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The Importance of Free Living Bees

July 2024

Wild or feral honeybee colonies play a vital role in supporting the wider honeybee population. Their genetics are shaped by the forces of nature which are constantly shifting to find balance and separate from the breeding programs of managed colonies.

There is a common misconception amongst conventional beekeepers that feral colonies are short-lived escapees. A recent article in the April 2024 edition of the BBKA News, stated that ‘most swarms in the wild do not survive long…they only have a 20% chance of survival to the next year’. This is not necessarily the case, and as such is a false assumption not backed by research. 

An ongoing rewilding project using citizen science data for occupancy rates of new nest spaces has challenged many of these assumptions. 

The tree hives used in this project offer a nesting space similar to what you might expect to find in a tree cavity. They are constructed from mainly British cedar and cork. They are hexagonal in shape and have a volume of approx 40L. They are located about 3m above the ground, mostly in trees and installed in early spring, just before the swarm season. Swarms are attracted with a small piece of old brood comb fixed to the inside of the roof, the internal sawn cedar surface rubbed with beeswax and the entrance scented with a couple of drops of lemon grass oil.

The data relies upon tree hive owners' observations, many of whom are not experienced beekeepers. The observations are made a minimum of twice a year, in early spring just before the swarm season and again at the onset of autumn. This may not account for possible scout bees or the robbing of a hive but these occurrences are unlikely to be many. The observations in group 1 (2019) are all made on a much more regular basis by experienced personnel. It certainly paints an interesting picture.

 For example:

  •  In 2019 six tree hives were installed and occupied by a mother colony

  • One of those colonies occupied a tree hive for a minimum of 2 years, one for a minimum of 3 years, 3 for 4 years one for 5 years (still going), and so forth…..

  • Overall, 64 observations recorded from the 80 installations showed an average survival rate of 80% through the 1st winter. 

  • 88% of these colonies have then gone through a 2nd winter with a further 80% going through a 3rd winter


Whenever we take a creature out of its natural habitat, we are going to alter its welfare dynamics. For the honeybee, there are several factors to consider:



The western honeybee has evolved in the cavities of mature trees which were once part of our ancient woodlands. Many of these woodlands have since disappeared leaving a huge gap in the availability of natural habitats for the honeybee. As a result, it’s not uncommon to see colonies residing in the chimneys or roof spaces of houses and other man-made structures, continually occupying them for many years, often without causing any problem.

Human interaction with the honeybee has seen the bees subjected to many forms of habitat in the shape of hives. Most of these hives are thin walled square boxes that have been designed for human convenience rather than the biological needs of the bee.

Inappropriate habitats cause the bees a huge amount of stress as they struggle to maintain a warm stable environment within the hive. One of the repercussions of this is dampness and mould, the spores of which end up in the gut of the bee compromising its immune system and life span.


Bees entirely depend on their honey stores as a food source to see them through the winter months and during times when there is a lack of nectar flow due to adverse weather conditions. The nectar bees collect contains numerous bioactive compounds that not only help protect the plants and trees they come from but also the bees themselves. Substances known as 2nd metabolites (fatty acids, essential oils and microorganisms) are known to prevent both AFB and EFB and dramatically reduce the effect of Nosema.[1] When bees consume their honey stores they are in essence self-medicating to help maintain a robust immune system.

The fact that cases of foulbrood are very rare in free-living colonies serves to underline the vital importance of bees subsisting on their own honey as opposed to the sugar water routinely supplied in the beekeeping industry.[2]

Regrettably even hobby beekeepers tend to remove most of these precious stores at the end of the summer season, to substitute those with vastly inferior sugar feeds. Consequently, bees become far more susceptible to the pests and diseases they are exposed to, including the effects of the varroa mite



The brood area is the most sensitive area of the nest. It is the beating heart of the colony. The intricately designed comb structure enables the bees to maintain a very important microbial shroud and stable environment in which to raise their brood.


Unlike in a wild colony, modern-day beekeeping practices put this in jeopardy with regular inspections and common manipulations designed to control the bees and the honey harvest. The warm air and propolis atmosphere are dispelled as the beekeeper searches for signs of disease, the emergence of queen cells or to check if there is a laying queen. This causes the bees a huge amount of stress and hard work to return the nest to its original state.

Roseland Bee Group Apiary - 6/5/2022 Hive No.3. 9hrs disturbance from just removing the crown board

Allowing bees to follow their innate preferences

Many of a colony's natural behavioural patterns are suppressed in a managed hive environment.

The freedom to build their own nest structure is one of them. A customised structure enables the bees to have better control of air flow temperature and humidity to help maintain a stable environment within the nest space. 

An abandoned hive. 2 plastic feeders were removed from the left hand side of the brood box, leaving a void. 3 months later they had produced this amazing structure

It also allows the bees to position and form the appropriate sized cells, instead of having to be guided by the set cell sizes found on framed foundation. One of the benefits of this is an increased population of drones which require larger cells. A typical managed hive will usually consist of around 8% drones during the spring and summer. In a free-living colony, that number is likely to be double.  A greater number of drones is exactly what nature intends to allow for maximum diversity of genetic traits in the queens' mating choices. 

Swarming is a species-specific behaviour of the honeybee that is often thwarted in managed colonies. This reproduction process increases the spreading of local genetics, enabling the bees to adapt to their ever-changing surroundings. It's also a healing process for the colony itself as the resultant interruption of breeding activity in the hive disrupts the development of the varroa mite and other pathogens that thrive in this environment. 

Food For Thought

Given the great concerns about our natural environment and its creatures, the time has come to adjust our relationship with nature and give something back. After years of exploiting the honeybee for our benefit, we need to allow the creature free rein to manifest its exemplary nature and fulfil its purpose in the wide web of life. Any notion of the honeybee as an agricultural asset must be overcome for this to happen. At the Natural Beekeeping Trust, we shall continue to foster the hope that such a time will come.

Simon Kellam

Trustee of The Natural Beekeeping Trust

[1]  Johnson RM, Mao W, Pollock HS, Niu G, Schuler MA, et al. (2012) Ecologically Appropriate Xenobiotics Induce Cytochrome P450s in Apis Mellifera. PLoS ONE 7(2): e31051. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031051      

[2]  R. M. Goodwin, A. Ten Houten & J. H. Perry (1994) Incidence of American foulbrood infections in   feral honey bee colonies in New Zealand, New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 21:3, 285-287, DOI: 10.1080/03014223.1994.9517996 



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