What Is Treatment-Free Beekeeping? (A Controversial Topic)

Treatment-free beekeeping

Beekeepers often take an active role in their colonies’ health and behavior. A variety of chemicals and beekeeping practices are used to manage the health and productivity of the bees. However, a growing number of beekeepers are opting for a more natural, “treatment-free” approach to beekeeping.

Treatment-free beekeeping, in its least restrictive definition, means beekeeping without using chemicals (synthetic or organic) and medicines (antibiotics) to reduce bee mortality from pests (such as varroa mites) and disease. More expansive interpretations of “treatments” include various manipulations of the hive and its environment intended to help bees survive.

In addition to avoiding chemicals and medicines, strict treatment-free beekeeping may exclude, among other things:

  • Removing drone brood;
  • Replacing the queen, routinely;
  • Creating artificial brood breaks and splits;
  • Feeding sugar or pollen supplements; and,
  • Taking steps to prevent swarming.

Treatment-free beekeepers strive to build bee colonies genetically disposed toward higher survival rates with less dependence on treatments that may create more problems than they solve.

Treatment-free beekeeping is somewhat controversial with proponents and detractors.

In this article, we’ll provide information about treatment-free beekeeping to help you decide if it’s for you.

Why Do Treatment-Free Beekeeping?

Beekeepers may opt for treatment-free practices for a variety of reasons, many of which are interrelated:

  • Improve the genetics of the bees through “survival of the fittest”;
  • Avoid exposure to chemicals that may:
    • Harm the bees or the beekeeper;
    • Negatively impact the natural state of the hive environment;
    • Contaminate wax and honey; or,
    • Inadvertently strengthen parasites and diseases that are resistant to treatment.
  • Desire to let the bees control their environment as much as possible in a beekeeping arrangement (i.e., let the bees do what they would do in a natural setting without human manipulation).

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Treatment-free beekeeping

Improving Honey Bee Genetics

“Survival of the fittest” is probably the primary objective of treatment-free beekeepers. Letting bees fend for themselves in dealing with a host of challenges, as they do in the wild, beekeepers strive to have only those bees genetically disposed to thrive in the face of adversity.

Colonies that die off are weak. Intervening to help them survive is bound to be futile at worst and results in underperforming queens and colonies at best.

Without the negative impact of various treatments, the bees that survive will produce genetically superior offspring that will thrive in their environment.

No Chemical Treatment

On the spectrum of things avoided by treatment-free beekeepers, the use of chemicals (including medicines) is universal.

Varroa mites, generally considered the greatest single threat to your colonies’ mortality, are among the primary reason that beekeepers use various synthetic or organic chemicals.

See our article Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide for detailed information about various chemical and non-chemical ways to deal with varroa mites.

Among antibiotics, Terramycin and Tylan are used to prevent American Foulbrood, a fatal bacterial disease.

Chemicals assist bees in handling specific threats to their survival. However, they have potentially negative consequences for the bees, also such as:

  • Higher bee mortality rates (which can vary by chemical)[1];
  • Impacts on bee behavior, including decreased nectar collection and honey production[2] [3];
  • Retention of chemicals in wax and honey;
  • Disruption of pheromone communication from essential oils; and,
  • Impacts on bees’ gut microbes which aid digestion and absorption of nutrients[4], among others.

Chemicals can also be harmful to humans, particularly in the concentrations used to treat bees.

Even organic chemicals, which are generally safe as found naturally, can be harmful to beekeepers. For example, inhaling oxalic acid vapors can cause “severe irritation and burns of nose, throat, and respiratory tract.” [5] When using these chemicals, it is essential to follow all the manufacturers’ safety precautions and wear appropriate personal protective equipment.

We have used three different organic Varroa mite treatments: Mite Away QuickStrips™ (formic acid), vaporized oxalic acid, and HopGuard® II (potassium salts of hop beta acids). (Rotation of treatments is recommended to mitigate mite resistance.)

The most noticeable impact of these treatments came from formic acid. Hive activity dropped significantly for several days after incorporating the strips. As the formic acid gradually dissipated, activity increased. By the end of one week, things seemed back to normal.

Letting Bees Control Their Environment

Even without the use of chemicals, beekeepers often manipulate their hives to help bees survive:

  • A screened bottom board lets varroa mites and small hive beetles drop out of reach of the bees:
  • Bees coated with powdered sugar can remove mites while cleaning each other;
  • Removing drone brood takes out the best breeding cells for varroa mites;
  • Artificial brood breaks and splits also reduce the number of drone cells for varroa;
  • Feeding bees artificially supports colonies that have not collected and stored adequate resources on their own; and
  • Frequent queen replacement and swarm prevention disrupt the normal changes in a colony’s life cycle.

Limiting human interference in the colony’s activities is intended to let only the strongest and most adaptable bees survive, thereby improving genetics over time.

Besides, these hive manipulations may have little impact on the varroa mite population anyway.

Disagreements Among Treatment- Free Beekeepers

Even among ardent treatment-free beekeepers, there is disagreement on these hive manipulation questions.

For example, Michael Bush, a well-known treatment-free beekeeper, avoids feeding bees unless he feels it is needed to prevent starvation.[6] Solomon Parker, another popular treatment-free beekeeper, considered feeding to be a “treatment against starvation.”[7]

Mr. Bush proposes foundationless beekeeping. Letting the bees build wax from scratch avoids chemical contaminants found in the commercially available foundation. Also, bees will build “natural-sized” cells, which may limit varroa mites.[8]

Foundationless frame and frame with plastic foundation
Foundationless frame and frame with plastic foundation

On the other hand, Mr. Parker calls the foundation part of the hive equipment and considers “foundationless methods…technically unnatural as they happen in a man-made hive.”7 I think you could argue that everything about putting bees in your private box is “unnatural.”

As you can see, once you get beyond the use of chemicals, what constitutes “treatment-free” beekeeping becomes a matter of personal preference based on your experiences and view of beekeeping.

Michael Bush on Treatment-Free Beekeeping - HoneyLove

Controversy Over Treatment-Free Beekeeping

While every beekeeper is probably inclined to prefer treatment-free beekeeping, practices vary widely based on economic considerations and personal preferences. Also, some beekeepers think that failure to treat, especially in light of the varroa mite challenge, may have more adverse consequences than treatment.

Arguments Against Treatment-Free Beekeeping

The primary reason that beekeepers opt against treatment-free beekeeping is to help their colonies survive. Treatment-fee beekeepers would argue that colonies die no matter what you do, so let the weaker ones go; foster stronger genetics.

The issue of bee mortality incorporates several issues:

  • Economic considerations of bee mortality;
  • Impact on neighboring colonies;
  • Buying commercially raised bees with mites; and
  • Beekeeping is a form of animal husbandry.

Economic Considerations Of Bee Mortality

Commercial beekeepers and sideliners (those that derive some additional income from beekeeping) are more likely to use chemicals to help bees survive the winter. “On the other hand, backyard beekeepers choose to use a wider range of options that include more labor-intensive practices, such as drone brood removal.”[9]

According to the Bee Informed Partnership’s 2020 Survey, backyard beekeepers suffered slightly higher winter losses than sideliners but substantially higher losses than commercial beekeepers. These results seem to indicate that winter mortality may depend heavily on pest management techniques.

For commercial beekeepers, the economic benefit of lower winter losses is obvious. However, heavy winter losses can be very costly for backyard beekeepers on a relative basis but not threaten their livelihood.

Impact On Neighboring Colonies

Foraging bees from different apiaries may interact. Robber from another apiary may visit your colonies. Bees from a mite-infested colony may swarm, only to be trapped eventually by another beekeeper.

In each of these cases, mites can transfer from one apiary to another.

At the popular website HoneyBeeSuite.com, Rusty Burlew argues that keeping your mites in check is part of being a good beekeeping neighbor.  Treatment-free beekeepers cannot be completely passive in this area.

There is a theory of “mite bombs” in beekeeping circles. This theory says that heavily infested colonies, left untreated, are “mite bombs” that can infect surrounding colonies. The actual existence of “mite bombs” is a point of contention between treatment and treatment-free beekeepers.

Mites In Commercially Raised Bees

Most bees purchased by backyard beekeepers come from commercial operations that treat bees. These bees are not genetically bred to be varroa resistant.

There is a high probability that despite treatments, your last bee package or nuc arrived with a mite load already.

As a new beekeeper with purchased bees, you may have already been set up for failure if you go treatment-free. If you live in an area dense with other hobbyists, there may be many mite-heavy colonies around since hobbyists are generally the most likely beekeepers to be treatment-free.

Beekeeping Is Animal Husbandry

Randy Oliver at ScientificBeekeeping.com makes the case that you are keeping livestock in keeping bees, and you should care for and tend to that livestock. He also feels that neglecting to care for your bees is not fair to your neighbors and their bees.

As a beekeeping newbie, the biggest challenge in your first year of beekeeping is to keep your colonies healthy and get them through the first winter. I don’t think it’s appropriate to leave those bees entirely to their own devices as you learn how to keep bees.

Things Treatment-Free Beekeepers Can Do

Most of the focus on treatment-free beekeeping is about things you can’t do: you can’t use chemicals, you can’t feed, etc.

Here are some things you can do if you are inclined to try treatment free beekeeping

Buy bees from treatment-free suppliers. Query members at Facebook’s Treatment-Free Beekeepers group for suggestions.

There is a disclaimer on the Parker Bees site about the sources of this information. You may need to do a little homework of your own. Try to find a supplier in a climate similar to yours.

Buy varroa-resistant bees and queens. Some suppliers breed for Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH). These honey bees work on their own to keep mite thresholds below the level that might require treatment.

You can try Saskatraz Bees, available from a variety of different sources. You can also get new VSH queens to help transition your colony from suppliers such as Wildflower Meadows.

Conclusion (Our Recommendation)

While we are not treatment-free beekeepers, we completely understand its appeal.

As a new beekeeper, you have a lot to learn. We believe it is best to keep it as simple as possible in your first year (maybe two) while you focus on building up your first colonies.

We take the more restrictive view of what treatment-free means: no chemicals. However, we recommend that in your first year or so, you learn how to monitor your colonies’ mite levels and treat them with organic chemicals only when warranted. Hopefully, this minimizes your use of chemicals.

I wouldn’t spend much time on hive manipulation questions. For example, let the queen decide how many drones she wants.

If you bought a package, spring swarming is unlikely. If you got a nuc, you might like to prevent swarming or learn how to do a split.

Feed your bees when they first arrive. They will be less likely to abscond (just up and leave), and they may fill frames a bit faster. Feed them during a nectar dearth. And just in case they don’t have enough honey for the winter, provide them with sugar.

Feed bees only when they need it.

See our article Why, What, How & When To Feed Honey Bees for more information.

If treatment-free beekeeping is important to you, take the first couple of years to learn as much as you can. Then decide if it’s right for you and plan accordingly.

This article is part of the series Managing Beehives (A Beginner’s Guide).

Additional Reading

Michael Bush, the author of The Practical Beekeeper, is a well-known advocate for “treatment-free” beekeeping. I have found him to be a frequent contributor to various beekeeping forums. His website BushFarms.com includes some of the information in his beekeeping books.

Michael Bush, the author of The Practical Beekeeper, is a well-known advocate for “treatment-free” beekeeping. I have found him to be a frequent contributor to various beekeeping forums. His website BushFarms.com includes some of the information in his beekeeping books.

Facebook has a Treatment-Free Beekeepers group. Be aware that this group is not open to discussion about treatment vs. treatment-free. According to the group’s policy, “If you want to talk about…what is or isn’t a treatment, please do it elsewhere.”

Your Bees Don’t Have To Die – How Can We Become Treatment-Free Without Killing Our Colonies?  – by Meghan Milbrath, Michigan State University Extension, September 2016, The Sand Hill

[1] Gregorc A, Alburaki M, Sampson B, Knight PR, Adamczyk J. Toxicity of Selected Acaricides to Honey Bees (Apis mellifera) and Varroa (Varroa destructor Anderson and Trueman) and Their Use in Controlling Varroa within Honey Bee Colonies. Insects. 2018;9(2):55. Published 2018 May 10. doi:10.3390/insects9020055

[2] Carayon JL, Téné N, Bonnafé E, et al. Thymol as an alternative to pesticides: persistence and effects of Apilife Var on the phototactic behavior of the honeybee Apis mellifera. Environ Sci Pollut Res Int. 2014;21(7):4934-4939. doi:10.1007/s11356-013-2143-6

[3] Negative behavioral effects from Oxalic Acid Vaporization on honey bee colony vitality, brood, and honey production in various sized hives containing VSH queens – Kevin O’Donnell, Individual Experimental Project,

UM Master Beekeeping Course, August, 2018

[4] Honey Bees, Antibiotic and Gut Microbia in Bee Culture magazine

[5] Ontario Beekeepers’ Association Technology-Transfer Program OXALIC ACID SAFETY SHEET

[6] Bushfarms.com/beesfeeding.htm

[7] ParkerBees.com/treatmentfree.htm It seems that Mr. Parker has retired from beekeeping and his original website is no longer available. You may still find his podcasts here.

[8] Bushfarms.com/beesfoundationless.htm

[9] Underwood RM, Traver BE, López-Uribe MM. Beekeeping Management Practices Are Associated with Operation Size and Beekeepers’ Philosophy towards in-Hive Chemicals. Insects. 2019;10(1):10. Published 2019 Jan 8. doi:10.3390/insects10010010

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