A New Wave of Beekeepers
At the corner of Loyola and Lakewood sits Chicago’s Waldorf School, its rust-colored building barely discernible from the other concrete-and-brick structures lining the block. But up past three floors of elementary school classrooms and an old wooden gymnasium lies something seemingly incongruous to the school’s urban environment: a hive of honeybees.
Ashley Gambill, German teacher and head of Waldorf’s Beekeeping Club, pries open the red door with a tapered metal “hive tool”, painted honey-yellow and coated in a thin layer of a sticky substance which Gambill explains is propolis, made from beeswax and saliva. Passing through, we are immediately blinded by the brightness, the midday sun reflecting off the silvery roof of the school. Alone, in the expanse of aluminum foil-like roof sits a wooden box, painted white and barely reaching higher than Gambill’s knees. Though it more closely resembles a file cabinet than an ideal habitat for livestock, this structure can house up to 60,000 bees.
Gambill’s rooftop hive is not unique in its unusual location—recently beekeeping has experienced a revitalization in the form of a new wave of urban beekeepers. In the past five years, the American Bee Federation has grown from 1,150 to 1,481 members, the majority of these new additions falling into the small scale or “backyard beekeeping” category. Alongside this surge in new beekeepers, a divide has emerged within the beekeeping community regarding the problem of mites.
Infestations of Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite, are one of the most common causes of honeybee hive collapse. The ways in which beekeepers react to these mites and other ailments within their hives has become an extremely divisive issue within the contemporary beekeeping community, separating beekeepers into two distinct camps: beekeepers that treat their hives and treatment-free beekeepers.
Treatment-free beekeepers have existed as long as beekeeping itself—beekeeping dates back to the early Neolithic era, while there is no evidence of insecticide use until about 4,500 years later. Today, the use of chemical treatments to maintain hives has become industry standard in commercial beekeeping. However, recently, treatment-free beekeepers have formed a distinct community within the already specialized beekeeping world. With the 2014 creation of Solomon Parker’s Treatment-Free Beekeeping Podcast and a similarly titled Facebook group intended to connect beekeepers who do not treat their hives with over 27,000 members, the rhetoric of treatment-free beekeeping has begun to spread.
“Everyone has their own definition of what ‘treatment-free’ means,” says Dave Pehling, the lead instructor of Snohomish County, Washington’s master beekeeping courses. Though the label of “treatment-free beekeeper” has become a dividing line within the beekeeping world, this designation itself can mean different things to different people. One treatment free beekeeper, Jeremy Idleman, presents the most commonly accepted definition of treatment free: “You don’t put anything into the hive that the bees don’t put in themselves.”
In commercial beekeeping, treating hives is seen as the default. Many beekeepers that treat their hives for mites fear that treatment free beekeepers are putting not only their own individual hives at risk, but creating a much larger problem by affecting all surrounding hives as well. Bees are opportunistic feeders, meaning that when a hive is collapsing due to a mite infestation, other neighboring beekeepers’ healthy bees will raid the failing hives and steal their abandoned honey. The mites left over from the collapsing hive will then attach themselves to these healthy bees and infect their hives, bringing mites into hives that have already been treated and cleared of mites.
Randy Oliver, a beekeeper and biologist, tends to hundreds of hives in Grass Valley, California. A believer in treating his hives, Oliver explains that another concern with treatment-free beekeepers is their bee replacement rate. One common philosophy in the treatment-free world is the “Bond method,” playfully named so in reference to the eighth installment in the James Bond film series, “Live and Let Die.” As the name suggests, those who practice this method let infected hives die out as opposed to intervening with some form of treatment, usually ordering new bees to repopulate their failed hives. This artificial replacement of colonies can be problematic, as it continually reintroduces a new population of bees to the same mite population, allowing the mites to evolve while the bee’s resistance remains static. According to Oliver, in this way ineffective treatment-free beekeepers “simply work against evolution and keep loading the environment with too many colonies of non-resistant bees, and just keep replacing them. As a biologist you cannot design a better program for creating an epizootic.”
The perception that untreated hives are causing the spread of mites to surrounding treated hives, termed the “mite bomb” theory, is at the heart of the conflict between treatment-free beekeepers and those that treat their hives. But many treatment free beekeepers argue that this spread of mites does not necessarily occur. “By no means do I not manage my bees, but I manage them in the principles that natural law dictates,” says Josh Calo, owner of Sol Nectar Farm in Baltimore, Maryland. Calo, like many other self-identified treatment-free beekeepers, does not practice chemical treatments, but will instead closely monitor his hives and apply mechanical methods of mite control as necessary. Not subscribing to the Bond method, if one of his hives is failing Calo will intervene instead of letting the bees all die, physically splitting the colony into two hives or replacing the queen bee of the collapsing hive.
According to Calo, these mechanical methods of caring for one’s hive are effective yet require close attention to individual hives, which is feasible when caring for a few hives but extremely difficult to apply on a larger scale. “The commercial beekeeper as we think about it, they can’t do what they’re doing right now without the chemicals,” says Calo, explaining that treatment free beekeeping functions best with fewer hives to monitor, whereas commercial beekeeping operations are so large that it is nearly impossible to avoid mite infestations without the aid of chemicals.
With the growing number of new backyard beekeepers and the increasing amount of information on both methods of treatment online, it can be difficult for novices to know which method is truly best for them. Though this seemingly simple choice of whether or not to treat one’s hive has become such a polarizing issue, both methods can function effectively—what truly matters is the amount of attention to the bees. Hives can survive with and without treatment, but require vigilant monitoring and care. As Phillip Raines, owner of Raines Honey Farm puts it, “beekeepers need to start thinking very common sense-wise, treating them like livestock as opposed to a bunch of bugs they’re going to throw in a box and not have to worry about.”