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.


Honey bee swarm. Flickr photo by Eran Finkle.


  • The irony of that truth, Rusty, is that the toughest group to convince this is so, is the “organic” crowd. It’s ironic because you would think they are more aware of the damage being done to our environment by pests and pesticides than the average person. They should know how perilous the situation is for feral pollinators. I know of one organic honey vendor at a nearby farmer’s market that claims he only sells honey he collected from wild honey bees. This claim is absolutely meaningless concerning the honey the bees produce if, by his claim, he means he captured wild bees then hived them. And it’s dubious, to say the least, if he is claiming he only collects honey from bees in the wild considering the copious amounts he apparently has to sell each week. Apparently there are enough people convinced of the magical powers of this “wild honey” that he is doing quite well. Yes Virginia, there’s one born every minute.

  • I’m guilty of romancing the swarm, and a few other things, especially when I started keeping bees last July. But this spring and summer so far have killed away a huge hunk of those idealistic notions. The reality of beekeeping in my particular local environment is hitting me hard and, to be really honest, it’s been discouraging, a bit of a bummer. But I’m definitely learning from the hardships and moving ahead with the practical knowledge.

    I’m done with romancing.

  • I’m surprised that the percentages are that low, especially here in the temperate NW. I’ve only been catching swarms two years now. I know the source of one of my swarms, and it was indeed a managed hive. But out of the swarm calls I’ve been on, I know of three feral colonies; one that has been in a cedar tree for years and is known to swarm annually, one that had been in the wall of a historical building for 80 years, and one that’s been in the wall of a farmhouse for at least 15 years, perhaps more. None of the above have been managed in any way, except to catch swarms that they periodically emit. The one in the historic building was finally relocated to a manmade hive when the building was restored, but the owner doesn’t re-queen, doesn’t use chemicals of any kind, and doesn’t give them foundation, so basically aside from being given a house that expands and contracts with the seasons, they’re on their own. I helped catch a swarm that issued out of the cedar tree, though I wasn’t lucky enough to get to keep it.

    Three feral colonies in two years, and 10 swarms I’ve known about/caught/dealt with. Maybe we’re just in an area conducive to wild colonies?

  • You are wrong. I have a completely natural bee hive living in my cedar tree, that has been here for over ten years. I’ve never fed them and I’ve left them alone. This year, I had a second hive re-locate via swarm, to a second tree about 60 feet away. These bees, do in fact look different than the wild bees. The wild bees act different as well. They are very logical and have built their hive deep inside a 5 foot diameter tree. I cut a door in the back side last year and have inspected several times.

    The new batch, is very busy hollowing out their new home, as evidenced by the large sawdust pile out the front, but they are also vigorous foragers. The Wild bees are much lower key in comparison. For what it’s worth, I had a hell of a time trying to over-winter two hives of packaged bees and yet these wild guys seem to have the whole thing figured out. We live in the Northwest, out in the country, they have access to literally a massive choice of blackberries, fruit and flowers in the surrounding 180 acres.

    One thing is for certain. They don’t need our help to make it through winter!!

    • Steve,

      I have no doubt your wild colony has survived ten years. Think back to your last class in statistical analysis: Like so many other things, the length of colony survival will fall on a bell curve and there will always be outliers in the tails of the curve. It doesn’t change the fact that most colonies survive only a winter or two.

  • You should make this colony available to the government to use it’s gene pool regarding varro mite. Seems like there must be some resistance (or totally isolated, which is unlikely).

  • I have captured two feral colonies over the years, by finding the tree they’re in, and transferring them to a new hive. I haven’t noticed the feral colonies being any hardier than the store bought bees. The only reason I keep feral colonies is that its a lot of fun to track them down and get them into a new hive.

  • Steve,

    Maybe it has something to do with the cedar tree. After all they are insect and disease resistant. Just a thought.

    Best Regards,

  • I live in SE Ohio and know of 2 feral colonies in my immediate area, that have been established for at least 3 years. (That is how long ago I found them) They are remote, by that I mean at least 1 mile into the woods from the nearest road. I would love to capture their swarms, any suggestions.

    • Don,

      You can put out swarm traps baited with pheromone lures. By the way, just because honey bees have been living in the same tree for years doesn’t mean it is the same colony. Sometimes a colony will die, for whatever reason, and a new swarm moves in immediately. Swarms are attracted by the scent of a previous colony, even if it died.

  • Here’s the preliminary results of the Arnot Forest study Prof. Seeley’s own words. It’s amazing stuff. And much like his earlier book it turns a lot of conventional wisdom on its head. He’s an impeccable researcher too, the kind of guy who won’t publish until everything is checked and double checked and triple checked. So if he says the feral bees are surviving without recruitment from escaped swarms you can take it to the bank:

    “At present, my main research interest is in the area of conservation biology: determining how honey bee colonies living in the wild are able to survive without being treated with pesticides for controlling a deadly ectoparasitic mite, Varroa destructor. Understanding how feral honey bee accomplish this will help beekeepers develop sustainable, pesticide-free approaches to beekeeping. Preliminary work has shown that there remains a feral population of European honey bees living in the Arnot Forest, Cornell University’s 4200-acre research forest located 15 miles from Ithaca, NY. My work has also revealed that these bees have survived infestations of Varroa mites since at least 2002, that the mite populations in these colonies do not surge to high levels, and that this population of bees is not maintained by immigration of bees from managed (pesticide-treated) colonies living outside the forest. I am currently investigating three possible mechanisms that can explain how the honey bees of the Arnot Forest are able to survive on their own: 1) these bees have evolved means of resistance to the mites, 2) the mites on these bees have evolved low intrinsic rate of reproduction (avirulence), and 3) these bees possess colony-level traits (such as small colony size and frequent swarming) that reduce mite populations.”

    This is from: http://www.nbb.cornell.edu/seeley.shtml

    • JW,

      I am a huge fan of Thomas Seeley. However, you say these are his preliminary results. He says it is preliminary work. Big difference.