For several years now, I have held the position that consistent treatment or the fighting of mites interferes with the natural ability of the bee to adjust, and that I - not depending on bees for income - should do my part to let the bees do their natural adjusting without my interference.
I have made no claims to "success", as I feel that I have not subjected my bees to the rigors of honey production and have been more focused on raising bees in smaller colonies as a hobbyist. A new beekeeper recently asked me about being Treatment Free, and about my feelings on the debate. As I started to answer, I realized that I have a philosophical problem to resolve. I thought it might be interesting to share my thoughts with you at this point, in order to contribute to the general discussion.
To help you see where I'm coming from personally, I will state my basic stances on a couple of things:
1 - I reject the term "Natural Beekeeping". I think it's misleading, divisive and polarizing within the beekeeping community, and a contradiction in terms. Nothing about people manipulating honey bee colonies is 'natural' from the bee standpoint. There is no major hive type which is inherently "more natural". If you want to keep bees 'naturally', then prepare a swarm box according to their preferred specifications (See Tom D. Seeley's research) and when bees move in, leave them alone.
2 - I believe that the bee too complex to be 'known' by anyone in a complete sense, and that we are all continually learning. The problems currently facing the bees (and humanity) are extremely complex, and we all stand to gain from sharing the many many perspectives that contribute to the world-wide discussion.
3 - For my own approach to a beekeeping philosophy, I find the term 'minimalist' suits it best. Not in that I want to 'do less', but that I try to achieve my goals with bees using the fewest possible manipulations that mean pushing the bees to things they would not do on their own, and working to best align my own goals with theirs. I try to be minimal in my use of foundations, minimize feeding, etc etc. I understand that this a choice, and is not inherently 'right'. It's just what I choose to do. The bees know what they're doing, and I try not to get in there way.
Now this fourth and final point is key:
4 - For every manipulation I make which is outside the bee's 'nature', I accept that I have a responsibility to counter that manipulation with some countermeasure to resolve any problem that manipulation may cause the bee through no fault (genetic or otherwise) of her own. So for example, if I split a colony and repeatedly reduce it's size and resources, I may need to feed to help them recover from the lack of resources they would not have faced had I left them alone - that sort of thing.
And herein lies the problem.
Up to this point, I have been managing bees in relatively small colonies. I've been splitting, wintering nucs, doing cut-outs, catching swarms, etc. But now I am beginning to look at managing some hive for honey production, and this is a place where my needs will contradict the natural processes and intentions of the bee, and my approach to point #4 is challenged accordingly.
Left alone, the colony would inhabit a smaller, finite space and if they winter strong, they would normally swarm once or twice throughout the summer months, breaking the brood cycle of mites, would keep their numbers fairly low and would build only as much food and size as necessary to carry them through winter. They'd deal with mites along the way in their own manner (perhaps they'd groom, remove or directly attack mites, etc.) and the strength of that colony would determine the number and strength of the drones and queens they produce, and they would contribute in their own measure to the genetic diversity of the bees as a whole in the area.
But if I'm managing them for honey production, I will not allow them to live in that way. In this case, I will attempt to dissuade them from swarming and manage them to encourage a single, large colony in each hive. I will expand the cavity they live within to accommodate an enormous population (the bigger the better), and I will do everything I can to avoid any brood breaks. At the end of the season, (if following typical practice) I will remove all honey beyond the weight they will require to winter, and condense the space so that the bees are reduced again to a smaller cavity, with a large population. Along with this contraction, an increased mite population - caused largely by my 'unnatural' interference - will be present and weakening the colony accordingly.
In short, my manipulations will have eliminated a major element in in the bee's handling of her parasite through swarming, and I will have caused an unnaturally large mite population through the adding of space, and then (if I stay treatment free) will have denied her any assistance in recovering from my interference.
So I ask you:
Are we asking too much of the bee to adjust to mites on her own 'naturally' while at the same time shouldering the weight of our continued manipulations and 'unnatural' demands of her to produce amid a plethora of other human-made alterations to her natural environment?
This, to me, is the central question as it relates to being treatment free or not. Up until yesterday, I felt comfortable in my view. If you have the time and energy after reading all of this, I'd be interested in hearing your opinion from where you sit.