Wild honey bees have an interesting relationship with managed honey bees

Africa always conjures up images of open lands and freedom, and amazingly, our honey bee populations are just that.  They are all wild and free.  They cannot be kept as one would a bird in a cage; they choose to move freely from one area to another, from a hive to a tree or from a cave to a managed hive.  There are so many areas that our honey bees touch and sprinkle magic on, from maintaining our rich natural biodiversity and wilder lands as they pop from indigenous bush to flower, flying freely to the blooms that beautify and scent our gardens or popping into our veggie patch and helping us grow the gorgeous veggies that keep us healthy and well – honey bees in freedom are central to our lives and our environment.  We are seeing a keen focus on honey bees, and with good reason given the key role they play.

As our focus on honey bees increases, so too is a fantastic ground swell of interest and support in all areas that our honey bees actively affect.  From conservation to consumerism, everyone is taking notice and playing a role in working toward a balanced solution to our needs of honey bees and their needs of us.  One of the questions cropping up is fascinating – the question of how does a wild hive interact with a managed hive; a managed hive that is perhaps in your back garden that supplies you with your own honey, or the hive that your local beekeeper is looking after, nurturing and protecting, so that those bees can help out in our farmlands with crop pollination, or supplying the local honey that is becoming rarer and increasingly more valuable as droughts have meant less food for bees to eat, and that means less honey is produced, which means there is less honey surplus for us to enjoy.  Remember good beekeepers never take more honey than honey bees need to survive themselves.  And if there is not enough surplus honey, the bees keep their honey.  And if they can’t produce enough honey for their own survival, and there is simply no food in their foraging radius of up to 10km, they die, perhaps there is food within this radius, then they will move on to somewhere where they can forage and flourish. Or their trusty beekeeper offers them a helping hand in times of crisis and feeds them.  This freedom to move is key to their survival.  And simply who they are.

In our urban areas with natural environments, how inter-dependent are our ‘wild’ and ‘managed’ honey bee swarms?  And what are the benefits of their co-existence?

Mike Miles Chairman of the South African Bee Industry Organisation puts it quite neatly “we have found that both wild colonies and managed colonies (which in themselves are wild bees as bees cannot be tamed or domesticated) complement each other in the natural environment.  Under wild conditions a colony may only have the lifespan of some 9 months in some regions; whereas a well-managed colony by a professional beekeeper will survive for years perpetuating new colonies which themselves will feed back into the wild or into other managed boxes.”

Our managed honey bees in our backyard and our local beekeeper’s hives are also supporting very real unmanageable threats to wild colonies as Mike continues “wild colonies are susceptible to diseases and once infected cannot be treated and will collapse and die out.  Once the bees have died other foraging bees from other wild colonies will forage from the diseased honeycombs and take the pathogens back to their own nests and thereby infect those colonies until the whole area becomes devoid of bees.”  Having our bees move between the wild and our managed hives offers us the opportunity in our populated areas to manage pathogens and overall general honey bee population health.

There is no protecting honey bees in our populated areas in a bid to ‘protect them from each other’ through any kind of normal conservation exclusion zone, like we would game on a game farm with fences, because they are free to move about as they please.  And they can and do move far and wide as their food needs demand.  Our ‘wild’ honey bees need our help in many ways, and one of them is by maintaining a healthy interaction with our managed hives in our populated areas.  So if you have a swarm visit you, bee-active and call your local beekeeper to help you move them so that they will remain safely, part of the bigger tribe.

Every colony is key in survival in the overall picture of a managed process to shift the balance in the threat to our food security and natural environments through loss of honey bees. 

We nurture where we can and we feed them where we can.  It’s a good starting point for change.  So bee-effective, plant for honey bees and save every colony you can, in whatever manner you can.