HomeBeekeepingWild, feral or escapees? - The Apiarist

Wild, feral or escapees? – The Apiarist

Synopsis : How far do swarms transfer? Can estimates of environmental apiary and hive densities assist decide whether or not “remoted, misplaced or historic” bees are something of the type?


Slightly extra on feral colonies this week. It’s an attention-grabbing subject to consider because the temperature drops, the wind picks up and the bushes develop into their autumn finery.

A riot of autumn color

If there are any colonies within the native woods, how did they get there and what are their possibilities of survival?

I mentioned some solutions to this final week, utilizing the particular instance of old-growth forests in Germany (Kohl et al., 2022). In these circumstances the fact was that almost all of colonies perished inside a 12 months – the typical time they survived was solely ~32 weeks.

The more than likely clarification for his or her presence within the forest was ‘spillover’ of misplaced swarms from managed colonies in neighbouring farmland. My assumption – although this wasn’t coated within the paper – was that the colonies perished from both illness or hunger.

This week I wish to think about the isolation – or in any other case – of ‘distant’ forests and the gap swarms journey from their origin. Inevitably this may contain some again of an envelope calculations and even outright guesstimates , so I’ll end on a extra acquainted subject (to me) by briefly contemplating the pathogen a great deal of feral colonies.

Are these feral wholesome and thriving, or riddled with illness?

Beekeepers and hives …

There are about 50,000 beekeepers within the UK and so they handle about 250,000 hives.

That’s two ’abouts’ in a single sentence, so the guesstimates have began already. The Nationwide Bee Unit experiences there are 272,000 hives within the UK (2021 figures). They name this an ‘experimental statistic’ as a result of ’a number of assumptions fashioned a part of the calculations’ . This quantity is up from 247,000 in 2017.

I think a few of these assumptions embrace extrapolating from the numbers of beekeepers/apiaries and hives registered on the Nationwide Bee Unit’s BeeBase. In 2013 this was 29,000 beekeepers managing 126,000 colonies.

That extrapolation is required as not all beekeepers are registered on BeeBase , in the identical approach that not all beekeepers belong to a nationwide or native affiliation.

I’m going to disregard our business cousins, the bee farmers. There are solely about 400 of them and just one or two of them handle greater than 1,000 colonies.

The 2013 BeeBase numbers recommend that registered beekeepers handle 126,000/29,000 = 4.3 hives every. My opening sentence to this part would point out that the typical is maybe about 5 hives. Nonetheless, if the experimental statistic is appropriate however beekeeper numbers are nonetheless round 50k, then it’s a little bit over 5.4 hives per beekeeper.

Let’s hold the maths easy … on common, beekeepers handle 5 colonies 😉 .

… and apiaries

Sadly, I’m not conscious of any publicly accessible statistics on hive density, however there’s at the least partial info accessible on apiary density.

In case you are registered on BeeBase, two of the belongings you report are the apiary location and the variety of hives in every apiary. As soon as an apiary is registered you may decide the ‘Apiary density inside 10 km’ .

Beebase reveals the ‘density’ of apiaries inside 10 km

A radius of 10 km out of your registered apiary encompasses 314 km2, so it’s maybe not shocking that there might be numerous different apiaries within the neighbourhood.

Once I lived in Warwickshire my two apiaries – separated by ~5 km – had 255 and 267 apiaries inside a ten km radius. This can be a busy beekeeping space, with a really lively native affiliation (my alma mater, WLBK).

Hives within the nook of a Warwickshire area (virtually each area!)

I don’t know what number of hives there have been within the surrounding surroundings, however it appeared as if virtually each area margin or spinney contained a little bit row of hives balanced on outdated pallets.

Handy assumptions

On the idea that I don’t have some other info, and within the curiosity of getting on with the article, I’m going to imagine that every apiary comprises a median of 5 hives. I believe that is cheap, although I’d have an interest if anybody has any actual figures.

With ~260 apiaries inside 10 km, every containing a median of 5 hives, it suggests the hive density was 4.1 km2.

Coincidentally that is virtually precisely the identical determine quoted in Kohl et al., (2022) final week.

And annually a big proportion of those hives will try to swarm.


With exemplary swarm management it’s attainable to keep away from dropping any swarms.

In fact, we do our beekeeping in the actual world, and the fact is that all of us lose swarms generally.

Hopefully not many and maybe not even yearly, however swarms are misplaced.

Once I lived in Warwickshire I by no means failed to draw swarms to my bait hives every season. Once I lived in Fife – the place there have been solely ~45 apiaries inside 10 km – I caught 4 swarms in a bait hive in my again backyard one season, and (once more) by no means failed to draw swarms within the time I lived there.

Though I’d wish to suppose this displays the care I absorb getting ready my bait hives, I think it actually implies that – through the swarming season – lots of queen cells are missed and swarms are misplaced.

Bivouacs and scout bees

Typically, although there are exceptions, the swarming course of goes one thing like this:

  • the colony begins producing queen cells
  • on the primary good day (heat, dry, high-quality and many others.) after the primary queen cells are sealed the colony swarms
  • the swarm bivouacs close by, maybe solely 10-20 metres away
  • scout bees survey the surroundings for possible new nest websites, ‘dancing’ on the floor of the bivouac to steer different scout bees to take a look at promising trying places
  • a quorum choice is reached by the scout bees on the ‘greatest’ new nest website and so they lead the swarm there

The scout bees survey at the least a 2-3 km radius across the authentic hive; they most likely begin this course of earlier than the colony swarms, persevering with it as soon as the swarm has bivouacked. Since we will interpret the waggle dance, it’s attainable to look at the scout bees and infer from them the approximate distance and route to the chosen nest website.

By doing this, scientists have decided how far swarms normally journey (a comparatively quick distance) and the way far they generally go (a good distance).

Swarming distances

Most swarms relocate just some hundred metres from their origin. Martin Lindauer did among the first research on swarming distances within the mid-50’s and Thomas Seeley and Roger Morse produced strikingly comparable knowledge in 1977 (Seeley and Morse, 1977).

Most swarms solely journey a brief distance to a brand new nest website

There are a variety of associated research from the early 1980’s which show that, though scout bees could survey the surroundings from ~300 m to over 4 km away, at the least 50% of swarms transfer not more than 1 km from their origin.

Nonetheless, they’ll journey a lot additional.

In current research José Villa studied swarming of bees in Louisiana (Villa, 2004). He studied swarm measurement (weight), nest quantity choice and the timing of swarming. As well as, by deciphering scout bee waggle dancing, he recorded the gap 16 swarms travelled from their origin.

On this research a marked choice for comparatively ‘native’ nest websites was not seen. 4 swarms travelled lower than 1 km, six from 1 to 4 km, 5 between 4 and seven km and one ~10 km.

With three of the swarms, two that moved <500 m from the origin and one 2.2 km away, he confirmed their location by discovering the uniquely tagged queen current within the authentic swarm.

Though I mentioned ’they’ll journey a lot additional’ it’s price remembering that the gap travelled was inferred from the length of the waggle run by scout bees on the floor of the bivouacked swarm (and particularly, the predominant dances being carried out half-hour earlier than the swarm left the bivouac).

That’s not fairly the identical as proving that swarms could journey 5-10 km, however it’s definitely suggestive that they do.

Remoted woodland in a bee-filled surroundings

Let’s do a bit extra arm waving …

Assume there’s two to 3 thousand hectares of outdated native woodland, oak, beech, sycamore and many others., somewhat than conifers. Within the absence of black woodpeckers (see final week) a few of these bushes will nonetheless comprise hole cavities. They may have misplaced boughs or been hit by lightning, the rain may have rotted the uncovered heartwood and a cavity will ultimately kind.

Voilà … a possible nest website for bees 🙂

A wooden of 2500 hectares (or is {that a} forest?), if round, fills a circle of 5.6 km diameter. In fact, it’s impossible to be round, however it makes the maths simpler so bear with me.

Assume this wooden is in the midst of good high quality combined farmland, with early season oil seed rape, hedgerows stuffed with hawthorn and blackberry, and ample clover polka-dotted pasture.

In different phrases, a very good surroundings for honey bees.

So the native beekeepers plonk a number of hives within the corners of fields, or alongside area margins.

Finally, the density of those hives reaches 4 km2 (as justified above).

Cartoon of woodland (inexperienced) and surrounding farmland (blue and crimson)

Within the diagram above the interior (inexperienced) circle is the native woodland. The encircling blue and crimson rings symbolize the encircling farmland, in every case the world coated by an extra 1 km radius respectively from the centre.

The woodland comprises no managed colonies and is 24.6 km2. The blue ring (excluding the central wooded space) has an space of 20.7 km2 and so comprises – based mostly upon all these assumptions above – 83 managed hives. Likewise, the crimson ring has an space of 27 km2 and comprises 108 hives.

Outline ‘remoted’

As proven above, 50% of swarms transfer not more than a kilometre to a brand new nest website, however some transfer additional … and some could transfer a lot additional.

Any of the managed hives within the blue ring may produce a swarm that might attain the forest boundary. As well as, assuming the blue ring contained few appropriate nest websites – and I’ll return thus far shortly – swarms issuing from hives within the crimson ring may nicely journey additional and attain the forest.

The truth is, when you overlay the roundel diagram with the swarm dispersal diagram – on the similar scale – from the paper by Villa (2004) you may see that swarms from a really extensive space are ‘in vary’ of the hole tree-filled forest.

Woodland (inexperienced) and surrounding farmland with – on the similar scale – swarming distances from Villa (2004)

The swarm dispersal diagram reveals the swarms ranging from a central level, so that you simply must think about the arrows are reversed.

The truth is, when you assume that swarms can journey as much as 7 km (just one swarm studied by Villa could have gone additional, however one third travelled 4-7 km) there may very well be as many as 517 doubtlessly swarming colonies ‘in vary’ .

Due to this fact, so far as migrating swarms are involved, it’s fairly attainable that none of the forest is ‘remoted’.

Nest websites in farmland and forests

Within the Kohl et al., (2022) paper I mentioned final week, nearly all of the woodpecker holes utilized by bees had been in giant beech bushes. The common diameter of the bushes was 55 cm when measured 1.5 m above floor.

These had been substantial bushes.

Bushes of that measurement are widespread in outdated development forest … however they’re uncommon in farmland.

Hedging, if it hasn’t been grubbed up, comprises predominantly small bushes. Many small copses and spinneys have additionally disappeared, all to make approach for mix harvesters and subsidies.

A lot of forage however not lots of mature bushes

In fact, there are giant bushes in farmland, they’re only a complete lot much less widespread than they’re in outdated native woodland.

Due to this fact swarms issuing from managed hives on farmland – assuming they don’t find yourself in considered one of my bait hives – usually tend to gravitate to the forest as there shall be extra nest websites there.

Blenheim bees

I don’t know a lot concerning the widely-publicised ‘Blenheim bees’ that I briefly launched final week.

Nonetheless, I do know that the Blenheim Property close to Oxford has about 2500 hectares of woodland, and that there are lots of beekeepers in Oxfordshire.

That 2500 hectares, if round (which it isn’t) and centred on Blenheim Palace, would span from Combe to Oxford Airport, and utterly covers the small market city of Woodstock .

This can be a in style space for beekeeping. The Nationwide Bee Unit’s ‘BeeBase’ informs me that there are ~200 apiaries inside 10 km of Blenheim Palace. Combe to the west has ~190 apiaries inside 10 km.

If these apiaries have the anticipated variety of hives in (i.e. 4 km2, and I see no compelling motive why not … for instance, the countryside is much like Warwickshire) then there are a really giant variety of colonies able to producing swarms which might be nicely inside vary of the forested space.

However let’s simply revisit that determine of ~200 apiaries inside 10 km.

How correct it’s?

Actually among the apiaries may have been ‘forgotten’ and are actually vacant. I wager there’s lots of redundant knowledge on BeeBase.

Maybe ~200 apiaries shouldn’t be a really correct determine?

I believe it is most likely inaccurate … however I strongly suspect it’s an underestimate somewhat than an overestimate of apiary numbers within the space.

Many beekeepers are not registered on BeeBase. Solely the Nationwide Bee Unit is aware of the proportion of beekeepers/apiaries/hives lacking, however I’d be amazed if it was lower than 25% and in no way stunned if it was 40%.

That is most likely a part of the ’fiddle issue’ used to extrapolate from BeeBase registrations and hive numbers to that ’experimental statistic’ of 272,000 hives within the UK.

Occam’s razor, the regulation of parsimony, and ‘remoted’ feral/wild bees

Are there self-sustaining populations of honey bees within the UK?

By self-sustaining I imply not dependent upon an annual inflow of swarms from close by managed colonies. These swarms compensate for the very excessive winter attrition charge seen within the Kohl et al., (2022) research which is probably going because of pathogens and hunger (I’m going to take care of pathogens – briefly – subsequent).

Nicely, are there?

I don’t know.

Based mostly upon registered and predicted apiary and hive numbers, and the recognized distances swarms migrate, I believe the best – and subsequently more than likely – clarification for feral colonies in ‘remoted’ places are current (< 1 12 months) swarms from close by managed colonies.

Even assuming the Nationwide Bee Unit’s predicted 272,000 hives are evenly distributed over your entire UK (242,000 km2) that’s nonetheless >1 hive / km2. They’re clearly not evenly distributed; many areas are unsuitable or, at greatest, borderline for beekeeping.

I’d wish to have been capable of focus on the world of outdated development forests within the UK and the way remoted or in any other case it’s. Sadly, I don’t have the information … or the GIS mapping abilities to interrogate it.

Due to this fact I’ll shut as a substitute with one thing I do know a little bit extra about …

Feral colonies, pathogens and genetics

How wholesome are feral colonies within the UK?

There aren’t lots of revealed research. Catherine Thompson and colleagues confirmed that the pathogen load – together with Deformed wing virus (DWV), Black queen cell virus (BQCV) and Nosema (each apis and ceranae) – had been comparable or increased in feral colonies than in managed colonies (Thompson et al., 2014).

Pathogen ranges in feral (F) and managed (M) colonies

Ranges of DWV in feral colonies had been considerably increased than in managed colonies, however they had been comparable to the degrees seen in beekeeper’s hives not handled to manage Varroa infestation.

We all know – although many are nonetheless bitterly reminded yearly – that colonies through which mite ranges are excessive and uncontrolled normally perish overwinter.

Catherine Thompson additionally studied the genetic traits of feral colonies and in contrast them to managed colonies (Thompson, C. PhD. thesis, College of Leeds, 2010). Her outcomes present that the feral colonies she studied had been very comparable – and successfully indistinguishable – to managed colonies when the general degree of genetic heterozygosity was analysed. Which means these feral colonies will not be a definite genetic race of bees.

That’s not the identical as displaying they had been genetically associated to (and so originated from) close by managed colonies … these experiments nonetheless should be completed.

Are these wild bees self-sustaining, distinctive and historic?

If a colony or two of bees (or perhaps a hundred) are discovered within the woods I’d recommend the next exams should be utilized to convincingly show they’re a singular and self-sustaining inhabitants.

  • how remoted are they actually? Are there managed colonies inside 5-10 km that might act as a supply of swarms? Geographic isolation could also be because of components apart from distance, for instance an island inhabitants, or an remoted valley surrounded with mountains.
  • is the inhabitants really self-sustaining? Do colonies frequently survive for adequate time to breed? To be self-sustaining, annual colony losses should be lower than or equal to new colonies established from the similar feral bees.
  • are the bees genetically distinct from managed colonies inside 10 km or so? If they’re a well-established inhabitants you’ll anticipate this.

If the inhabitants is really remoted, reproduces sufficiently to interchange annual losses and is genetically distinct, then it could be self-sustaining.

Nonetheless, if it doesn’t meet any considered one of these three standards then I think the inhabitants relies upon ‘spillover’ losses of swarms from neighbouring managed colonies.

Attention-grabbing maybe, however not shocking, not distinctive and positively not historic.

Unsurprisingly, I’m sceptical about most of the claims made for lengthy misplaced and distinctive strains of bees dwelling within the woods (or wherever else for that matter).

A glimmer of hope (?) … the Arnot Forest bees

The Arnot Forest shouldn’t be dissimilar in measurement to Blenheim property (17 km2 vs. 24 km2).

Nonetheless, it’s surrounded by tons extra outdated development forest (100+ years) and so is successfully extra remoted. There are some managed colonies within the surrounding forests, however – when examined – they had been genetically distinct from the Arnot Forest bees (Seeley et al., 2015). Lastly, the colony survival traits (~1.5 years) and annual swarming of the Arnot Forest bees signifies that the inhabitants is self-sustaining. These Arnot Forest bees have tailored to dwell with Varroa by means of behavioural modifications – frequent swarming, small colonies and many others.

Clearly, self-sustaining populations of feral colonies can exist , however this isn’t the identical as claiming that all feral populations are self-sustaining, distinctive or historic.

Lastly, it’s price noting that the mechanisms that self-sustaining populations of bees have developed to develop into Varroa tolerant (they’re unlikely to be resistance) – small, swarmy, colonies – could make them unsuited for both beekeeping or pollination.


Kohl, P.L., Rutschmann, B. and Steffan-Dewenter, I. (no date) ‘Inhabitants demography of feral honeybee colonies in central European forests’, Royal Society Open Science, 9(8), p. 220565. Out there at: https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.220565.

Seeley, T.D. et al. (2015) ‘A survivor inhabitants of untamed colonies of European honeybees within the northeastern United States: investigating its genetic construction’, Apidologie, 46(5), pp. 654–666. Out there at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-015-0355-0.

Seeley, T.D. (2017) ‘Life-history traits of untamed honey bee colonies dwelling in forests round Ithaca, NY, USA’, Apidologie, 48(6), pp. 743–754. Out there at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13592-017-0519-1.

Seeley, T.D. and Morse, R.A. (1977) ‘Dispersal Conduct of Honey Bee Swarms’, Psyche: A Journal of Entomology, 84, pp. 199–209. Out there at: https://doi.org/10.1155/1977/37918.

Thompson, C. (2010) The well being and standing of the feral honeybee (Apis mellifera sp) and Apis mellifera mellifera inhabitants of the UK. phd. College of Leeds. Out there at: https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/5211/ (Accessed: 19 October 2022).

Thompson, C.E. et al. (2014) ‘Parasite Pressures on Feral Honey Bees (Apis mellifera sp.)’, PLOS ONE, 9(8), p. e105164. Out there at: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0105164.

Villa, J.D. (2004) ‘Swarming Conduct of Honey Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in Southeastern Louisiana’, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 97(1), pp. 111–116. Out there at: https://www.researchgate.web/publication/232681544_Swarming_Behavior_of_Honey_Bees_Hymenoptera_Apidae_in_Southeastern_Louisiana.



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