Feral Bees – what are they?
They are normal honeybees that at some point have swarmed and taken up residence in a hollow tree, a cavity wall, a chimney, a soffit or other amenable place. Amenable place meaning it is of suitable size (typically > 3 cubic feet / 80 litres), unaffected by overheating or ingress of water, preferably a few metres above ground. They may be the result of an earlier feral colony that swarmed. If the comments below are correct, then a feral colony that survives long enough to generate a swarm may be a rare thing. I spoke recently with a local beekeeper that was called to assist with an established wild colony that had left its home in an old tree in a public area.
What happens to feral colonies?
The following comment is an extract from The Kent Beekeepers’ website: From 1994 in South East England conditions have changed, there are thousands of colonies fewer, the Environment is adversely affected, an Asiatic mite, varroa destructor is here, and hundreds of bee keepers have given up. The mite sucks the hæmolymph from the bees and in doing so injects a paralysis virus causing the adult bees death, the mite breeding cycle causes loss of worker pupae and greatly increase the demise of hived and feral colonies, the remaining bees abscond to join healthy colonies infesting them.
Any colony present in a dwelling will therefore die out, often during late Winter or early Spring, all infected colonies will succumb within three years maximum. Only by continual swarming as at present will any bees survive outside the control of bee keepers.
Points to consider when asked to treat a honey bee nest, from the BBKA website:
HONEY BEES ARE BENEFICIAL INSECTS
Honey bees, both feral (wild) and colonised, are important beneficial insects, not normally considered as pests. They live either in the wild in nests, or as colonies in hives kept by beekeepers. In either case, they will only sting people if strongly provoked. Because of their beneficial role, every effort should be made to avoid carrying out control treatments against honey bees. Treatment with a pesticide should be considered only as the last resort.
RISKS FROM TREATED NESTS
If foraging non-target honey bees find a nest which has been treated, they will carry away contaminated honey. This can lead to contamination of honey destined for food use, serious b ee kills, and the destruction of hives.
SHOULD YOU TREAT A HONEY BEE NEST?
If asked to treat a feral honey bee nest, you should assess the situation carefully. Have people been stung by honey bees from the nest, or are they at risk because of its location ? If the nest is not causing any risk to public health then you should carefully consider the alternatives before carrying out a treatment
WHAT PRECAUTIONS SHOULD YOU TAKE?
If you consider treatment is the best option, make use of the British Beekeepers As sociation's spray liaison scheme. This will enable local beekeepers to be warned by their own Spray Liaison Officer. It is important for you to talk to local beekeepers in this way before treating a nest.
Remember, members of the British Beekeepers Association can provide advice and can sometimes remove accessible feral honey bee colonies, avoiding the need to use pesticides. Only use an HSE approved insecticide. Always read the label and use pesticides safely.
Once the treatment is complete, you should take every reasonable action to prevent foraging honey bees from gaining access to the treated nest, by removing the combs or blocking the nest entrances.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
Assess the situation carefully before treating.
Make use of the British Beekeepers Association's spray liaison scheme.
Only use an HSE approved insecticide.
Take every reasonable action to prevent foraging honey bees from gaining access to the treated nest, by removing the combs or blocking the nest entrances.
Always read the label and use pesticides safely.
Are there any truly wild colonies remaining?
From a 2014 Article in BBC Nature: New research suggests there may be no wild honey bees living in England or Wales, but how much does their disappearance matter?
Despite the current international concern at the health of managed honey bee stocks, the existence - and potential benefits - of wild native honey bees is often overlooked.
Wild colonies would be of the UK's native honey bee subspecies Apis mellifera mellifera, also known as the European dark bee, surviving on their own in remote areas or in a range of cavities.
It has been suggested that disease wiped them out in the early 20th Century, yet across most parts of the UK there remain anecdotal sightings of colonies thriving without human intervention.
And the fact that unmanaged bees have not been eliminated is of interest to those working to protect honey bees. But no empirical studies have been carried out to clarify the situation.
Dr Catherine Thompson, from the University of Leeds, set out to investigate the persistence, genetic diversity and disease burden of wild honey bees in England and Wales.
She identified three remote areas at least 6.2 miles (10 km) from any known apiaries (Tywi Forest in Wales, Ennerdale Forest, Cumbria and the Kielder Forest in Northumberland) and sampled them using bee traps, lures and observations. No wild honey bees were found.
The author concluded that there are unlikely to be any large, remote colonies of wild honey bees remaining in England and Wales and, as a result, she turned her attention to feral honey bees - colonies living in the wild that are thought to have escaped from managed stocks.
To discover their significance Dr Thompson asked bee keepers to report unmanaged colonies of bees that had lasted for at least a year near to them. She sampled bees from feral colonies along with those from managed colonies in the same area.
Genetic testing between the managed and feral colonies showed close similarities (2.5% difference) which she suggested meant that the feral colonies were likely to be swarms from managed colonies.
The managed colonies were further separated into those that were treated for the varroa mite and those that were not.
Dr Catherine Thompson collected feral colonies and compared them with the nearest managed hive.
Dr Thompson found that the feral and non-treated managed colonies had a significantly higher level of Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), which is transmitted to bees by the varroa mite, than the managed colonies that were treated.
By returning to the feral sites every spring and autumn for the next three years she found those colonies with high levels of disease were unlikely to survive.
"This study is important because it shows bee keepers that they are ultimately responsible for honey bees", Dr Thompson told BBC Nature. "If they stopped looking after their bees it is likely there would be no bees left.
"It is beekeepers' responsibility to maintain healthy and good quality bees which means continue with a programme of research into honey bee health, honey bee genetics and the health of the l andscape in which we keep them."
Tim Lovett from the British Beekeepers Association said the research reiterated his organisation's founding principles.
Varroa mites cause deformities in honey bees.
"Dr Thompson has underlined the importance of beekeeping in monitoring bee populations and the responsib ility of being a beekeeper; to make sure bees are kept healthy and well provided for," he said.
But the Natural Beekeeping Trust, who promote treatment-free beekeeping, say honeybees are capable of developing disease tolerance themselves, as evidenced in many of their non-treated hives.