How long would an operation have to be treatment free before one could call it a success?
What's your opinion?
My vote is 5 years.
Measuring "success" is more difficult. I've seen no studies where there was a control group and TF group in the same yard to measure honey production. Probably one of the reasons this topic is debated so often.
Define success, it's a beekeeping style. Isn't it?
What would a control group be in a TF study, another set of hives that one treats?
I define success as not treating without loss of honey production.
Yes, a control group would be treated, the TF group would not be, they would both be in the same apiary with the same bees and managed exactly the same in every other way. It's the only scientific method of direct measurement.
Just to add to this, I recently spoke with a beekeeper who's had a hive for 2 years. He's not treated, but has also harvested no honey. Was he a success?
What was his goal? Did he reach it or maintain his goal? Does he consider himself a success?
He wishes he could have harvested honey and called me for advice.
We all know there are bee-havers and bee-keepers. Bee-havers may be considered success stories in their own minds, but in a forum like this where bee-Keepers gather, I assume we all agree that having a box to watch bees fly in and out with no gain is not success.
Success needs to be defined in other ways. Generally it's in the mind of the bee owner. But how's this for an idea. I have some treated hives, and some untreated hives. I expect my untreated hives to be less productive, because they have other issues to deal with. But, I'm not spending NZ$25.00 per year treating them, which is what a typical NZ beekeeper spends on treating a hive annually. So, if my untreated bees make $25.00 less honey than the treated ones, I come out square, it's a success. In fact, the $25.00 less honey would also save me on processing time and some equipment, so I may be able to make just as much money from an untreated hive if it made, say, NZ$30.00 less honey.
However, I'm new to this treatment free thing, for now, I'm just hoping they will survive, and in a way, that would be success. But if they survived but produced nothing, that would not be a tenable position, I need to make money.
"Thinking Inside The Box"
I recently attended the Virginia State Beekeepers meeting. A professor from Penn State (Nancy Ostiguy) gave a talk on her participation in a multiple university study. About 6-10 universities across the US bought packages from the same supplier, and then queens from another supplier. Both have good reputations, they did not name them. Installed them and left them alone as far a treatments.
Penn State hives died in one year. All others died within 2 years.
A TF operation is successful as long as it's still going (subject to others' comments about how to define "success"). If you go treatment free for 4 years, and you still have bees, you are a success in year 4. If all your bees die in year 5, you are not a success in year 5, but that doesn't take away your success in year 4.
The same holds true if you were doing it for 20, 50, or 100 years. If you can keep bees treatment free for 20 years, and you still have bees and are still hitting your goals, you are successful. If in year 21 a new mite presents itself (or a new virus, bacteria, or even an older disease that hadn't appeared in your apiary in the numbers it now is at) and 100% of your colonies die, you are no longer a success. Your "failure" occurred in year 21, but that doesn't mean you weren't a success in year 20.
"You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
At least my two cents.
Well, of course there's the question of the definition of 'success', and I guess that is valid. Something tells me that a number for the newer beekeepers who claim treatment-free success might not feel so successful if they had more experience. What I mean by that is that, as your experience grows, you get a clearer sense of colony health, queen health etc., and with that experience, you realize that your definition of "success" changes with it.
In my first year with bees, everything about those bees seemed amazing. I raved about the quality of the nucs I got, etc. etc. The queens seemed "great", blah, blah, blah. And from my experience to that point, that was true.
Over time, I got to know a couple of other beekeepers in my area. Then I got a chance to look through some of their hives. Then I got some queens from another source and the first time I took out a brood frame from one of those new queens, WHAM!! My definition of "success" changed instantly. I had never seen a comb so jammed with brood. So one's experience is certainly part of it, and could be a part of why reports on the successes of failures of treatment free vary as much as they do.
I'm trying treatment free at the moment, in that I am not doing anything specifically to combat mites. Success for me will be measured in how they fare, relative to when I was combating mites.
Oldtimer makes a good point in measuring his success in a holistic sense and including what he's not spending on treatments in the equation. Of the two other beekeepers that I know well in my area, one of them lost over 40%, and the other lost over 20%. Is that a failure of their management practices or a tough year? The guy who lost 20% could be looked at as more 'successful' than the guy who lost 40%, but I know he wasn't very happy - particularly since we had a day that was record-shattering 85F in March...
For me, the performance of operations around me also have to come into the analysis.
Maybe I'm simplistic, but because of weather and other environmental factors, for me (and I'm not saying this is the way it should be for you) success is:
1. In a bad year, the bees survive, even if I have to feed them to ensure their survival due to drought or whatever.
2. In a good year, the bees survive, and I harvest the state average.
3. In a wonderful year, the bees survive, and I get the best or one of the best harvests I've ever had.
Now, in any given year, I'll have 5-10% loss, but I make it up by splits. I like to keep my hive count about the same, year to year. It is a given some hives just won'lt make it, so I look at the total number I have. fwiw
"If all you have is a hammer, the whole world is a nail." - A.H. Maslow
I'm a treatment-free beekeeper now in my second year. I closed out my first year successfully over-wintering both of my hives. Right now, I personally define success as overwintering one or some of your hives, getting some honey and continuing to learn new and amazing things about the bees. I harvested my first batch of honey this spring, 70 pounds from the hive that had the highest mite count (204 in 24 hours). I think Adam's right, though ... "success" will change as your experience level changes throughout the years, too. Whatever you do, enjoy the journey.
I think it would also be instructive to compare winter losses for treated hives vs tf hives in the same area. I have heard that commercial beekeepers expect 30% losses every year. If I am treatment free and my losses are less than that in any given year, does that mean I am successful as a treatment free beekeeper?
What a fantastic question.
Whatever the answers, I think it recognizes a significant point: The issue of delayed feedback.
Given the amount of variables at play, it would be difficult to give a definite answer.
For myself, I'd want to know that someone had good winter survival for at least two winters after going TF - Only then would I be curious to find out more details, such as their survival rate, and where in the TF spectrum their practice lies.
Adam, it's just too much of a subjective question. It seems to me you could define failure better. I define it as having lost all your hives.
I'll tell you what:
If my bees are still seeming strong two years from now, I'm going to feel successful.
It seems to me that mites run an annual cycle, just like the bees. Once you get through a complete couple of seasons, I'd call that successful. Why would you need to go longer than that?
Well, you wouldn't stop, would you?
It's not over till its over. Saying you "had a successful life" means that your life is over. You can still fail in the last day.