Feral or Wild Bees?
Do feral or wild bees still exist in the UK? If so, what is the difference between a feral colony, a wild colony and a colony of native British bees (Apis Mellifera mellifera)? The article below addresses some of these questions. It was originally printed as a letter from David Heaf to the editor of Star & Furrow, the magazine of the Biodynamic Association in the UK (see S&F 125, pp 40 &41).
A dark bee with a likely high proportion of Amm genes, photographed in the apiary of one of the NBKT Trustees.
In his article entitled 'Varroa and the Bee Gym – helping bees to help themselves' (S&F 124, pp. 27 & 30) Stuart Roweth writes 'Since the invasion of the honeybee's number one enemy Varroa destructor, this parasite has wiped out virtually all 'wild' honeybee colonies, so beekeepers have become the guardians of honeybees and will have to safeguard their future.' Aside from the old beekeeping joke that the honeybee's No.1 enemy is the beekeeper, this raises several issues, the main one being that wild honeybee colonies have not been wiped out. Much depends on how you define 'wild' honeybees and where you look for them.
A moderately authoritative report on feral/wild colonies in Britain was presented in Catherine Thompson's Ph.D. thesis in 2012.(1) Most of the thesis implicitly defines a feral colony as one that is not managed by beekeepers. She considered only 68 colonies in England for her research on feral health, narrowing it for further study to 34 ferals that were paired with nearby managed colonies. But in Hampshire, i.e. in just a small part of that area, John Haverson and colleagues are monitoring over 80 long term ferals within a radius of 10 miles. In a radius of about 15 miles around my home in NW Wales the number of ferals monitored by myself and associates are in the dozens.(2) And data are also available from Scotland. By considering land area only below the 300 metres contour we can reasonably estimate from these limited samples that Britain-wide, the numbers of ferals could be in the many thousands, if not tens of thousands.
What is the difference between feral colonies and the 'wild' colonies to which Roweth refers? The answer is there is no difference. Indeed Thompson appears to use the terms 'feral' and 'wild' interchangeably, a usage which accords with dictionary definitions of the term. She also quotes a paper published as long ago as 2000 indicating that ''wild' honeybee populations are starting to rebound'. That was 16 years ago and now so many accounts from round the UK support the proposition that wild/feral colony numbers have completed their rebound. Well studied populations of unmanaged colonies in Europe and the USA are coping with Varroa without any kind of treatment.(3,4,5) In my county most members of its two beekeepers' associations have long since stopped any chemical treatment for Varroa. (6) It has even been found in our surveys over the past five winters that those who do not treat have lower colony losses each winter than those who treat. (7)
We must next consider that Roweth is using a stricter definition of a 'wild' colony than is commonly the case. He could mean colonies that comprise solely Apis mellifera mellifera (AMM), the northern European black bee that inhabited these isles before beekeepers started importing other races from southern Europe more than a century ago, resulting in a mixture of AMM, Italian and Greek races. Indeed, in a sentence after the quote in the first paragraph Roweth writes 'With the loss of the 'wild' honeybee colonies we have lost their part of the gene pool, at a time when bees dearly need it.' However, that gene pool is still available in AMM populations in the UK especially in remote parts of Scotland, as well as in less remote places in many other northern European countries. Furthermore, as a gene pool, a kind of 'memory' stored primarily in the DNA, is a reflection of the adaptation of an organism to its particular circumstances, in this case the honeybee to the available forage and climate, a wild honeybee in today's climate and highly modified cultural landscapes would very likely have characteristics that differ to some degree from those possessed by the indigenous AMM of over a century ago. Even so, there are breeders of AMM in several European countries who are only too willing to sell you AMM queens.
Are feral bees strictly wild? If you ever try keeping bees, you will soon learn that there is nothing particularly tame or domesticated about them, even if some beekeepers try to breed out defensiveness. Norman Carreck, a distinguished apiologist, science director for the International Bee Research Association, researcher at Sussex University and editor of the Journal of Apicultural Research has stated that in his view all bees are wild.(8) Prof. Thomas D. Seeley, who has worked for decades on wild honey bees in tree cavities, writes: 'I too prefer to refer to colonies living on their own as 'wild colonies' rather than 'feral colonies' since to my mind honey bees were never really domesticated, so the term 'feral' (= having escaped from domestication and become wild) is inappropriate for honey bees'.(9)
Thompson reasonably assumed that if 'wild', i.e. AMM, bees exist in England and Wales, then she should have been able to lure them with hot wax and honey or trap them in areas where there was no beekeeper activity, i.e. at least 10 km from any apiary. Unfortunately, she was restricted in her choice to large tracts of either conifer forests or clear felled land recovering from conifer afforestation, places where established feral populations were very unlikely to exist, let alone beekeepers. So the result was not unexpectedly: no honeybees. This contributed to her conclusion that 'It seems likely therefore, given that feral honeybees have a low survival, and closely reflect managed colony genotypes, that there are no remaining wild populations of Apis mellifera mellifera in England and Wales'. Possibly this conclusion has given rise to a belief that there are no wild honeybees. Had Thompson used the term 'native' instead of 'wild', as she did in an article published before her thesis, less confusion may have resulted about wild honey bees in Britain.(10)
Most beekeepers I am in contact with who try to keep bees in as natural a way as possible take a close interest in wild honey bee colonies around them by learning how they live and what their preferences are so as to be able to inform their beekeeping with an apicentric, bee-centred understanding. So Roweth's concluding question, 'Could the Bee Gym have a role to play in honeybee conservation, creating sustainable 'wild' colonies away from managed apiaries?' causes me some concern if it means fitting Bee Gyms in feral colony nest cavities. Would such colonies any longer be truly wild? Why not let the feral population of honeybees carry on towards completion of its process of natural co-adaptation with the Varroa mite?
Regarding use of the Bee Gym in hives: clearly in the context of biodynamic organic apiculture, this method of treating for Varroa – and let us be clear, it is a treatment – is certainly preferable to putting chemicals into the hives, however organic the chemicals may seem. But those of us who use no form of treatment for Varroa, preferring to let nature take its course, await the publication of the results of properly conducted trials that show how effective the Bee Gym is in promoting colony survival and therefore increased colony longevity.
1. Thompson, C. E. (2012) The health and status of the feral honeybee (Apis mellifera sp) and Apis mellifera mellifera population of the UK. Ph. D. thesis, University of Leeds.
2. Hudson, C. & S (2015) Wild honey bees of the Glaslyn. The Welsh Beekeeper, No. 190, 26-31
3. Locke, B. & Fries, I. (2011) Characteristics of honey bee colonies (Apis mellifera) in Sweden surviving Varroa destructor infestation. Apidologie 42:533–542
4. Le Conte, Y., de Vaublanc, G., Crauser, D., Jeanne, F., Rousselle, J-C. & Bécard J-M (2009) Honey bee colonies that have survived Varroa destructor. Apidologie 38: 1-6.
5. Seeley, T. D. (2007) Honey bees of the Arnot Forest: a population of feral colonies persisting with Varroa destructor in the northeastern United States. Apidologie 38: 19-29.
6. Heaf, D. J. (2015) Winter Colony Losses: Does Varroa Treatment Alter Outcome? BBKA News, 270.
7. Pritchard, D. (2015) Varroa Treatment and Colony Losses. BBKA News 435.
8. Carreck, N. (2014) Quoted by Zoe Gough in 'Wild honey bees: Does their disappearance matter?',
9. Seeley, T. D. (2016) Personal communication to Jonathan Powell.
10. Thomson C. E., Budge, G. & Biesmeijer, J. (2010) Feral Bees in the UK: The Real Story. Bee Craft April, 22-24.
I thank Nicola Bradbear, Peter Brown, Andy Collins, John Haverson, Heidi Herrmann, Clive Hudson, Gareth John and Jonathan Powell for help in the preparation of this article.