Romancing the swarm: the dream of wild bees
Rumor has it that if you catch wild swarms of European honey bees, your colonies will be healthier and more disease resistant. In fact, they will have better genetics in every way because they are survivors—thriving with no human intervention, no treatments, and no sugar syrup.
If those swarms were truly wild, and if they were surviving year after year alone in the environment, that could be so. But here in the United States, your chance of catching a truly wild swarm is almost nil—especially if you live near an urban or agricultural center. Card-carrying feral colonies—if they exist at all—are most likely residing in open country or woodland, far from human interference.
Statistics vary depending on the organization that did the survey, but current estimates put the number of wild colonies at around 2-5% of all colonies in the United States. Furthermore, investigators agree that of all those “wild” colonies, the overwhelming majority have swarmed from managed colonies within the last two years. In the age of Varroa mites, the chance of a colony surviving on its own for more than two winters is virtually zero.
It is hypnotic to think that a swarm is something unfettered and free, something superior to anything you can buy from your local bee club. Most beekeepers would like to believe that. I would like to believe that.
In truth, the swarm you just caught came from your neighbor’s hive. It has the same gene pool as the bees from the club, the same parasites, and was probably raised on sugar syrup. It is naïve to believe anything else.
It is human to pretend. Here in the United States we pretend there is no financial crisis, no climate change, and no toxic chemicals in our water. We pretend the seed giants haven’t hijacked our food supply. Likewise, we pretend feral, genetically superior bees are living in the shed down the street.
None of us believe we will be struck by lightning, yet we all believe we can catch a primeval and disease-free swarm. The odds are probably about the same for both—or more in favor of the lightning.
Am I saying you shouldn’t catch swarms? No way. Knock yourself out. It’s enormous fun. It’s exciting. But don’t imbue those bees with magical powers. They’re just your neighbor’s bees gone awol, doing what bees do, living on the wing. Anything else is just romance.