Insect of the Week: Managed & Wild Colonies

Adapted from pages 3-5 of Following the Wild Bees:

Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hives and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. While it is true that managed and wild honey bee colonies lead rather different lives— the former are manipulated to produce honey and pollinate crops, whereas the latter are left alone and can do whatever boosts their survival and reproduction— the bees in both types of colonies are virtually identical. The members of these two groups look, function, and act so similarly because the two groups have essentially the same genetic composition. This genetic similarity is a consequence of the frequent swapping of genes between the managed and wild colonies living in the same geographical area. Part of this genetic exchange between the two groups arises because the colonies living in beekeepers’ hives produce swarms that escape and then lead lives in the wild, while at the same time the colonies living in natural abodes produce swarms that beekeepers collect and then install in their hives.

The exchange of genes between managed and wild colonies also takes place in a second, more sensational way: the curious sexual behavior of honey bees. Every queen bee mates on the wing with 15– 20 males drawn from the neighboring colonies living within four or so miles from her home. This shameless promiscuity of queen honey bees evolved because high genetic diversity among a queen bee’s female offspring— that is, the workers in her colony— is essential to her colony’s health. These days, it also has the effect of blending the genes in the managed and the wild colonies living in the same region. Incidentally, this extensive gene flow between managed and wild colonies explains why humans haven’t created distinct breeds of honey bees through selective breeding, analogous to what has been done in the domestication of dogs, horses, and sheep.

Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting
By Tom Seeley

Following the Wild Bees is a delightful foray into the pastime of bee hunting, an exhilarating outdoor activity that used to be practiced widely but which few people know about today. Weaving informative discussions of bee biology with colorful anecdotes, personal insights, and beautiful photos, Thomas Seeley describes the history and science behind this lost pastime and how anyone can do it. The bee hunter’s reward is a thrilling encounter with nature that challenges mind and body while also giving insights into the remarkable behavior of honey bees living in the wild. Whether you’re a bee enthusiast or just curious about the natural world, this book is the ideal companion for newcomers to bee hunting and a rare treat for armchair naturalists.


This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Insect of the Week: Defending Honey Bee Colonies