Bees in Trees: Unmanaged Honey Bees in the US

This is the title of an article that appeared in the BBKA News incorporating the British Bee Journal. Issue March 2012, written by Dr Deborah Delaney, University of Delaware, USA. I have added my own thoughts to this feature, from a natural beekeeping perspective.

Well, first of all, good on the bees for escaping and living free “Unmanaged”.

It seems that the unmanaged bee population particularly in the forests of Eastern North America with plenty of ideal cavities to nest has a more diverse genetic gene pool than the managed honey bee by US beekeepers.

The story goes that the feral Western honey bee, Apis Mellifera, success is also due to nest site suitability (Tree), natural breeding and the bees ability to thermo-regulate the nest.

To confirm these claims the feature also gives us a history of the introduction of the honey bee to Americaby the “New World” European settlers, this being relevant to confirming the counting and recording of the US unmanaged bees. Their DNA analysis makes it possible to distinguish unmanaged bees as feral bees from the original European introduction, rather than recently escaped swarms via the “modern” beekeeper.

Figures showed the managed population of honey bees in the US to be in decline, close to 35% in the winter of 2007-2008, 29% in 2009. Scientists also estimate that a feral bee colony life span would be between one and four years with the presence of Varroa destructor.

However, it is now felt that the feral bee population in the US has not only survived but also rebounded. 

In 2009, the Feral Bee Project was started. Mitochondrial and nuclear DNA markers are used to assess ancestry and genetic differentiation, or in other words confirm that sampled bees were in fact feral, truly unmanaged.

This project further concluded that feral bees were persisting in spite of the Varroa mite and the unexplained die-offs in managed honey bee populations.

In the feature it says other studies also highlighted that whilst it was found feral honey bee colonies were infested with Varroa mites the “Varroa mites in this forest have developed a stable coexistence with them” the bees. Natural beekeeper comments- Surely the “bees” have adapted and are able to have a coexistence with the Varroa mite. It’s worth noting that if you regularly / routinely add chemicals to treat your bees for Varroa you are slowing down this process of coexistence between parasite and host! A study inFrance evidently reported that unmanaged bees were able to survive for up to eleven years!

The feature continues by saying “Hopefully the Feral Bee Project and off-shoot research will lead to the identification of true “survivor stock” here in the US that could be used to develop sustainable breeding programmes”. Natural beekeeper comments- Surely a bee breeding programme, we will never keep up with natural selection and its own success.

Thankfully, the report also says it wish to “Identify mechanisms and traits that enable feral colonies to coexist with various pests and pathogens”. Natural beekeeper comments- Natural comb, higher temperature in the hive, less stress and natural selection of the strongest queen and drones, diversity of forage, density of colonies  will be found to be critical elements!

Then the feature says, “Most beekeepers cannot afford to simply let nature take its course”. Natural beekeeper comments- Well here is one of the route causes of poor bee population health: factory farming by man, by stripping bees the status of wild insects!

The next step in the Feral Bee Project is to integrate colony health measures with survivability and to understand the mechanisms that are allowing these unmanaged honey bee colonies to flourish in spite of large scale decline in managed bee colonies. Natural beekeeper comments- I will simply keep providing, as near as possible the ideal nest environment, minimum interference, allow the bees to build their own comb and swarm naturally… I believe the Warre beehive and Topbar beehives and the natural beekeeping philosophy offers prevention to the decline in bee health and population. Seeking cures from the scientific body will only result in temporary improvements before the next man-made crisis due to manipulation of the honey bee.

David Johnson
Natural Beekeeping