Tell me about your "Feral Bee Project"

Before 1980, honeybees pretty much lived without much need of the beekeeper.  Beekeepers could pretty much keep bees without excessive concern for the health of their honeybees.  The bees pretty much took care of themselves.  We also had several colonies of bees living in the woods in hollow trees.

But during the 1980s, two parasitic "mites" moved into the country.  One is external, a "varroa" mite.  The other mite is internal and microscopic.  It is called the "tracheal" mite. 

The combination of these two mites wiped out many of the managed hives and absolutely devastated the bees living freely in the forests and woods.  Many beekeepers found it easier to quit than keep up with this new challenge.

People complained they no longer found honeybees visiting their gardens.  The old-timers who used to cut "bee trees" said there were no wild bees anymore.  Beekeepers, who before could keep bees without any chemical treatments, were faced with the need to treat their hives with pharmaceutical miticides or quit keeping bees.  Beekeepers who thought they didn't need treatments were rudely corrected with the reality of dead hives.

And so we treated our managed hives of bees, and the bees prospered.  We pretty much gave up on the feral colonies of wild bees and presumed them to all be wiped out.

But then funny things began happening.  The treated hives began to die out.  It appeared that the mites were beginning to develop a resistance to the treatments.  But thanks to teams of wonderful research scientists, stronger pharmaceuticals were created.   And in response, the mites were able to ratchet up their resistance.  Are stronger chemicals the answer?  Are we not on a chemical treadmill that seems to be increasing in speed?

We are now also learning that some of these chemical miticides have side effects that are detrimental to the bees.  Questions are arising as to residues found in honey.  Beekeepers are warned to take necessary precautions to guard their own health!  It looked like the beekeeping industry was headed down a long, tight spiral of increasing medication and chemical addiction.

However, there is a ray of hope.  Through the devastation wrought by the mites, there were some bees that survived in the "wild."  Some of these "wild" hives, also known as "feral" colonies seemed to live without beekeeper intervention and without chemical treatments.

Many questions were raised.  How do they do survive?  Can we catch these bees and reproduce more queens to reduce our chemical addiction to miticides?  Is it possible to reduce our costs and dependence upon pharmaceuticals?

Thus was born my "Feral Bee Project."   This project seeks to retrieve swarms of honeybees and establish them in conventional, Langstroth hives.  Can they survive without chemical treatments under standard management practices?

One such belief is that these so-called wild bees cannot survive.  The reason they survive presently is because the mites have not found them.  So if we transfer these bees to managed hives in bee yards with mites, will we not then be able to tell if they are resistant?  I think so!

This also raises other questions as to where these feral bees come from.  Some research experts believe these swarms are not wild or feral.  It is assumed, because of the previous devastation, that wild swarms do not exist, that any swarm caught today comes from a managed hive that is undetected when the swarm is caught.

Some of the swarms I've caught show resistance to the mites, and some swarms do not.  It is possible I'm catching a swarm from someone's managed hives.  And yet I've watched colonies of honeybees live in brick buildings without any beekeeper intervention.  Are these colonies surviving without chemicals, or do new swarms move into the old dead hive each year?  And if I catch a swarm, how do I know it came from this wild colony in the brick building?

We have many questions that need answers.

The Feral Bee Project seeks to do the following:

1.  Through increased availability, swarms will be caught or retrieved, either through beekeepers willing to put their name on "swarm call lists" or by those willing to hang and monitor pheromone-baited swarm traps.

2.  Locations for swarm traps will need to be procured. 

3.  Government and public agencies will need to be appraised of who is willing to receive swarms calls and retrieve swarms.

4.  Beekeepers will be needed to hive swarms and monitor mite levels through the use of screen bottom boards.

5.  Resistant colonies will need to be identified, and queens raised from these colonies, which in turn, requires additional beekeepers to monitor subsequent generations of honeybees for mite resistance.

6.  Additional funding may be needed to assist beekeepers to purchase the additional equipment and supplies to allow for more hives, plus financial assistance may be needed to provide and protect beekeepers from the loss of their investment when they attempt to keep bees without the "security" of the chemical miticides.

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Here is a picture of one of my swarm traps.  Inside the trap is a pheromone-scented lure to attract swarms of honeybees.  When the swarm takes up residence, the entrace is closed (at night to contain all the field bees), the swarm trap is relocated to my bee yard and the frames of bees are transferred to a conventional hive body.