when Tylan was first used and fumidil started being used several times a year because of Nosema cerana and the farmers started using a lot more fungicides. All of these conspired to kill microbes at a rate not seen before in beekeeping as well as Tylan being more long lived than Terramycin and the bacteria that had 50 years to build up resistance to Terramycin had no resistance to Tylan.

Another thing I think people in the US and Canada don’t seem to take into account is that most of these "recommended" treatments are not only not recommended, but illegal in most of the world. Fumidil, because it causes birth defects. Antibiotics, because they only cover up the presence of AFB and they contaminate the honey. Acracides because they contaminate the wax and the honey. These are, not only, not recommended in other countries, they are illegal. It’s only because people are convinced that the bees can’t survive Varroa without treatment that organic acids are allowed in those countries.

This brings me to today. There was a time I considered that treatment for Varroa mites MIGHT be necessary. Now that I’ve had more than a decade of regressed bees, moved to locally adapted stock and learned the value of the microbes and the other fauna of the hive, I think the costs, in terms of possibly losing whole strains of microbes, disrupting the entire ecology of the colony, not to mention propping up genetics I need to weed out, is no longer worth considering.

Michael Bush

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Copyright 2014 by Michael Bush

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