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  1. #1
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    Question Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    I am of the opinion that it is very difficult to sustain a treatment free apiary unless you have enough colonies to recover from losses. If you're treating, I think you can sustain an apiary with as few as a handful of hives, but my experience so far tells me that to be able to maintain a treatment free apiary without having to buy bees every year, you have quite a few more than that.

    What are your thoughts on this? Does buying from an established treatment free beekeeper change the picture?

    How many hives do you need in order to create a sustainable apiary of treatment free bees?

    Adam

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    At first I thought 5. Then I was thinking 10. Now I am thinking 20, say 10 full colonies and 10 nucs. This is based on very little experience, but from reading here, Dee Lusby's group and the Michael and Kirk's sites. I would think stock and local climate have to be factors. It is going to take more colonies in Ontario than in Tennessee and more colonies when starting with treated stock than with stock already living treatment free somewhere.

    I am interested to hear what some of the more experienced TF beeks have to say.
    Adam - Zone 5A
    www.adamshoney.com

  3. #3
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Its a very interesting question. which the answer too seems to be ridiculous..... How many to keep because we know there going to die??? That seems to me to be accepting defeat, and offering bees upon the alter of the treatment free gods.....

    Shouldn't the answer bee the same as any other beekeeper would want in their yards?? Seems to me the real questions, are what and where can I get the genetics and the plan I need to succeed??? doing things like splitting off nucs to cull mites , may not pass some test of treatment free, but they sure would mine....
    The concept of just getting enough bees and letting them die off and hope that a few don't is my idea of crazy.......

    That said, normal die off at 30% add that to what you hope your final total is.

  4. #4
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by gmcharlie View Post
    Its a very interesting question. which the answer too seems to be ridiculous..... How many to keep because we know there going to die???...
    The concept of just getting enough bees and letting them die off and hope that a few don't is my idea of crazy...
    That would be crazy, except that's not what I'm suggesting.

    It doesn't actually work out that way. You're not figuring a number "because we know they're going to die", we're figuring a number knowing that they could die. It's essentially the same as any other apiary. As you say "normal die off" might be 30% - so we're trying to figure out what might be "normal" for a treatment free operation.

    In my case, I had a 27% winter loss, but my colonies were weaker coming out of winter. So maybe I need some extra to be able to combine, or strengthen or whatever. We also had a terrible Spring, so who knows how much that had to do with things...

    So it may be that a treatment free operation has a normal annual loss rate of 40% or 50%, but I really doubt that it's any more than that. Once you know a general number, you can plan like anyone else can.

    Of course, it's all a bit imperfect, as it is agriculture, and weather and region plays a big role - but that's beekeeping for everyone - treatments or not.

    Adam

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Hopefully after a few years a person might have some stock that would be adapted to local conditions.

  6. #6
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    I have been treatment free for years using non-resistant bees, and I had about a 65% loss last winter, all due to heavy mite loads. The ones that made it through alive were very weak, and have not built up to peak strength until now, halfway throught the main flow. I cannot continue to experience that high percentage loss in my sideline business any more, that is why I am going to treat with something this fall and hopefully get a much better survival rate. I know I didn't really answer your question, but imo after being through what I have been through over the years with no treatments, I have to say that if you are just playing around with bees and have a deep pocketbook, you can go treatment free, but if you are serious about making some money with bees, you probably should be treating with something to at least try to avoid substantial losses. John

  7. #7
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    I find it a little hard to understand the idea of bees as animals to be cared for in the same sense as other livestock. I'm fond of my bees, but really, they're wild animals which have a very tenuous emotional connection to me as a primate. I'm a science fiction writer, and one of the reason I find the bees so fascinating is that they seem like alien creatures to me. Having a bee hive turns out to be a lot like having a box full of tiny stinging Martians.

    Bees are not long-lived creatures in any case-- in summer, a few weeks is it. They're going to die pretty soon, no matter what you do. Even if you treat, you're going to have a lot of colonies die-- didn't gmcharlie just quote a rate of 30 percent? That's not a whole lot better than the die off of untreated colonies, according to the BeeInformed survey:

    On average, U.S. beekeepers lost 45.1% of the colonies in their operation during the
    winter of 2012/2013.
    If you look at the breakdown by management philosophy, treatment free beekeepers-- those who use no non-bee derived products in their hives-- had mean losses of 33.6%. Beekeepers who were willing to use anything had losses of 35.7%.

    I'm just not getting this "it's cruel to let weak bees die" point of view. Almost anything you use to treat for mites and other problems is going to negatively affect the colony's quality of life, and prolongs the process of developing bees that can co-exist with the parasites. People can do this; it's a demonstrated fact. Why not do it?

  8. #8
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by gmcharlie View Post
    That said, normal die off at 30% add that to what you hope your final total is.
    This makes the most sense. Find the percentage that works in your area and buffer for bad luck. The luck can play a big factor when you have fewer than 10 colonies.
    Adam - Zone 5A
    www.adamshoney.com

  9. #9
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by rhaldridge View Post
    Almost anything you use to treat for mites and other problems is going to negatively affect the colony's quality of life, and prolongs the process of developing bees that can co-exist with the parasites.
    I used to think the exact same thing, but its come down to either giving up beekeeping as a sideline business or treating. It was a no-brainer for me, I want to keep bees so I have to give treating a try. Its not what I believe is best for the bees, or for possibly developing a bee that can live with varroa and still have a better than 50% chance of wintering well. If I could have only had 35% winter loss I would not be talking about treating, rather I would be wintering whatever number of hives it took to give me a couple hundred live healthy hives come spring after you subtract the winter losses. John

  10. #10
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    jackson county, alabama, usa
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    i have room for 12 hives in my home yard, and my goal is to have them strong and capable of honey production.

    last year i caught six swarms and located them at an outyard.

    i lost six hives between both yards over the winter, so the extra six allowed me to start spring with a full compliment of 12 at home.

    i caught more swarms and reared some queens this year, so i'll be going into winter with 12 at home and 15 five frame nucs at the outyard.

    i can only attribute one of my losses last winter to mite overload, the other five appeared to be from queen failure. i feel that having the nucs will allow me to requeen any of the production hives if needed in late winter/early spring which is before queens are locally available.

    any surplus nucs will be sold and i'll start the process again. time will tell, but i think this plan will make my sideline operation sustainable and allow for growth when i retire from the day job and have more time for bees.
    journaling the growth of a treatment free apiary started in 2010. 20+/- hives

  11. #11
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by jmgi View Post
    I have been treatment free for years using non-resistant bees, and I had about a 65% loss last winter, all due to heavy mite loads. The ones that made it through alive were very weak, and have not built up to peak strength until now, halfway throught the main flow. I cannot continue to experience that high percentage loss in my sideline business any more, that is why I am going to treat with something this fall and hopefully get a much better survival rate. I know I didn't really answer your question, but imo after being through what I have been through over the years with no treatments, I have to say that if you are just playing around with bees and have a deep pocketbook, you can go treatment free, but if you are serious about making some money with bees, you probably should be treating with something to at least try to avoid substantial losses. John
    What were your losses like in the years before? Why not resistant stock?
    Adam - Zone 5A
    www.adamshoney.com

  12. #12
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by squarepeg View Post
    i can only attribute one of my losses last winter to mite overload, the other five appeared to be from queen failure.
    Any thoughts on the cause of queen failure? Age?
    Adam - Zone 5A
    www.adamshoney.com

  13. #13
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    squarepeg, only 1 hive lost to mites out of 18 over winter is real good for no treatment imo. John

  14. #14
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    zhiv9, losses two years ago were similar. Did have one year in between that was better. I tried a large group of vsh bees last year, it didn't help. John

  15. #15
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by jmgi View Post
    zhiv9, losses two years ago were similar. Did have one year in between that was better. I tried a large group of vsh bees last year, it didn't help. John
    That's too bad the percentages were so high and didn't improve. It does line up climate-wise. Losses in this area were high this year, low last year and high the year before.

    Is there are lot of corn in your area?
    Adam - Zone 5A
    www.adamshoney.com

  16. #16
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Adam, I had no disrespct intended, I think you understood that,, just trying to provoke some thoughts. I attempt to be treatment free, but I am by no means a purist. I do brood breaks to control mites. (I find that seems to be the only reliable method survivors use also) so for me the right answer is a fall check, and treat as needed... treatment being brood breaks, or last year it was so bad I did use MQS on several hives....... That allowed me to have good and normal winter survival, and keep my "treatment free" breeders going just fine. those are used this year as breeder hives, but of course they got a brood break when they were installed, so it will be a while before I know how they faired.

    I did notice that both this year and last, at some point in the season, all brood rearing stopped in my treatment free hives. What i don't know because i don't mark queens, is why.....

    My point being that if your going to ignore the issues, and just hope and pray, you can't even begin to guess how many you will need to stay at a level number.

  17. #17
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by jmgi View Post
    zhiv9, losses two years ago were similar. Did have one year in between that was better. I tried a large group of vsh bees last year, it didn't help. John
    Have you looked for local treatment-free stock? I'm getting a nuc up in NY from a treatment free beekeeper who had about 25% losses over last winter, which I think is not bad, and can be sustained from in-apiary stock. I'm also thinking about making up a BeeWeaver nuc to take north. A fair number of successful treatment free beekeepers seem to make increase from swarms as well.

    I think you have to assume that you might have to try a lot of different bees before you find a batch that does well in your setting. This may be one of the major reasons why some folks succeed and some folks fail at avoiding treatment. I'll end the year with bees from 4 different suppliers, 5 if I get a BeeWeaver queen.

  18. #18
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    It would be interesting to know if there are beeks out there who run over 100 colonies treatment free year over year? I hope I'm wrong, but I can't imagine it, well ok, Michael Bush does it that I know of. I'm thinking the number has to be very low. John

  19. #19
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    I am completely treatment free other than I do use screened bottom boards. I got back into beekeeping in March of 2009, purchasing 2 colonies, 1 of which I believe was Africanized [ahb]. I split and requeened the Ahb and later also the other colony. These purchased colonies were standard or large cell. I regressed all of my colonies and splits to small cell within a few months.

    I went into winter last year with 9 colonies and this spring I had 9 although 1 was queenless but they were able to make a queen from eggs from another colony. I sold 1- 3 medium and 19 - 2 medium colonies this year. I currently have 4 left and plan to split again by this fall to enter winter with at least 8 and maybe 12-16 colonies.

    I sold 5- 2 deep colonies during 2011, and during 2012 I sold 10 colonies, a mixture of deeps and mediums. All of those colonies have survived as far as I know except 1. Can't say about the 20 I sold this year since most of those went out of town.

    I moved 16 colonies last year to cotton. When I brought them home first of September 2012, all were very weak with low populations and I had 3 or 4 that were dead. I was only able to nurse 9 to be ready for the winter, but all of those survived the 2012/2013 winter.

    Hope this gives you a general idea of the question that you proposed.

    Kindest Regards
    Danny Unger
    "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." Nathan Hale, 1776

  20. #20
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    Default Re: Sustaining Treatment Free - How Many Colonies Do You Need?

    Quote Originally Posted by jmgi View Post
    It would be interesting to know if there are beeks out there who run over 100 colonies treatment free year over year? I hope I'm wrong, but I can't imagine it, well ok, Michael Bush does it that I know of. I'm thinking the number has to be very low. John
    There's a fairly acrimonious thread over on the commercial forum on this very subject, something like "Are there any treatment free commercial beekeepers?"

    Short answer: Yes.

    Long answer: hundreds of posts.

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