Last post, I talked about how some of my honeybees look very different all of a sudden, like this little one:
blacker and less fuzzy than the rest, and my theory was that I have a new queen who’s mated with very different looking feral honeybees. This may or may not be true. It is very likely some of the differences I’m seeing are merely a characteristic of age; bees who have lived long lives full of brushing against objects will eventually become less and less fuzzy. We’re really not sure if that’s all the difference we’re seeing.
None the less, I wanted to tell you more about feral honeybees, and the advantages and disadvantages to allowing my honeybees to mix with feral populations, because even if it hasn’t happened yet, it probably will eventually.
For starters, we’re talking feral honeybees, not wild honeybees. North America has lots of native pollinators buzzing about, including butterflies and many kinds of bumble bees and sweat bees and who knows what else. But the honeybees beekeepers raise were brought to America by the Europeans who kept them. The Latin name for these honeybees is Apis Mellifera, and there are many subspecies that vary in how they look and how good they are as domestic honey producers. So out in our flower garden, besides the bumble bees and butterflies, we’ll occasionally see honeybees that look nothing like the Italian subspecies of honeybees I keep in my hive, and we’ll know that these are some other subspecies of Apis Mellifera that have been living without human help in the wild.
Feral honeybees used to be a very common thing. Part of a bee colony’s natural behavior is to swarm, where the queen bee will take about half of the worker bees and fly off to start up a new colony, leaving behind a new queen and the rest of the workers to keep going in their old home. Most beekeepers try to discourage this, and some manage to re-catch escaping swarms and settle them into new hives, therefore keeping them for honey production. But plenty go off to live in hollow trees or wherever, fending for themselves, becoming feral honeybee colonies.
You’ve probably heard about the troubles facing honeybees these days, with Colony Collapse Disorder taking out many colonies, and scientists struggling to understand what’s wrong. There are plenty of diseases and mites that prey on honeybee colonies. And these are devastating not only to the honeybees of beekeepers, but also to the feral honeybee populations. So feral honeybees are less common now than they used to be. But they do still exist.
Most professional beekeepers are not interested in letting their honeybee stock mix with feral populations. They will buy queens (or raise queens themselves) to have a better sense of what traits they can expect their honeybees to have. Only colonies that show desirable characteristics will be chosen to raise queens, and a special mating yard is set up to make sure virgin queens will mate only with drones also from colonies with desirable characteristics. What kind of things are they looking for? Colonies with gentle, non-agressive bees. Colonies that build up their bee populations quickly in the spring when the first flowers are blooming, but don’t swarm very often. Colonies that keep their hive clean and have less trouble with diseases. Colonies that make lots and lots of honey.
If instead of controlling the reproduction of your honeybees, you let them mate on their own, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. You might end up with really mean bees. You might end up with really lazy bees. But some beekeepers are excited about getting more traits from feral honeybees back into their hives. After all, feral bees have had to live without the constant attention of a beekeeper. This might mean they are more disease resistant and more capable of thriving without constant attention and treatment from a beekeeper. That would be pretty exciting.
On the other hand, if you just end up with mean bees, you can re-queen the colony, which is replacing their old queen with a new one you’ve ordered from a traditional beekeeper, and the colony will mellow out again as the new queen’s daughters slowly remake the population of the hive.
For the moment, I am excited to have a sizable honeybee population in my hive, no matter what they look like, in hopes that they’ll survive the winter.