On avoiding chemical treatments and wax foundation.

Beekeeping For Dummies is a great introduction to the bee world and the benefits of beekeeping, and I especially appreciated it after reading a couple of books by apparently humorless, anal-retentive writers who made it sound about as much fun as mopping floors. Still, the chapters on "Diseases and Remedies" and "Pests" in Dummies promote the use of all kinds of chemicals in your hive, from Terramycin to Fumagillin to Apistan--as well as essential oils, menthol crystals, and god knows what else. The book makes beekeeping sound a little like non-stop crisis management (with the answer to each crisis being the application of more chemicals), and equates organic beekeeping with failing to vaccinate your kids.

Once you read the warning label on a product like Apistan and realize that you're going to end up eating it if you put it in the hive, the chemical-free approach starts to get very appealing.

On Kirk's advice, I've added links in the sidebar of this blog to Michael Bush, Dee & Ed Lusby, and Charles Martin Simon--all of whom have extensive writings on the web about the chemical-free, let-the-bees-figure-it-out approach.

Mites are among the top villains in beekeeping books like Dummies, and controlling them with chemicals is presented as the only answer. Here is Michael Bush, writing about his success with a far easier and less toxic stategy:
Most of us beekeepers spend a lot of effort fighting with the Varroa mites. I'm happy to say my biggest problems in beekeeping now are things like trying to get nucs through the winter here in Southeastern Nebraska and coming up with hives that won't hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.

This change in beekeeping from fighting the mites is mostly because I've gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren't aware, and I wasn't for a long time, the foundation in common usage by beekeepers results in much larger bees than what you would find in a natural hive. I've measured sections of natural worker brood comb that are 4.6mm in diameter. This 4.6mm comb was drawn by a hive of commercial Carniolans and this 4.7mm comb was drawn on the first try by a package of commercial Carniolans. What most beekeepers use for worker brood is foundation that is 5.4mm in diameter. If you translate that into three dimensions, instead of one, that produces a bee that is about half again as large as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems. One cause of this is shorter capping times by one day and shorter post capping times by one day. This means less Varroa get into the cells and less Varroa reproduce in the cells.

Bush notes that you can buy wax-coated sheets with small cell sizes. But as Kirk points out, you have no idea where this wax has been and what it's been contaminated with. The do-it-yourself solution is to attach a strip of wood or cardboard, coated with clean wax, to the top of each hive frame.

Here are a couple of shots that Kirk posted on our Yahoo Groups page. This frame started with just a strip of wax that Kirk painted on the top, and the bees did the rest:

While you might think this forces the bees to work a lot harder (and thus slows them down), Bush says:
In my observation (and others who have tried it), the bees seem to draw comb on plastic with the most hesitation, on wax with a little less hesitation and their own comb with the most enthusiasm. In my observation, and some others including Jay Smith, the queen also prefers to lay in it.

Plus, it's very satisfying to watch your bees make their own comb design without any outside guidance. Maybe they need a lot less of our intervention than the books would like us to think.