By Howland Blackiston, Unknown

In recent years, because of all the problems that bees have been facing, it’s become prudent to take a fresh look at historical approaches to caring for and medicating your bees.

Historically, beekeeping books have provided information on when and how to medicate your bee colonies and which chemicals to use for controlling pests that can compromise the health and productivity of your colonies. If you go online and visit beekeeping supply vendors, they all offer medications and pest control products to help bees when things go wrong.

Are treatments being overused? Are less‐experienced beekeepers simply misusing these products to the detriment of our bees? Should you routinely medicate bees as so many traditional beekeepers have recommended? Or should you embrace a more natural approach with little or no use of medications or chemicals?

Clearly, there are many choices out there. 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.

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. Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping, Revised and Expanded Edition (2013, Chelsea Green Publishing), shares 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, “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

This 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 these guidelines, the use of some medications and chemical treatments is OK. 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 back year 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 approaches

There are no absolutes. Unless you have a need to be certified as organic, you can choose not to go down that path. You can pick and choose. Generally speaking, don’t use chemicals “just in case” you may have a problem with pests. Don’t medicate bees as a preventative measure, but only when absolutely necessary, and only when other nonchemical options have not been effective.

This approach does not eliminate any use of medications, but rather follows a thoughtful, responsible approach that aspires to be as natural as possible. You may want to make similar choices based on what feels right to you.