The Mysteries of Feral Bees
To make a prairie it takes a clover
and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
I am a failed beekeeper.
I had two hives. One died the first year and the other lasted about five, from which I got beautiful honey, but the next year those bees disappeared. True, I didn’t have much of a chance, since on average 40 percent of managed honeybee colonies die each year, and Pennsylvania is one of the hardest-hit states, always ranking in the top five.
Honeybees are dying at a rapid rate for many reasons, including Colony Collapse Disorder—first discovered in November 2006 by a Pennsylvania beekeeper overwintering his hive in Florida—parasites (such as varroa mites), viruses, fungi, changes in food and nesting habitats and neonicotinoids, a broad spectrum insecticide. Penn Environment, an environmental group, defines neonicotinoids (called neonics for short) as a deadly nerve agent, damaging bee brains and crippling their ability to learn, remember and navigate. A study published last October in the journal Science revealed that three-quarters of the honey tested worldwide is contaminated with neonicotinoids, which are also likely harming butterflies, moths, other insects and earthworms.
Shortly after I lost my second hive, honeybees showed up in a hole 15 feet high in a walnut tree next to our barn. I fantasized those were my bees—insisting on staying close to home—but that was probably a figment of my imagination. I tried to retrieve them by sprinkling a hive box with lemongrass oil—a beekeeper friend had lured bees that way—but I failed. I tried homegrown lemon balm too, which I’d read attracts bees, but that didn’t work either. Still, I was happy because the bees seemed content and I loved to watch and listen to them in the early morning in the vegetable garden: buzzing loudly, flying and foraging, gathering nectar from borage, poppies and catmint.
The next spring, near the walnut tree, I saw something large and brown against the red blossoms and glossy green leaves of a Japanese quince. It resembled a woman’s hairnet and pulled the quince branch toward the ground. As I approached I noticed it was bursting with bees, some of which were not happy when I got too close. It was a swarm, which I’d never seen before, and then, deeper in the foliage, another swarm. I circled the shrub for a long while, at a respectable distance, mesmerized by thousands of pulsating little beings, all huddled together, deciding where to set up their next home.
In his book, “Honeybee Democracy,” Thomas D. Seeley explained that swarms occur when a hive becomes overcrowded. Two-thirds of the worker bees leave with the old queen and the rest of the bees remain in the original hive with a new queen. Those that leave only travel about 100 feet before assuming the shape of the swarm, which contains approximately 10,000 bees and weighs in at about three pounds. Meanwhile, several hundred bees leave the swarm to scout for a new place to live. “Choosing the right dwelling place is a life-or-death matter for a honeybee colony,” he wrote. One of those scouts must have decided that the stonework on the side of our garage was suitable, and they settled right in.
I was a beekeeper again, albeit of a different sort; I now had two feral hives.
The definition of a feral hive is “one that has been able to survive one winter without any management,” said Margarita Lopez-Uribe, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at Penn State. She is currently conducting what’s called “a citizens science project” to find and study feral bees. John Wenzel, an entomologist and director of Powdermill Nature Reserve near our farm, heard news of my feral colonies, and asked if he might extract some of the bees to take part in the study. I agreed, of course, so he and the State College team came twice last year—in March and September—complete with veils, smokers, nets, test tubes and dry ice. They took a sample of about 50 bees, froze them and took them back to the lab. (The bees had to be frozen in order to preserve RNA because RNA molecules are unstable and will degrade if not totally frozen, Lopez-Uribe explained.) So far, they’ve taken samples from six cities across the state—19 samples from feral colonies, and 11 from managed colonies.
“Our hypothesis is that the immune system of the feral bees is better,” Lopez-Uribe said. But she has to prove it.
Her early results show that more feral colonies exist than were previously presumed. “They aren’t that rare,” she said. “We have no historical data to compare, but anecdotally people thought feral colonies were gone because of the mites. There are more out there than we initially thought we could find.” Her study has also shown that feral bees have more viruses than managed colonies—in particular a two- to four-fold higher amount of deformed wing disease, which is transmitted by mites. And she’s discovered that feral bees’ immune systems work harder than those of domestic bees.
So what do these results mean exactly?
One of two extremes, Wenzel said. “The obvious one is that the feral bees are sicker than managed bees. However, it also could mean the opposite, which is that the feral bees can tolerate a great deal more challenge from pathogens and keep going.” Wenzel and Lopez-Uribe hope the latter is true, but they have more work to do. They’ll be back again this year to fetch more bees. “Stay tuned,” Lopez-Uribe said.
If, in the end, the study proves that feral bees are better equipped to fight disease, the ultimate goal is to crossbreed feral and domestic bees. “If we can identify colonies with stronger immune systems that can tolerate diseases and mites better, then we can conduct local breeding programs,” Lopez-Uribe said. Wenzel agreed. “We hope that by breeding the feral bees into the lines of managed bees we can get the disease-resistant immune system into the apiary. In a way, it is similar to how many agriculturists are turning back to heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and away from the ‘green revolution’ crops that were favored for high productivity.”
As I write this, an exceptionally cold spring has begun to warm up and I’m on the lookout for movement in my two feral hives. So far, not a bee, and I’m getting worried. The carpenter bees are back, the yellow jackets and the wasps, but no honeybees. Katy Ciola Evans, a member of the Penn State team who came to our farm to collect bees, said feral bees can take longer to become active, however, so I’m hopeful. I don’t want to be a failed beekeeper again.
Sadly, reverie—no matter how one spells it—is not enough.
* * *
And that was how the piece ended. I had a deadline, and I met it. But the story didn’t end there. Stop the presses.
Ten days later, Evans emailed me and asked if there was any movement in the hives. “Any signs of flight?” she wrote. “If not I will mark them as dead.” At the end of that sentence, she added a sad face emoji.
“Not a bee,” I wrote back. It was sad. She told me to keep an eye out, though. The cavity might be recolonized by another swarm—and if that happened, to let her know.
Two days after that I was once again in the vegetable garden in the morning. I was transplanting strawberries and missing the hum of my small companions. The fellow who helps me was rototilling. We were there at an early hour to beat the heat, but it was hot already. He took a break and went down to the barn to have a drink and a sandwich.
In the distance, I heard him yell: “The bees are back.”
He’d been standing near the walnut tree and heard a scratching sound on the bark. He looked up to see a red squirrel stick its nose into the hive and then run away—fast. And that’s when he saw the bees. I hurried down from the garden, but there were so few bees, so high up, that I wasn’t even sure they were honeybees. I went to the house and got a pair of binoculars.
Honeybees, indeed. I am a beekeeper for a third time. At least one feral hive survived the winter. I wrote Evans right away, who said the colony “probably overwintered very tiny, and it just took a few brood cycles for it to build up enough bees to be able see them.” Penn State will be back this month for another test.
Perhaps reverie was enough.