To treat or not to treat, that is the question
This is a very hot topic among beekeepers, and has sparked countless debates. So why not write a few thoughts about it? A short scan of beekeeping sites on Facebook will yield several arguments on this topic. "You're reproducing bees that have no resistance to mites!" an advocate of treatment free practice says. "You're producing mite bombs!" an advocate of treating for mites retorts. So who is right? Could it possibly be both? After pondering the issue for some time and hearing some great talks on the subject, I have concluded that it is simply a battle between short term solutions and long term solutions. It is as is any beekeeping topic, rife with variables to complicate the issue.
Natural selection is a very powerful selection mechanism that has functioned for as long as life has been on this blue planet. This is the primary reason people choose not to treat their bees, as well as not liking the thought of adding chemicals to their hives. Tom Glenn of Glenn Apiaries asked himself what he was doing when he cut a piece of burr comb to eat, and his hive tool hit an Apistan strip. Glenn was a pioneer of producing productive mite resistant breeder queens. I used his stock for years in my operation and was highly impressed. Not using miticides in your colonies quickly reveals who has potential resistance, and who has none. This is why I chose not to treat my bees. But, my sole focus is breeding productive pest and disease resistant stock. This seemed to be the harshest yet most effective test. This method is a long term solution to breed better bees that don't require the level of coddling many strains of commercial bees do. It of course does not come without trade off's and risks.
While I do feel natural selection is an effective breeding tool for resistant traits, I wouldn't recommend treatment free as a general management style for most hobbyist "hands off" beekeepers. Pulling an "ostrich maneuver" and keeping your head in the sand ignoring potential issues is not good. Mites and diseases are a real threat, and can be spread to neighboring colonies through robbing. Bees are prone to robbing weaker colonies during nectar dearths, which can undoubtedly spread mites and diseases. I'm not saying it can't be done on a hobbyist level, but you need to have a ready supply of resistant stock to requeen problem colonies, or to make splits to replace any losses. Anything less than this can be problematic for your sustainability, and potentially cause issues to neighboring hives.
If you want to try the treatment free approach, I would recommend a few things to be sustainable. First and foremost, become proficient at queen rearing. This goes for treatment free and those following standard beekeeping practices. This is a valuable skill and opens many doors in beekeeping. Secondly, acquire stock that someone has actively selected for mite and disease resistant traits to start off. Sifting through swarms and general commercial stock will be a hard row to hoe and you will likely lose a lot of bees in the process. Pick something with concentrated VSH, Hygienic, or grooming tendencies to add proven resistance traits to your gene pool. Thirdly, don't coddle weak or diseased colonies, requeen them asap. If you can yield quality queens from resistant stock readily, you'll be less hesitant about pinching and replacing queens lacking any level of resistance and changing the failing genes in the colony. Focusing on these three things completely turned around my operation and very well may turn around yours.