Buy local, bee local

I sort of assume that people appreciate the importance of honey bees. And then, every so often I am forcibly reminded that, even in the fairly ecologically savvy city where I live, there are those who would rather destroy honey bees than live with them. Fortunately, sometimes I am also reminded of the resilience of honey bees and the remarkable ways that they have adapted to living with humans.

Case in point. About a year and a half ago one of my students told me about a colony of bees living in a eucalyptus tree in his neighborhood, on a corner two blocks from the ocean. I went to check it out, and indeed there were bees coming and going from a hole about 3 meters above the ground. They seemed to be perfectly happy in the tree, and I was happy to know that they were there. I looked in on them every once in a while and noticed that in the early fall the entrance to the colony had been sealed up with some gunk that looked like white foam.

Given the stresses on honey bees these days--pesticides, varroa mites and other parasites, as well as some of the practices of commercial beekeeping--one of the most valuable things a hobbyist beekeeper can come across is a locally adapted feral colony. Local adaptation means exactly what it sounds like: bees that have evolved to survive and thrive in the conditions of a particular area. They will have survived multiple winters and whatever parasite load comes along with the location. While there would be a change in the royal regime every 2-3 years on average, the lineage of queens would be producing viable, vigorous workers. Beekeepers want to know that alleles from these locally adapted feral colonies are in the gene pool in which our queens are mating. Most of us would love to catch a swarm thrown by one of these locally adapted colonies (we may have done that earlier this season, in fact).

Yesterday I got a third-hand phone call about a "swarm of bees in a tree in such-and-such a neighborhood" and did I want to capture them? Mid-July is late for swarms, and after the caller mentioned what street they were on I realized we were talking about the feral colony I'd kept an eye on for the past year. I went down and looked at the tree, and noticed that the bees were in the same tree but had moved within the tree.

Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Feral colony of honey bees in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The bees are coming in and out of that orange blotch on the trunk. More about that later. This is a new opening as of this year.

Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Old and current openings to a feral colony of honey bees.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There was zero activity around the 2015 entrance. The two entrances are less than a meter apart on the outside of the tree, but there is no way to know whether or not the internal cavities are connected. The absence of bees near the door they were using last year suggests that the spaces are not connected. I wish I had a fiber-optic camera, because I'd love to see what's going on inside that tree.

What's going on outside the tree is a lot of coming and going.

While the neighbors and I were watching all the coming and going, I got a little of the backstory of this colony. The neighbors next to the property where the feral colony lives told me that there have been bees in that grove of eucalyptus trees for the 15+ years they've lived in their house. Last year, when the bees were in the lower entrance to the colony, the owner of the house on the corner called in an exterminator to poison them. The bees died but the cavity in the tree still contained wax and honey, which would be very attractive to a swarm looking for a permanent address. It appears that the bees currently residing in the tree either found or made themselves a new door, which at some point in recent months had been sealed up with foam (the orange stuff). They chewed through the foam and are carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree. 18 July 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Honey bees returning to a feral colony in a eucalyptus tree.
18 July 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Why would somebody pay to have an exterminator poison a colony of honey bees that is posing no threat? The reason must be fear and ignorance. This colony is high enough that the bees' flightline is well above head height, and I imagine most people walking right next to the tree don't even realize that the bees are there. However, fear is a powerful motivator, with ignorance coming in as a close second. The property owners decided that the bees were either a nuisance or a danger, and had them dealt with accordingly. Their neighbors, on the other hand, are happy to know that the bees are there to pollinate their gardens. I've asked them to keep in touch and let me know if they see anything interesting happening at the tree, and they've agreed to let us put a bait hive out there next spring to see if we can catch a swarm from this locally adapted colony.

One potential problem is that at some point in the past year or so the interior of the tree has been poisoned at least once. I don't know what poison was used (it might not be difficult to find out but at this point I don't want to bother--concussion, remember?) or its half-life in honey and beeswax. It could be that the bees living in the tree now are doomed because they've been exposed to the pesticide, or that any swarms they throw contain contaminated bees. I will keep watching this colony, though, crossing my fingers that they can continue to thrive despite the unfortunate activities of their closest human neighbors.

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