Keeping Bees Alive and Healthy – Proactive or Reactive Management?

In the American dictionary the definition of health is “ the state of being free from illness or injury”. For the sake of discussion in this column I want to establish that managing health and treating for illness as two different aspects of management. There is a difference between treating illness and optimizing health. When a treatment of some kind is required it indicates an unhealthy condition. Treating is a reactionary management after an illness or pest has been detected. In managing health there are specific things we can do to maintain health and prevent illness, which is the proactive management of health. Reactive or proactive is not a right or wrong thing. In today’s beekeeping it is imperative to understand about and always be on alert for aliments that are or might affect our colonies and manage our hives appropriately. We can be proactive, applying a concept of working on creating conditions to enhance health before there is an indication sickness. That being said, let me confuse the issue. There is also a gray area called ”preventive maintenance treatment”. An example of that is a treatment for Varroa mites before the mites reach a critical level. I equate this management to humans receiving flu vaccine shots. Technically it’s a treatment, but a proactive treatment of a healthy organism to maintain health. In Alternative beekeeping there is a management concept that- if given the chance, the bees themselves can be both proactive and reactive in their own colony’s health. Michael Bush puts it very well in his book- “The Practical Beekeeper” when he says, “Give them the resources to resolve the problem and let them. If you can’t give them the resources, then limit the need for the resources”. An example he gives for giving resources and letting them resolve the problem is a queen-less hive. Give the colony a frame of brood once a week for 3 weeks and they will resolve the problem by making their own new queen. An example of limiting resources is one we all know- how we help the bees resolve the problem of hive robbing for themselves. We reduce or limit the size of one of their resources, the entrance.

In my opinion;
The strongest proactive form of maintaining Alternative healthy bees is starting with the strongest, healthiest bees we can. There is a growing realization that much of what we try to do as keepers to keep bees healthy and alive is exacerbated by poor or weak genetics, commercially narrowed gene pool, relocated genetics, (southern queens born and bred in the south and shipped to northern states). Starting with the strongest stock we can obtain helps immensely in keeping bees using Alternative methods of management.

In colonies started with a package- replace the package queen as soon as possible with a regional queen. There are some methods of breeding your own queen on a small scale. I find it far more convenient to purchase my regional queens from local breeders. We have some good queen breeders here in Western Washington state.

Catch swarms. There is no guarantee that the swarm you are catching isn’t someone else’s commercial genetics hive that swarmed. However the odds are far better that a swarm has stronger genetics than a package.

I do catch some grief from beekeepers when I talk about this last subject. Don’t worry if your colony swarms. I’m not saying “try” to get them to swarm, just don’t think it is a bad thing. Realize that it’s the colony’s proactive method of a healthy hive. Many of the aliments of the hive are brood related. The temporary reduction and lack of brood during the swarming period helps control these issues. Also the new virgin queen in your hive will breed with local drones and become your first generation regionally bred queen.

“It’s all about the bees” Ernie

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Ernie Schmidt

Together we are about to start down the path of Alternative Beekeeping. Each month I will discuss and share the joys, methods, philosophies, and realities of keeping bees in Top Bars and Warres, along with other different and unique hive styles and methods. There will be times I get straight to the point and other times I will meander about, but always remember - "It’s all about the bees"

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