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Response to "YOUR BEES DON’T HAVE TO DIE"
by Michael Cox
Moderator - Treatment Free Beekeepers Facebook Group
Number 25, The Precincts, Canterbury, UK
This article responds to the piece by Megan Milbrath, published in American Bee Journal,
"Your bees don’t have to die"
In her recent article Megan Milbrath proposed a strategy
by which a beekeeper might work towards developing a treatment free apiary (specifically treatment for varroa mites), as
a reaction to her personal attempts at using natural selection
with a "live and let die" approach.
Ms Milbrath, and others before her, decided that this approach was unsatisfactory for her personal circumstances.
She wasn’t happy with the resulting high loss rates, and took
issue with many factors including the "suffering" of bees under this system, the cost of replacing colonies and lost honey
yields. Eventually she proposed a half-way-house where
some colonies are treated conventionally.
Ms Milbrath’s article is based on constructing a strawman
argument - that all treatment free beekeepers use the particular techniques she tried - which ultimately makes her proposal sound both reasonable and sensible. This misleading
premise substantially misrepresents the realities of treatment
free beekeeping, as practiced by the many thousands of members of our facebook group. She ignores the best practices of
those who are currently, and successfully, keeping their bees
In this article I respond to her key points, and outline a
proven path to successful treatment free beekeeping.
Ms Milbrath makes some very emotive points about the
effects of disease on her bees. "Look those suffering girls
right in their compound eyes", while comparing her beekeeping to that of care for other livestock such as sheep, cattle, ducks and horses.To some extents she recognises a valid
point, however the lengths she takes to anthropomorphise her
bees’ suffering is disingenuous. It doesn’t take much consideration to judge that a box of insects is quite different from
an intelligent higher mammal. Our duty of care, and what
conditions we may or may not accept in our bee colonies
does not directly correspond to what we will tolerate with
our other livestock.
Ms Milbrath in her article mentions bass fishing, for which
a standard bait is live ragworm; grubs that are pierced with
a hook before being cast into the water to eventually be consumed. By Ms Milbrath’s standards this is should be unconscionable cruelty and suffering. We as beekeepers may develop an emotional attachment to our colonies, but that says
more of our human sensibilities than it does of what our bees
experience. Ultimately these judgements are personal in nature, and it is up to each individual beekeeper to decide where
their comfort zone is.
Personally I came to the realisation a long time ago that
every bee I ever keep will die an unpleasant death. Some get
eaten by birds or spiders, others succumb to disease before
they are fully developed, others fight to the death defending
their hive from robbers, still more die of sheer exhaustion
with broken bodies and tattered wings, unable to return from
foraging. Many die beneath the clumsy administrations of
the beekeeper, squashed between boxes or frames. No bee
dies in bed of old age, surrounded by doting loved ones!
I would argue that for the most part these deaths cause no
more, or no less suffering that that experienced by a bee
with parasitic mite syndrome or deformed wing virus. If
you are unhappy with this level of suffering in your managed
colonies, then perhaps beekeeping isn’t for you at all.
Throughout her article Ms Milbrath goes to significant
lengths to paint treatment free beekeepers as especially cruel
and hard hearted - "icy, shrivelled little prune heart" was one
especially pointed phrase. This kind of insult would sit quite
comfortably in the rhetoric used by PETA to condemn all
Ultimately, even if we accept that not treating bees leads
to some increase in suffering, most treatment free beekeepers
believe that their techniques have a long term beneficial impact on their local bee population. Breeding varroa tolerant
bees at an apiary level contributes genes for varroa resistance
to the wider local population. When a significant proportion
of beekeepers in a region follow these techniques the benefits
can be startling. Might not the potential rebound of stable,
healthy, feral populations of bees be worth some present day
loses to disease?
Poor beekeeping practices
Throughout her article Ms Milbrath focuses on a single
extreme approach to treatment free beekeeping; that of a
zero interference Live-and-Let-Die approach. Very few beekeepers consider taking such a hard line. Many more treatment free beekeepers manage their colonies intensively, using techniques that address the issues noted by Ms Milbrath.
When a zero interference treatment free beekeeping strategy
is used, natural selection does take place, and some beekeepers have shown that breeding from the resulting survivor
stock does yield a good family of varroa tolerant bees. However, it is quite conceivable under these circumstances that
the surviving bees end up with undesirable traits; they may
be swarmy, aggressive or poor yielding.
What Ms Milbrath fails to acknowledge is that this zero interference approach does not reflect the reality of how treatment free beekeepers choose to manage their apiaries. In
essence she condemns all treatment free beekeepers as following the worst of neglectful bee husbandry practices. In
her world view treatment free beekeepers are swarm factories, of aggressive, diseased bees that are a menace to their
Responsible treatment free beekeepers manage swarming
in the same way that other beekeepers do. We give space to
colonies as needed, we make splits from strong colonies and
generally undertake to not lose swarms to the environment.
We recognise that frequent swarming might be a path to varroa tolerance (via repeated brood breaks), but it leads to bees
which are not well suited for producing honey yields.
In a normal apiary if a colony turns aggressive - no matter
it’s other characteristics - the queen will be culled. Treatment
free beekeepers generally follow the same practices.
Beekeepers are blind to their losses
". . . most (treatment free) beekeepers who lose bees to
varroa-associated viruses never see it happen." - Again, Ms
Milbrath makes the assertion that beekeepers who choose not
to treat their bees are wilfully ignorant and blind to what
takes place in their hive. This again is simply poor beekeeping; a beekeeper worth their salt will autopsy any hive and
work out a definitive cause of death. Why is this specifically
levelled at treatment free beekeepers? Many beekeepers who
manage their hives with conventional treatments regimens
are unable to accurately autopsy a hive; "starvation" is often
diagnosed when the true cause was PMS. Applying a treatment is no guarantee of it’s success, or of the survival of a
colony through winter.
It is widely accepted that mites will drift from colony to
colony under certain conditions. During the summer months
drones drift between colonies and mites can hitch along for
the ride. During late summer, or autumn, robbing events can
allow mites to transfer from a collapsing colony to another.
In my opinion, where Ms Milbrath over reaches is in equating a potential worst-case scenario with standard practice for
treatment free beekeepers. If hives crash mid-season due to
high varroa load, and are robbed out, then it is reasonable to
expect their mite load to spread to other colonies. This may
even be the case in autumn, when the weather is still adequately warm for bees to forage. However from direct observation of my own apiaries, and from experiences shared
within our group, this does not seem to be what happens.
In general bees tend to retain adequate strength to defend
themselves into the winter, and collapse after the bees have
stopped flying. Evidence of this is seen in the plentiful stores
remaining above the cluster, where colonies dwindled early.
A major robbing event, such as would transfer mite loads to
otherwise healthy colonies, would leave a chewed up mess
of comb and no honey.
Ultimately Ms Milbrath is unjustifed in attempting to
paint all treatment free beekeepers as negligent. Her assertions of how we manage our apiaries does not come even
close to the reality.
Expansion Model Beekeeping
In contrast to Ms Milbrath’s disappointing experiences
with a zero intervention approach, many treatment free beekeepers have had success with what has come to be known
as Expansion Model Beekeeping. In her article Ms Milbrath
outlined the actions of two potential beekeepers who were
trying to go treatment free. I’d like to offer a third path.
The essence of Expansion Model Beekeeping is that you
treat your beekeeping as though you are in the process of
continually expanding to a larger apiary. Act as though you
want double the number of colonies next year, and expand
your colonies accordingly.
Beekeeper C has 5 colonies in spring.
• He inspects them as usual, managing them for swarming and adding supers as needed
• Colony 5 has chalkbrood and builds up slowly
• Main honey harvest is taken from all colonies
• On a summer mite count, using a sugar shake on 300
bees, colony 1 has noticeably lower mite levels
• Beekeeper C removes the queen from colony 1, making a single split into a nuc box. Colony 1 starts raising
• Colony 5 has the queen removed and culled, and the resources are used to make 5 more splits. Additional resources are taken as needed from colonies 2-4. Capped
queen-cells from colony 1 are added to each split
• Beekeeper C takes 10 colonies into winter; four full
colonies and six 6 frame nucs
• Over winter Beekeeper C suffers 50% loss rate
• Varroa Sensitive Hygiene - bees uncap affected larvae
and remove them
• Varroa Reproduction Suppression - some bees reduce
the proportion of mites that successfully reproduce in
• Biting and grooming - this appears to be a partially
learned behaviour, and is thought to be triggered in the
colony when mite densities rise
• In spring Beekeeper C has 5 colonies
The heart of this approach is that splits are made before
going into winter. If you expect a heavy loss rate of 50%
(most of us get losses substantially lower than this, 30%
seems about average) you might aim to take 10 colonies into
winter with the aim of having five in spring.
Throughout this process the beekeeper maintains control
of the selection process; if a colony shows traits you don’t
want it can be culled and used as raw materials for starting
nucs using queens raised from stronger colonies in the apiary.
The beekeeper can add in what ever criteria they desire; you
might choose your highest yielding colony each year as your
donor hive for queens. Further-more, each colony has to face
winter without the crutch of chemical treatments - more on
the importance of that shortly.
This process is simple to explain, simple to follow, and
can be managed even by novices in their first year. In contrast to Ms Milbrath’s suggestions it is very cheap. The beekeeper pays once for some additional equipment (nuc boxes
and frames), but is then never dependent again on buying
queens or colonies from another beekeeper. You also get to
avoid the expense of purchasing treatments. As an added
bonus, in most years you will end up arriving at spring time
with too many bees; isn’t that a pleasant problem to have?
Personally I have given away nucs to friends and novices.
Why is a partial treatment approach undesirable?
• Viral immunity by super-infection with DWV-TypeB provides immunity to DWV even in colonies with high
Of these known desirable traits only two of them may be
selected for using Ms Milbrath’s proposed system; anecdotal
evidence from beekeepers is that colonies with the correct
genetic traits can suddenly "learn" how to groom each other
once the proportion of varroa becomes high in the colony.
However under Ms Milbrath’s proposal such a colony would
already have been culled, and the queen line lost. Similarly
colonies that have DWV-TypeB, which protects against the
harmful viruses carried by mites, would not be identified and
preserved despite having a significant survival advantage.
Furthermore, her system does not allow for a spectrum
of tolerance. The reality, as observed in the field by those
keeping their bees without treatments, is that some colonies
are grotesquely unsuited to survive varroa and some others
seem to rapidly shrug off even heavy deliberate infestations
(eg giving them a frame of drone brood with a few thousand
mites). Between these two extremes there are many colonies
with mite levels that would be considered "high" but seem to
tick along quite happily when others around them collapse;
they survive winters and yield nicely.
We may not consider these colonies as excellent breeding
stock, but they are a step in the right direction. They may
have some desirable genetic material and premature culling
may be undesirable.
Selection Based on Incomplete Knowledge
In her original article Ms Milbrath proposed assessing
each hive for mite counts through the year. On the basis of
mite counts some colonies may be treated and selectively requeened. In this way colonies that are keeping mite counts
low are preserved, while others are culled (by requeening).
The main problem with this approach, from the point of
view of those of use whole try to follow a "pure" treatment
free approach, is that the beekeeper - with imperfect information - becomes the arbiter of which colonies are, or are
not, tolerant to varroa mites and their associated viruses. It
is well known and understood that there are multiple different factors at play that contribute to tolerance and some or
all of them may be expressed in the same hive in different
Ms Milbrath rightly points out in her article that in nature
pests and parasites evolve together to reach an equilibrium.
If the pest becomes too virulent it kills it’s host, and the parasite itself also dies. Over time parasites tend to become less
virulent, and hosts become more tolerant.
Unfortunately Ms Milbrath only recognises one half of
this dynamic; that of trying to find bees that survive the mites.
She does not acknowledge that our actions in the hive will
apply selective pressure on the mites themselves.
Consider a typical hive with high mite populations in autumn:
• Colony starts with 2000 mites
• Colony is treated with 95% efficacy - 100 mites remain
• The mite population has some genetic diversity
• Some mites breed more rapidly and successfully than
• The following year the colony is predominantly filled
with survivors of the more virulent mites
• More virulent mites are more likely to collapse
colonies without the intervention of treatment.
In short, treating a colony selects for more virulent mites
and prevents or delays a natural parasite-host equilibrium being reached.
In place of a sweeping conclusion . . .
Those reading the original article might be led to the
conclusion that treatment free beekeeping is a pipe-dream;
something unattainable, and that if attempted leads inevitably to disappointment. The reality for the 12,000+
members of our Treatment Free Beekeeping group on Facebook is that we are out there simply getting on with it. Many
of us simply don’t speak up in our local Beekeeping Association meetings because we are met with the hostility and
suspicion. And yet here we are, year after year, in rapidly increasing numbers, with healthy bees and happy beekeepers.
If at this point there are still sceptics out there who simply don’t believe that a treatment free approach is viable on
a larger scale, I’d like to point you towards the beekeepers
of North Wales. In Gwynedd the vast majority of beekeepers stopped treating for varroa over a decade ago. Currently
across the region they have annual loss rates equal to or lower
than that of the treated hives in the remainder of the UK, they
harvest honey and are simply getting on with it. Varroa has
ceased to register as a significant problem for them, instead
they complain about droughts and lack of forage.