Thursday, September 24, 2009

To medicate or not to medicate: that is the question.

It has been a gloomy week here in the Piedmont-Triad. It has rained, rained...and then rained some more. I can only imagine how bad it is in Georgia where they're getting flooded by heavy rains. And since it has been so rainy, it has given me some time to think about my colony and whether I should take preventative measures and medicate it before winter. The question that keeps playing over and over again in my mind is...should I or shouldn't I? 

As I've mentioned before, I want to keep my colony as natural as possible, and I prefer to use all-natural methods to treat my bees. When the state apiary inspector came to inspect my bees, I spoke to him about medicating a healthy colony. In some books, like Beekeeping for Dummies, it recommends that you medicate hives in the fall and the spring, and it is best to treat your bees much like you would treat your should use preventative methods to keep your hives from becoming ill. Kind of like you would treat your dog to keep them from getting heartworms or rabies. The books recommend you be a proactive beekeeper, not a reactive beekeeper.  

But Don Hopkins, the apiary inspector, didn't seem to be too quick to recommend proactive colony treatments. While he didn't rush to tell me yes or no, he did give me a clear indication that if a hive is healthy, you should keep a watchful eye, otherwise leave it alone. And my hive is doing really well and I want to keep it that way, especially with winter on the horizon. But should I put chemicals in a healthy hive? Some sources say yes, others say no. It truly is mind boggling and confusing for me as a new beekeeper.

I read conflicting information about Honey B Healthy. Some swear that it is a miracle potion that bees go nuts over and makes them thrive in the hive. Others say it is a total waste of money, or to be more blunt, that it is a form of "snake oil" for honey bees. It runs in the neighborhood of around $20 bucks for the smallest container, and for that price, I would hope it would do something miraculous. I found the recipe for Honey B Healthy online, and when I called the vitamin store to price the key ingredients to make it at home, I discovered it would cost me more to do it that way and it would be cheaper to buy it ready made. Since I didn't speak to a single soul that's used it and found great success, I decided to forget about it. Maybe I'll try it in the future, but for now, no.

Apiguard. The one thing I don't have is a problem with varroa mites. I did a three-day test using a sticky piece of corrugated cardboard, and I couldn't find enough mites to do a decent count. I've already done a powdered sugar dusting in the hive and after I looked like whirling snow storm of honey bees. While I'm sure that Apiguard does a fine job for hives with a varroa mite problem, I don't think mine would benefit in the least from a treatment. And besides, many sources say that mites develop a resistance to varroa treatments over time, and the last thing I want to do is run out of options before there was a problem to begin with. So for now, I'm saying no to Apiguard.

One thing I would consider using in my hive is menthol crystals which is used to treat tracheal mites. I know a guy who lost his colony to these invisible mites. They basically get in the breathing tubes of the bees and suffocate them. The most recommended treatment for tracheal mites seems to be bags of menthol crystals (which comes from oil of peppermint). It is recommended that you put a bag in the hive when the daytime temperature is over 70 degrees. The crystals slowly evaporate and give off a gas which the bees breathe in and cause a decline in the mites. While it won't eliminate the mites, it will cause their numbers to drop. I am still mulling this one over since it is a natural way to treat the bees.

I don't think I need Fumagilin-B. It is an antibiotic used for the treatment of Nosema, an intestinal disorder of the honey bee. Usually if a hive is infected, it will have yellow or brown streaks on the front of the hive or the bottom board which comes from a form of bee diarrea. Nosema usually infects adult female workers. And sources say it rarely infects drones or the queen. It is recommended to use Fumagilin-B in the fall and spring and with with all newly installed bee packages. Since I haven't noticed any outward signs that my bees have a tummy disorder, it doesn't seem sensible to treat them for something they don't have. I will keep it in mind though. Beekeeping sources say that Nosema is more prevalent in overwintered colonies, so who knows what this coming spring will hold. Thank goodness I'm one hour away from the Chatham, Virginia, branch of Dadant & Sons in case I need a bottle.

I could go on and on, but the more I think about it, I really believe that I should leave my colony alone medication-wise and just keep an eye out for any possible problems. While I'm fairly confident that I'll leave my girls alone, I've also learned to never say never. I plan to continue my research to see if I'm making the right decision, but since we're already in autumn by the calendar (and the weather on some days too) I have to hurry. But I think I'm going to ride it out.

I would love to hear your ideas on medicating colonies and whether you do it or not. Please feel free to share!

Bee-have yourselves!       


  1. Mark, we're thinking very much along the same lines.

    My colonies dropped considerably during the requeening and requeen failure to the point that I need the hive to recover and rebuild itself. I'm asking myself, do I now put in Mite Wipes (Formic Acid pads) which is strong enough to penetrate capped cells where the brood and mites are at a time when I need successful hatching of brood? It's supposed to treat for Trachea too, which could be another concern. If I don't treat then mite populations could increase through November while the queen is still laying. Currently the mite levels are low. I counted 18 mites and 15 mites last night but that would be well over a 2 week period - so the drop ratio is very low. What a beek told me I could do though is monitor and then in November if mite levels increase, when snow is on the ground, I could treat them with Oxyalic Acid. This is dripped on the bees using a syringe.
    I go back and forth, now or wait? It's said most hives die over winter and that would be heartbreaking. They have worked so hard, I have worked so hard for them.... I hear ya on this one!

  2. Hi Mark. I've read your post a couple of times trying to decide how to comment and after much thought I decided to recommend you buy Ross Conrad's book, Natural Beekeeping. Being the profoundly organic diehard in the bunch, it has become invaluable reading for me.

    I attended a bee school sponsored by The University of Georgia at Young Harris College 2 years ago. Ross was one of the speakers and I knew immediately I would follow his practices.

    I'm corresponding with some serious beekeepers by email and would like to add you to the list. Since I can't get past the POP3 in replying to you, my email is if you're interested.

    I've been asked to serve on the board of directors for our Smoky Mtn. bee club and after this morning's meeting I'm more convinced than ever that no two beekeepers are ever going to manage hives the same way. Sounds to me like you're already making some good decisions and I wouldn't change a thing.

  3. Hi Mark, I think like you, as natural as you can is how I treat my bees. It must be a daunting thought whether to treat or not, but i firmly believe that leaving them alone when they are doing so well has to be the right answer. Good luck !!

  4. Hi all!

    I have to admit that I'm feeling better about my decision to hold off on medicating my colony. I think my only hesitation, thinking that maybe I should medicate them to keep them going, is because I had to work like crazy to bring this colony back from the dead. I have to be honest and say that I had great doubts in June, when that sad package of bees arrived on my doorstep, that they would be the thriving hive that sits in my back yard now. So maybe (I am self-analyzing myself now) -- I'm thinking that medicines will keep them going through the winter, in those cold months that I won't make inspections and see little activity in front of the hive. But then, I have to remember that this hive has made it through all these months now on their own hard work and determination to survive. And nothing made me prouder than the state apiary inspector saying that it was a good looking hive. I'm thinking that with the good store of honey they already have, me offering emergency feeding if they need it, and keeping a watchful eye for activity on the warmer days of winter -- I think they'll be okay.

    I'll keep you informed if anything changes. Right now, with their good health, they're going to stay drug-free!

  5. Mark- I'm the same-(and nice review of your thoughts and options); my strongest desire is to maintain a natural approach to beekeeping, and I haven't used anything in two years. So far so good... but there are a few wax moths and SHB around. Thanks for an informative post!

  6. Thanks for sharing, Beau! If you're into two years and so far, so good -- then that just goes along with my thinking of staying as natural as possible. Thanks for stopping by and good to hear from you!



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