The Important Difference Between Feral And Domestic Honeybees

Bee in Flight
” ‘O bees, sweet bees!’ I said; ‘that nearest field / Is shining white with fragrant immortelles. / Fly swiftly there and drain those honey wells.’ ” —Helen Hunt Jackson, “My Bees”

In A Nutshell

With the continued decline of the worldwide population of pollinators, farmers have been looking to alternative methods, specifically, migratory colonies of feral bees. There’s a difference between feral and domestic bees, though. Not only do domestic bees forage in different patterns than feral bees, the final yield of the crops they work is considerably lower. They’re also often susceptible to carrying diseases and parasites that feral bees are vulnerable to, aiding in the continued population decline.

The Whole Bushel

For the last few years, we’ve been hearing all about how the world’s populations of pollinating insects—bees in particular—is declining. While just raising more bees might seem pretty obvious, there’s a distinct difference between the behavior and physiology of feral bees and domesticated colonies that make a numbers-based strategy problematic.

According to the Department of Agriculture, bees alone have a staggeringly important impact on the quality and quantity of produce. In the US, bees are responsible for adding an estimated $15 billion to the value of harvested crops. If that’s not reason enough to looks twice at them, nothing is. But with the decline in the bee population, more and more farmers are needing to rely on migratory (feral) bee colonies. That reliance might be doing more harm than good in the long run.

Recent research has shown that there’s a difference in the way domestic and feral bees pollinate flowers. A study of apple orchards found that yield increased only when native, feral bees were the ones doing the pollinating, mostly because of their foraging practices. While domestic bees traveled through trees and gravitated toward the areas with the largest flower clusters, wild bees foraged and pollinated equally across the board. This produced a higher yield and a better quality of fruit.

The other problem is a difference in how well-equipped bees are to deal with diseases and pests. Some studies have found that almost 80 percent of bees that are imported into the UK are infected with as many as five different parasites, and introducing those infected bees into close contact with an already-ailing population of wild bees can be devastating. Native species and entire bee colonies have been effectively wiped out by the diseases that commercially raised and imported bees carry.

So, you have the native bees, the commercially raised bees, and a third kind: migratory bees. It’s estimated that there are around 1,600 migratory bee–keepers currently operating in the United States, shipping their hives of bees from one area to the next, depending on what’s in season. In February, many beekeepers head to California to hire out their bees to work the almond orchards there. (The California almond pollination is the biggest single pollination season in the country.) By summertime, some of those beekeepers have taken their bees to the Midwest to work the clover fields, or to Texas, where melons are in need of some pollination. Later in the year, they might head to the East Coast for apple season, or to Florida.

The impact of these migratory colonies can be devastating. Colonies pick up diseases and spread them across the country, infecting populations of native bees that have no defenses against these foreign diseases. They also bring with them traces of foreign pesticides and fertilizers, which can all contribute to the collapse of entire native colonies.

Show Me The Proof

Scientific American: The Mind-Boggling Math of Migratory Beekeeping
Smithsonian: Commercial Hives Might Be Saving Crops, But They’re Killing Wild Bees
Journal of Applied Ecology: Species richness of wild bees, but not the use of managed honeybees, increases fruit set of a pollinator-dependent crop
CNN: What will happen if the bees disappear?