Beekeeping For Dummies, 5th Edition
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In recent years, because of all the problems that bees have been facing, it has become prudent to take a fresh look at historical approaches to caring for and medicating your bees.

Are treatments being overused? Probably. Are less-experienced beekeepers simply misusing these products to the detriment of our bees? Likely. Should you routinely medicate bees as so many traditional beekeeping books of the past recommend? Doubtful. Or should you embrace a more natural approach with little or no use of medications or chemicals? I recommend it.

beekeeping approaches © ddisq / Shutterstock.com

Clearly, many choices are out there. This is a hot topic, and you will hear passionate arguments for and against the various possible options for various treatments. To decide which is right for you, it’s first helpful to define each of the new approaches that are being discussed in today’s world of beekeeping.

As a new beekeeper, you need to decide which approach or combination of approaches makes the most sense to you. Pick an approach and stick to it until you find a better one. And be aware that if you ask 10 beekeepers which is best, you will likely get 10 different answers.

Medicated beekeeping

Medicated beekeeping is a term intended to represent the “traditional” approach to honey-bee health that has been touted for decades in many of the books on beekeeping. Indeed, for generations, beekeepers were advised to follow an established yearly protocol of medications and chemical treatments as part of the yearly routine.

As bees faced more and more health issues, more and more chemical options came to market intended to help bees thrive. Many of these meds were administered prophylactically by well-intended beekeepers, just in case the bees might get ill — not because they needed it. I have no doubt that over time, with the growth of new hobbyist beekeepers, the increase in bee health problems, a plethora of new medications, and the possible overuse or misuse of these meds, the traditional ways outlined in so many early books will need to be rethought.

Natural beekeeping

If you check the internet, you’ll find many opinions on what constitutes a natural approach to keeping bees. There is no universal definition. Natural beekeeping is more of an aspiration than an official set of rules. But still it’s helpful to have a shorthand description that captures the goal of natural beekeeping. So, I went to the expert. I asked Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping, Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture (Chelsea Green Publishing), to share his definition:
“When working on my book, my publisher and I settled on the title Natural Beekeeping. In retrospect, I realize that the term natural beekeeping is an oxymoron. A colony of bees that is manipulated by a person is no longer in its true, natural state. That said, the term natural beekeeping is used to refer to honey bee stewardship that addresses pest, disease, and potential starvation issues without relying on synthetic pesticides, antibiotic drugs, or the regular use of an artificial diet.”
Ross went on to tell me, “Natural beekeeping does not necessarily mean minimal manipulations and it definitely does not mean minimal hive inspections (as some have defined the term). If you are not regularly inspecting your colonies, you are unable to determine their needs, and you will be unable to take timely steps to keep your colonies viable. Minimal or no hive inspections is honey bee neglect, not natural bee stewardship.”

Organic beekeeping

Organic beekeeping is related to, but not the same as, natural beekeeping. There are a lot of written criteria available on what constitutes organic beekeeping. This material is currently being developed in minutiae for publication by various branches of the U.S. government and will ultimately be published as United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards to govern the production of organic honey and honey-related products.

Under proposed guidelines, the use of some medications and chemical treatments is likely to be okay. To run a certified organic beekeeping operation, be prepared to take on a lot of work and make a sobering investment. Not too practical for the average backyard beekeeper. For the latest status of the new organic beekeeping regulations (known as Organic Apiculture Practice Standard, NOP-12-0063), visit the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

Combining beekeeping approaches

Okay. Here’s my take on all of this. I don’t personally follow any one of the medicated, natural, or organic approaches exclusively. In my view, there are no absolutes. I have no need to be certified as organic, so I choose not to go down that path. Generally speaking, I do not use chemicals “just in case” I may have a problem with pests. Nor do I typically medicate my bees as a preventive measure, but only when absolutely necessary, and only when other nonchemical options have not been effective.

The same is true at home. I certainly don’t take antibiotics whenever I feel sick or if I think I might get sick. But rest assured, if I came down with bacterial pneumonia, I would likely be asking my doc for antibiotics. And I certainly vaccinate my sweet golden retriever to keep her free of distemper. So, my personal approach does not eliminate any use of medications, but rather follows a thoughtful, responsible approach that aspires to be as natural as possible. Like me, you may want to make choices based on what feels right to you.

About This Article

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About the book author:

Howland Blackiston has been keeping bees for almost 40 years. He has appeared as an expert on CNBC, CNN, NPR, The Discovery Channel, Sirius Satellite Radio, and other broadcast outlets, and has written numerous articles on beekeeping. Howland has been a keynote speaker at conferences in more than 40 countries.

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