Treatment-Free Beekeeping

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North Downs Bees

Breeders of varroa-resistant honey bees offering tuition and nucleus colonies

Treatment-Free Beekeeping

Common Questions

Q: What is varroa?

A: The varroa mite is a foreign parasite that came to the UK in the early 1990's. Our bees had no resistance, and perished wholesale unless treated with acaricides.

Q: Why try to keep bees on a 'treatment free' basis?

A: Many people find the idea of continuously dosing hives with acaricides unsatisfactory, for several distinct reasons. For one thing it seems inevitable that traces of the chemicals will find their way into the honey and beeswax comb. Arguably much more objectionable is the fact that treatments prevent the evolution of natural resistance. Keeping alive individual colonies that are defenceless against varroa means that quality will be carried into each new generation, thus maintaining the vulnerability.

Q: Isn't this a kind of 'addiction' scenario? The treatment perpetuates the problem?

A: Yes

Q: Why don't all beekeepers simply stop treating?

A: The cost in lost colonies would be unbearable. Some 95% of domestic and commercial stocks would perish.

Q: Can't researchers and breeders raise resistance and then sell their resistant strains to other beekeepers?

A: Yes, that is a strong possibility. 

Impact on Wild Honeybees

Q: What other impact does systematic widespread treating have?

A: Wild honeybees [1] are bees are dramatically affected. As commercial and domestic drones mate with wild virgin queens, the vulnerability to varroa is passed on. Since nobody treats the offspring bees, in the wild they simply die.

Q: Does this really matter?

A: Yes. The wild bee population has, until twenty years ago, played critical roles in beekeeping and the natural ecology.  It has helped beekeepers by continuously injecting multi-resistant genes that have been raised through the processes of natural selection for the fittest strains.  More importantly it pollinated the natural ecology.  Continually suppressing the wild bee population reduces seed and berry yields, with consequent impact on the native plant seed bank and the entire food chain above.

Systematic treating also dramatically reduces honeybee genetic diversity, as narrowly bred commercial queens displace the genes of the myriad locally-adapted wild bees.

Q: Some treatment-free beekeepers use things like small cell honeycomb, 'artificial swarms' and 'brood breaks' to control varroa numbers. Is that healthy?

A: These sorts of actions are no different to chemical treatments in terms of raising resistance. They are simply alternative ways of keeping alive bees that have no role to play in the fight against varroa vulnerability

Q: Isn't what you do simply a special case of traditional genetic husbandry - breeding against health threats?

A: Yes. Bees however are a special case, as they mate openly.  They cannot form a controlled 'closed breeding population' [2] like other domestic animals. Special arrangements have to be made to control the flow of genes down through the generations, to maximise health, productivity and genetic diversity, and eliminate any undesirable impact on wild bees.

Too Complicated?

Q: Isn't this all rather complicated? I just want to keep bees and have some honey.

A: Don't worry, a few basic guidelines will enable you to keep your bees treatment free without having to learn about bee biology or evolutionary theory. Don't forget, people have been breeding toward health for thousands of years. If, however, you want to go deeper, we can help.

Q: Doesn't all this rather take the simplicity and fun out of beekeeping?

A: Quite the opposite. It help you understand and apply the simple but elegant principles by which nature and husbandry work. Ours is very much 'hands off' beekeeping. We let the bees do the work! Observing, and gently guiding them is fun. Engaging with more detail, if you want to, can be fun too.

Summary of the main case for treatment-free

Almost without exception commercial and domestic bees are 'treatment-dependent'. They need to be medicated against varroa just to survive. Since bees mate openly, keeping weak colonies alive allows them to spread their weak genes.  In this way systematic treating prevents the development of resistance, with knock-on effects that damage general biodiversity across the ecological spectrum.

Our management strategy

We have never treated, nor manipulated in any way against varroa.  We allow nature to take its course in the apiary, and do nothing that might harm the wild bees around us.  We undertake selective reproduction, using unaided multi-year productivity as our key indicator, seeking all round vitality and productivity.  by doing so we are aiding the development of independent good health, both inside and around our apiary.

How small beekeepers can help

By adopting a non-treatment management system designed to enable nearby wild bees to thrive, all beekeepers can help to raise resistance levels. It does need an informed and thoughtful strategy, which we can help with.


[1] Free-living bees are usually desrbed as 'feral'.  This is unhelpful to the cause of properly valuing them.  They are the beekeeper's best friend.

[2] Artificial insemination can overcome this, but there are disadvantages that normally outweigh any benefit