Feral bees

There are, as far as we know, two wild or feral honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies in the reserve. The first, photographed here by wildlife photographer Simon Knight, is in the old ash tree at Fiveways and the second is in the oak alongside the central path, between the Lone Oak and the decorated bridge.

[1] Fiveways; the old ash tree is on the left of the picture
[2] The Lone Oak; the oak that the bees have colonised is on the photographer’s right.

Both nests are very high up in what we assume to be large cavities in the main tree trunks. A honey bee colony needs a cavity with a volume of at least 20 litres if the bees are to store enough honey for the hive to overwinter successfully. Both trees are home to bracket fungi that may have been instrumental in hollowing out part of the trunk, and the reserve houses green and greater spotted woodpeckers, two species known for enlarging natural holes when it comes to nesting time.

Very little is known about the distribution of feral bees; nor do we know if their numbers are declining at the same rate as those of managed bees. But a  feral colony is one that is surviving without the aid of a beekeeper, that is coping with the same pests, diseases and enviromental pressures as the domesticated cousins they left behind when they swarmed. Subject to such Darwinian selection, surely only the fittest of them will have survived.

A honey bee working in the reserve, collecting nectar and pollen from hogweed (pictures by Suzanne Humphries)

Beekeeping has reduced Darwinian selection among the domesticated bee population and this has led to reduced genetic variability. All over the world the breeding of honey bee queens is in the hands of just a few specialists who make their choices based on attributes that do not always contribute to a hive’s survival under pressure. For instance, a queen bred for her temperament and ease of handling may have nothing to pass on to her daughter-workers that will help them deal with climatic extremes or exposure to pesticides. This is leading to even further loss of genetic variability and subsequently to many domesticated hives’ disastrous and often fatal inability to adapt to fast-changing local conditions.

Put bluntly, our feral bees are being selected by their environment to cope with the pressures that are killing thousands of managed domesticated hives.

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