The lifestyles of wild and healthy honey bees
Thomas Seeley’s article on Darwinian beekeeping has unleashed a fury of discussion among beekeepers. Of particular interest are the ways in which feral colonies handle parasites and pathogens. Feral bees do not have beekeeper assistance, yet they seem to do fine without it.
The article, “Darwinian Beekeeping: An Evolutionary Approach to Apiculture” in the March issue of the American Beekeeping Journal, detailed twenty ways in which feral colonies are different from managed colonies. For example, feral nesting cavities are generally coated with propolis while managed hives are not. Feral colonies are left undisturbed while managed colonies are frequently violated. Feral drones are allowed to proliferate and compete while the number of managed drones is often curtailed.
Nest size and varroa mites
But the difference I see cited most often is nest size. Feral honey bees maintain smaller colonies, and to keep them small, the bees swarm often. Frequent swarming seems to have a substantial effect on varroa mites: small colonies that swarm often are able to live with the mites instead of succumbing to them.
Large colony size is an artifice of beekeeping. We all know that one large colony can produce more honey than two small colonies. So naturally we go for the large colony. But, not surprisingly, a large colony also appears to produce more varroa mites than two small ones.
On the surface, it seems that the mite population would remain proportionate to the bee population, but the mite population increases faster than the bee population since each mite mother can produce more than one mite per brood cycle. But regardless of how the numbers work, it is easy to see the results. Every fall I hear the same story again and again, “My biggest and most productive colony died.” Or “I thought my strongest colony would make it but only the weaker ones did.” There are thousands of variations on this same story.
Collapsing colonies spread disease
When these large colonies collapse, many of the bees drift to other colonies, taking mites and disease with them. I read an article recently where all the bees in a collapsing colony were marked with paint and, sure enough, they were soon found in colonies throughout the study area. In addition to varroa mites, drifting bees can spread a wide variety of diseases and parasites quickly and efficiently. Feral colonies, on the other hand, are usually not close together, so drifting is minimized.
Feral colonies stay small by frequent swarming, whereas beekeepers go out of their way to prevent swarming. Obviously, there are many reasons. We don’t want to lose bees we raised, we don’t want to bother our neighbors, and we don’t want to diminish honey production. But if we prevent swarming by adding boxes, checkerboarding, or cutting swarm cells, we end up creating the big colonies that are more susceptible to mites. If we prevent swarming by making splits, we increase the density of hives, which increases disease transmission as well as competition for nectar and pollen.
Eliminating drones weakens the gene pool
Another thing beekeepers do is limit drone production. Drones require a lot of resources to produce and, once emerged, they keep eating. In fact, controlling the number of drones was one of the original reasons for embossed foundation: it encourages bees to build worker-sized cells which, in turn, limits the number of drone cells. Nowadays, we often go a step further and pull drone pupae out of the hive as a way of reducing varroa mites.
But all this drone removal reduces competition for mating among the remaining drones. We’ve reduced the pool of drones without regard to the quality of the ones remaining. Among feral colonies, the fastest, strongest, most debonair drones compete for the virgin, but in managed colonies, the drones that compete are those that remain, which isn’t the same thing at all.
Do magic genes really exist?
I could go on and on, but as I was thinking about these differences, I began to wonder if our perpetual hunt for varroa-resistant feral bees isn’t misplaced. Perhaps the genetics of feral bees isn’t the real key. Perhaps it’s their lifestyle that makes them special: the old nature vs nurture argument.
When we look at human disease, most of us accept the premise that lifestyle has a substantial effect on health. A rich diet can lead to obesity which can lead to stroke. A starvation diet can lead to malnutrition which can lead to heart failure. Smoking can lead to cancer. Workplace toxins lead to all types of ailments. Lack of exercise can be a killer. Of course, all these things have a genetic component as well. So the question becomes which is more important, lifestyle or genetics?
Feral bees know how to live
I think it’s time we asked the same question of our bees. Perhaps feral honey bees don’t have magic genes, maybe they just have good habits. Taken together, everything from smearing propolis, to eating a balanced diet, to living in a small house, to regular swarming, and putting distance between colonies may be the key to robust feral colonies.
Anecdotal evidence can be seen when we move a long-established feral colony from the wild into a managed hive and bingo, it dies within a year or two. What changed? The genetics or the lifestyle? The answer is probably “some of each,“ but as in human health, the question is how much of each? Are we concentrating on the wrong things?
A thought puzzle for future beekeeping
I don’t have any answers, of course. But when you look at the list of differences between feral bees and managed hives, you can see how substantially beekeepers have changed the honey bee environment. If we could figure out which issues are the most important—which changes carry the most weight—perhaps we could start there and try to make things better for our bees.
Honey Bee Suite