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The Treatment Free Plan – Drones

Picture of a Drone Honey Bee

Honey Bee Drone

As often stated in my musings (or are they gibberish’s of a madman?), I decided to go with a treatment-free bee management plan. In today’s environment, many beekeepers use various chemicals to treat or prevent a parasite/disease. There are many threats (both known and unknown) that face today’s honey bees. These threats can wipe out an entire hive in no time. As a new beekeeper, with all of your eggs in one basket, it seems only natural that you are going to do whatever you can to prevent or address these issues to prevent the loss of your only hive. I can also understand why you would be inclined to treat your bees with chemicals if you were a commercial beekeeper where every hive is a means of putting bread on your table. It’s easy to reconcile treatment in these cases.  Even so, I have chosen to go treatment-free.

This is by no means something that I came up with on my own. There are many beekeepers out there who have been doing this for years or have started doing it recently. The underlying belief of the treatment-free strategy is based mostly on the theory of evolution. Basically, you assume that a few queens are born every year with a natural resistance to some, or many, of the threats that face the honey bee today. It is simply a genetic ‘roll of  the dice’, where some bees are born with a greater resistance but most are  born without it. In nature (without any beekeeper intervention), where no treatment is available, the ones born without it perish, while the ones born with it continue to thrive and produce more offspring. The ones with this superior genetic trait go on to produce more bees (and swarms), many of which will also be resistant to the pressures of today’s environment. Although one can call ‘Survival of the Species’ a theory (in truth it is), it is a theory that has passed the test of time. Many treat it like a Fact. Few treat it otherwise (excluding religious thinking.) Under this ‘natural plan’, the weak bee genes are slowly weeded out (they simply do not survive long enough to propagate – cast a swarm). Without any external intervention, one can imagine a ‘new’ bee finally emerging after many years where most of the bees (new queens) are resistant and doing well against the threats of today. They require no meddling by mankind. Unfortunately, we are not in a condition of ‘lack of external intervention.’

Every Spring, a large number of new queens are introduced into the natural system that are more likely to hold the weak genes then the strong. Why? Because many queen breeders still use copious amounts of treatment on their bees. They do not let the weak genes die, using treatment and feed to encourage an otherwise weak pool of genes to be dispersed to the next generation. Just think about it like this – a queen is born to a Queen Breeder with very poor resistance, but she survives because the beekeeper or queen breeder gives her medicine to help her live anyway. She goes on to spawn bees that also have very poor resistance to mites (tracheal and varroa). In addition, the bees do a very poor job of overwintering (perhaps the queen produces bees that require more caloric intake of carbs for each calorie of heat that it emits in Winter – thus requiring more food then the normal bee would require to overwinter.) In nature, this bee is unlikely to  survive long enough to send its genes out into the wild. The hive may die before its first Winter and is very likely to perish in its first Winter.) This is a good thing. It is called ‘Natural Selection’ and it keeps a species strong. But, in a queen-rearing operation, this hive will be treated and copiously fed, preventing the elimination of these weak genes. Indeed, the weak genes are propagated and eventually sent around the nation in the form of virgin queens that the commercial operator sells.

So, every Spring, these Queens arrive to pollute the gene pool of the area they were sent to. A fellow purchases one of these queens (I call them genetic garbage) and sets her up in his yard. A neighboring beekeeper may have gone several years without treatment and feel that he is finally taking those first baby steps towards a superior bee. He has mostly gotten rid of the poor genes, letting his weak hives perish instead of treating or feeding. Then, out of the  blue, he is once again knocked back several years when one of his virgin queens goes out and mates with a Drone from this new colony of genetic trash (that is full of poor genes from a queen that only lives today because of the intervention of man, ironically enough).

The main point to all of these ‘musings’ is that you need to try to control your drone pool to the best of your ability. This can only be done with quality queens (treatment free) nearby that are producing drones. The more drones ‘of good breeding’ that you have around your queens, the less chance that they’ll end up with an inferior breeding. You can never guarantee who your saucy young queen is going to go out and kiss on her maiden flights. But, you can certainly nudge the odds in your favor by making sure you are supplying the region with A LOT of good, solid drones. How do I think one can accomplish this?

  • make sure other local beekeepers buy local queens and nucs (supply them yourself if you can)
  • try to focus your outyards in an area, dropping 1,2 or 6 hives in areas about 2 miles apart (I am very focused on this aspect)
  • be happy when your bees swarm in April, as you have just added to the genetic pool of the feral bees in your area
  • never, ever, ever let genetic trash enter your selection pool through the Drones of an inferior queen

That’s it for now, more soon on other musings of my strategy.

8 comments to The Treatment Free Plan – Drones

  • JP

    Something you’re forgetting about in your “survival of the fittest” strategy: Suppose you have a hive that has certain weaknesses that require treatment for survival, but also have traits that are worthy of genetic distribution. These traits could be anything that a beekeeper finds valuable in a hive, such as gentleness, strong honey production, small hive beetle harassment, clean-up of SHB larvae slime, etc. Assuming your “treatment-free” mantra is mainly aimed at varroa management, if you were to stick to your guns on this issue, you might gain varroa resistance over time, but you would also lose potentially good traits as well. Let’s also not forget that although varroa is the the current boogeyman of the beekeeping industry, it is not the only one, nor will it be the last one. An otherwise well-producing hive that has trouble against varroa, might just have the genetic key to combating tomorrow’s apiary scourge.

  • Max

    The last post has a good point, selective greasing can make a species stronger against a particular threat, but you also have to make sure you keep enough genetic variation for a viable stock, because if you take selective bread to far you can end up with in-breeding.

    I admire your plan, but I’m not sure how much success you will have. I believe there are amny different people/orginasations trying similar approaches.

    One problem is that a queen will fly a good distance fro. A hive with the purpose to avoid drones of her own stock, and find distant drones, who will also fly a good distance to fi d queens. I believe I read that the mating can involve drones from up to 40 miles away, so even though you control your local apiary, and have others 1 mile away, you still won’t dominate the drone supply.

    You are hoping to convince other beekeepers in your area to do the same, and this will help, but the problem is that not usi g treatment is a lot more risky (in the shortnterm), and also probably more work, ie more inspections, more time tryi g to buildup or replace hives.

    The conical guys running hundreds or more hives do t have the time for that much extra effot, nor can they afford to just risk loesing a large number of hives because their genetics aren’t up to it. The hobbiest may not want to risk losing hives when they have so few.

    I realize you are looking at a long term goal, but unfourntally a .ot of people will just be looking at the short term surival of their hives/business.

    We have had verroa in New Zealand for about ten years now. It is slowly travelling down the country. It hasn’t made it to the region I’m in, but we are expecting it this summer, if not then it will be here next summer (we are currently mid-winter).

    Some ofmour scientists had a breeding program set up to try to build up resistance. I read an article about it, and from what I can remember they had a controlled environment, and were using artificial insemination to control who the queens breed with.

    I believe they were quite successful (something like a %80 improvement in verroa control), but once they got to that stage, to make it viable, they wanted the colonies to be able to sustain this rate without them having to impregnate every queen with AI. They placed these colones on an island, a reasonable way ut from the main island to let them continues, but the queens still managed to find and mate with drones from different stock, and the resistance just dropped off.

    This is what I believe will be your main problem, not being able to fullymcontrol what your queens breed with.

    I wish you the best of luck, as it is a hard path, but eventually (one way or another) we really need to increase the gene line with resistance.

    Will be following your b,og with interest.

    New Zealand

  • @JP
    That is spot-on, in my opinion, but only for a genetic mutation. You have pointed out that I did a poor job of being completely clear about the strategy and what it is based on. The ‘genetic traits’ that you mention (both good and bad) are what I consider to be currently existing traits within the genetic pool of the honey bee. They are not genetic mutations that exist in only one queen or hive. Removing any one hive does not eliminate that trait from the collective gene pool (your other queens may have that trait or maybe the drones she mated with had that trait or maybe a feral hive nearby has that trait.) But, you suggest that you should instead select for the good traits (keep any hive with the good traits, even if they have the bad ones.)

    Take for example these traits:
    A. Can’t suvive varoah
    B. Can survive varoah
    C. Strong honey builder
    D. Weak honey builder

    The collection of hives in a given area should have an equal distribution of these traits among them. Some will be AC, some AD, some BC and some BD. I believe the best strategy is to eliminate the AC’s and AD’s. Yes, the AC’s are strong honey producers, but they have the target trait that I am trying to eliminate. Once all of the AC’s and AD’s are removed (it should be noted that without a genetic mutation, it is unlikely that they could ever be totally removed, but they could become a rarity), I can then select for BC’s (or against BD’s.) I still have the strong traits.

    You cannot, however, get to this result by selecting for the positive trait (unless it happens to exist only in genetic circumstances when the negative trait cannot exist.)


    I wish you luck with the coming varroa and am sorry you guys are going to have to go through it at all. Your (well put) comments touch precisely on the only reason I made this post (usually, I entertain my blog readers with the many travesties that I visit on my bees with my various activities!)

    I am hopeful that more and more folks will consider this approach and hope to use this blog to explain why it might make sense. Your points about ‘where the queen may go’ are well taken. To that effect, I am also actively promoting this approach in our local bee clubs and trying to encourage more folks to produce Nuc’s and do so with treatment-free bees.

    It will not happen overnight. But, I have patience.

  • Doug Ladd


    I partially agree with your approach, as you already know. We have the same end point in sight but have different thoughts about getting there. Myself I am not relying on existing stock in the area. Where I live in Buckingham we do have a large feral population as I know where hives are, but a lot of these have been derived from other beekeepers hives (as evident they are Italians and not solid black), some of which may or may not have been exposed to pest like varroa and small hive beetles due to their proximity to people with bees. So who knows what traits they carry… second most of these bees are not largely diversified since most more than likely originated from packages that did well and swarmed.

    So anyway, my process was to select breeders that fit my bill like Purvis Brothers, Zia Queens, VP Queens and others (locally and across the country) to bring into my yard and put through the ringer in central va. I have seen so-so queens and excellent queens out of this as well as many different traits being shown. The weak ones I have culled or they have died. I then of course make splits etc so I then cross breed with the better ones that survive. All this is to create a diversified unrelated pool of bees different from the possibly inbred lines of va bees. But of course still mating with some of those as well. It has been proven time and time again diversity in a hive creates a healthy hive. I don’t do a lot of selection in traits, but access the hives general health, growth, etc and very easily the weak ones can be seen by just doing 30-40 hives inspections in the same day… the keen eye is a great tool as you know. Very quickly you can pick out your best hives and the worst ones without much thought, and then winter will do the rest…

    I do feed heavily when needed, like making splits after the end of may when we don’t have much nectar etc. To expect a bee hive to build and survive without the proper spring nectar flow is setting the hive up for failure. To me as you have stated if you do something unnatural like splitting after the first of may (swarm season) you should expect to feed if needed, of course this all depends on the weather and the flow. If you pull honey I expect to possibly feed if needed. The way I see it, the bees produced surplus honey because they were an excellent hive and during a good year produce excess stores, these stores may not be needed this winter if the winter is good, but during a bad spring and bad winter this surplus will be used. If you remove this good year surplus what will they have during the bad year? Nothing, they will starve without feeding, so if you pulled that honey you OWE the bees their stores back for the bad year. Otherwise you have altered the natural selection method. And thus falsely removed some of your best hives under the thought that they couldn’t make it on their own, when in fact you killed them by removing their stores.

    Of course these are all my ramblings, thoughts, and opinions. I believe you will have successful years and unsuccessful years like everyone else. I don’t believe in the perfect bee, new pest will be and are being introduced all the time just as they have since the bees were brought over in the 1600’s and then the Italians in the late 1800’s. So the bee will be ever stressed, there were mass die offs in the 1800’s, 1900’s and 2000’s all with a NEW pest causing issues. Today’s battle is just with the Varroa Mite… The bee that survives today may be the bee you cull in 10 years… Who knows.

    In the end the uncertainty, lack of knowledge about the bee, and the ever changing threats is what makes this Beekeeping, and is what separates beekeeping from every other hobby or industry.

    Keep up the GREAT post, I enjoy them!

    Doug Ladd

  • @Doug,

    I agree with everything you have written to one degree or another. The need for genetic diversity is real. To add to the genetic pool, beekeepers will have to go outside of their local areas. I will no doubt play with this as time goes on. But, I will do my best to make sure that those queens come from stock that has not been treated (if I can’t get a local queen, I will demand one that comes from untreated stock!) or otherwise nursed along.

    Hope you’re getting some rain – unfortunately, I am not.

  • JP


    I have to respectfully disagree with the traits vs mutation argument. It’s true that all of the subraces of apis mellifera share many of the same traits. The problem is that each of these subraces have these traits in different strengths. An example of this would be the comparison between the European A.M. and the Africanized A.M. that originated with crosses of A.M. scutellata. AHB here in the Americas have had roughly half a century of trait dilution, and they still suffer from strong swarming and defensiveness. Another example would be the Primorski (Russians) that were brought in. Their varroa resistance is far outweighed by their desire to swarm repeatedly through the season. Robert Russell attempted to breed out their swarminess while retaining the better traits, but concluded that the Primorski were not suitable for production colonies, and that most of their resistance to varroa comes from the repeated swarming, not from any particular behavior.

    As for the ABCD comparison, I agree with you whole-heartedly. I forgot to mention that some culling is necessary, and for that confusion I apologize. I think the easiest way of raising the best stock is to cull in the Fall the bottom ten-percent of the traits you value each year. Using this strategy, along with Mike Palmer’s advice of “take your loses in the Autumn” by breaking up weak colonies in the Fall for over-wintering nucs, I believe is a better strategy than the “let ’em die” plan I keep hearing over and over.

  • Doug Ladd

    i dont believe in the let them die plan intentionally, its a waste of resources and hard work. Why not treat the old queen and colony as needed and after treatment requeen it with a daughter from your best untreated colonies… this way you keep the resources to help further your venture while remmoving the unwanted traits and requeening with better stock.

    I have Russians from Charlie Harper right now since April in 7 colonies and have yet to see the “issues” folks talk about, they are reducing their brood nest mroe so than others, but so far i have been very pleased with them with no issues. I wonder if some of those swarmy russian may not be mated with AHB drones?? maybe a bad cross that brings out the worst in the Russians??… who knows but i dont see it in my yard…

  • I definitely did not mean to suggest that everyone should just let all of their poor hives die. In fact, I would argue that they should be proactive and get rid of (or reduce) their ability to pass their genes on (you do not want those Drones mating and setting your local population back). I am definitely a fan of M. Palmer’s strategy ( http://beekeeping.varinagardens.com/summer/overwintering-nucs.html ) and believe it is a great way to deal with under-performers.

    I have real doubts that you can ever ‘breed out’ a trait that has been crucial to a species’ (or sub-species’) survival (again without a freak mutation – and that has nothing to do with breeding genetically). But, that’s a topic for another kind of blog…

    But, I was really only trying to communicate my belief in ‘local bees & queens’ as opposed to packages and queens of questionable origin. My reasoning is clearly in question, judging by the comments, so it is clearly not mainstream. But, that might be the very reason to give it real consideration.

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