What do you mean by chemical free?
Chemical free means that I don’t use synthetic chemicals such as antibiotics, fungicides and miticides to treat or prevent disease and parasites. In the past I was completely treatment free hoping that the bees would develop resistance over time to the ravages or the dreaded Varroa mites. Unfortunately loses over the last few years have been so excessive that I have bowed to the pressure and am now treating my hives with Organic approved formic acid when the mite level gets so high as to threaten the hive.
Isn’t that the same as organic honey?
Close, but not exactly. Bees can travel up to 5 miles. To be organic, you must be sure that there are no chemicals within a 5-mile radius that the bees may come in contact with and bring home to the hive. Since I can’t control what happens in the 5-mile radius, all I can do is control what I put into the hive. It is true that contamination can be carried home to the hives by the bees, but much of the contamination in the hives today is caused by the beekeepers themselves fighting disease and parasites. At least I can prevent beekeeper-sourced contamination.
What do you put in your hives?
- The beehive boxes are made of pine, the tops and bottoms are made of cedar or plywood. The frame that surrounds the comb is pine.
- Much of my older comb is 100% beeswax. Starting three years ago I stopped using commercially available beeswax foundation within the movable frame as a guide for the bees to build their comb. Now I use food grade plastic foundation coated with beeswax from my own hives. I would prefer to use 100% beeswax foundation but now almost all of the commercially available beeswax is contaminated with low levels of the miticides fluvalinate and coumaphos (used by most beekeepers to control Varroa destructor). Food grade plastic coated with my own bees wax is the best alternative to keep my hives chemical free. The picture to the right shows a sheet of plastic foundation that the bees are starting to build their comb on.
- I feed some table sugar to hives if necessary. The sugar is desolved in water and supplied when there is not honey to keep the hive alive.
- I feed protein supplement to weak hives if necessary. The protein is supplied as food for brood to strengthen hives when pollen is not available. It is made up mostly of brewers yeast, bee pollen that I collect during the summer, soy powder with other nutrients much like a sports power bar.
- I use smoke if necessary when opening the hives to calm the bees. I usually burn pine shavings in my smoker.
- I treat with Formic Acid in the form of MiteAway quick strips when the Mite level gets too high. The acid fumes are hard on the bees too but kills the mites and the bees are able to recover within a couple weeks. Formic acid is already naturally present in honey and the increased level that may occur from treatment is negligible which is why it is approved as an organic treatment.
What do other beekeepers put in their hives, and why?
Honeybees can suffer from a number of bacterial diseases, viral diseases, fugal diseases, and parasites. With the discovery of antibiotics and chemicals that can kill or limit the spread of these disease causing organisms and parasites, beekeepers started to use these chemicals to help their hives survive them. The government prohibits the use of unapproved chemicals, and allows approved chemical use only as labeled in an effort to prevent the contamination of honey, most beekeepers follow these laws. Many of the chemicals used to prevent and treat various diseases have been used for many years, and the disease causing organisms are becoming resistant to the chemicals. This resistance has lead to heavier doses and the use of more toxic and difficult to use chemicals. With rapid global transportation, bee diseases and parasites that were once limited to one specific region of the world, and in some cases one specific species of bee, are being spread across much of the world. When these new diseases first arrive to a new region, they devastate the bee populations because the resident bees have no natural resistance. Just as the native peoples of the new world were wracked by disease when Europeans first came to the new world, the honeybees are devastated when one of these new diseases arrives. At least four new honeybee diseases have arrived in the United States since 1984. Each time a new disease arrives, the commercial beekeepers struggle to survive with the use of more and or new chemicals to fight off the diseases. I believe that this treadmill of using more and new chemicals to keep beehives alive is self defeating and introduces unhealthy contaminates to honey, bees wax and other hive products. Below is a list of some of the bee diseases and the chemicals many beekeepers use to treat them.
Honeybee diseases and the chemicals used to treat them.
Acarine (Tracial) mites: Arrived in the USA 1984, believed to have killed over 90 percent of feral hives in some regions when it first arrived. The main chemical treatment has been with grease patties, menthol, formic acid or thymol. See treating colonies for tracheal mite infestation
Varroa Destructor: Evolved from Varroa Jacobsoni, a mite parasite that is relatively benign to its original host Apis Cerana, an Asian honey bee. The Varroa Jacobsoni crossed over to the European honey bee in the early 1900s and evolved into the very destructive Varroa Destructor. Arrived in the USA in 1987. Current legal treatments are fluvalinate, coumaphos, thymol, oxalic acid, and formic acid. Illegal treatments are numerous. This mite is the worst problem facing beekeepers today, in addition to the problems it causes by itself it is a major vector for many of the new viruses that have spread across the world. See Treating colonies for varroa mite infestations
Small Hive Beetle (Aetina tumida): Native to the South African, they inhabit almost all hives of the South African native honeybee (Apis sp.) and are considered a minor nuisance there. They arrived in Florida in 1999 and are considered a major problem in some hives. Treatment is trapping and coumaphos. See Small hive beetle in California
Nosema ceranae: A fungus that lives in the bee gut. Nosema apis, closely related to Nosema ceranae, has been in the US honeybee for many years and has generally been considered a minor to moderate problem depending on the season. Nosema ceranae is believed to have crossed over to the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) from the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana), is thought to have arrived in the USA around 1996. Nosema ceranae has supplanted Nosema apis in many regions and is much more of a problem. Some people think it is a major contributor to colony collapse disorder. The only treatment is with Fumagillin, which does not kill the fungus but inhibits its reproduction by inhibiting RNA synthesis. See Diagnosing and treating nosema disease
American Foulbrood: A highly contagious bacterial disease of the brood larvae. Treatments are generally prophylactic antibiotic treatments with Oxytetracycline hydrochloride (sold under the trade name Terramycin). See dealing with American foulbrood
European foulbrood: A bacterial disease of the brood caused by the bacterium Melissococcus plutonius. Chemical treatment is with Oxytetracycline hydrochloride (sold under the trade name Terramycin) See European foulbrood: A bacterial disease affecting honey bee brood
Wax Moth: The moth larval stage eats old honeycomb causing damage in weak hives and stored honeycomb. Chemical treatments are aluminum phosphide and Para dichlorobenzene See Wax Moth Control