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Natural Honey Bees Nest

How honey bees may have lived in the wild

We often hear the term "Natural Beekeeping", but perhaps we don't ask ourselves what is "natural". In my view it should be a description of how bees lived before man's intervention, but of course that is something that will never be achieved. As soon as we cleared ground to grow crops and "managed" bees in some form of hive, we were no longer in a natural situation.

When faced with a problem in a colony, I often try to think back to what would have happened in a natural situation. What has happened and why? How can I help them? How would a colony react to whatever I have done to try to remedy the problem? In lectures and demonstrations I try to encourage attendees to think along the same lines too. It certainly makes you aware that bees often have the answer before we have thought of the problem.

I have written this page because there is little information available, with much of what I have seen being the result of research that has been done in America, where honey bees aren't indigenous and the bees that are used are far more prolific than ours are, so not appropriate. I have become annoyed at these sources being continually quoted as if they always apply to the U.K., but as usual those who "cut and paste" often have little experience of wild colonies themselves.

I hope I can encourage more understanding of what happens inside a natural honey bee nest in the conditions we have in the U.K. and Ireland, or more accurately what I have observed in a natural condition. I hope this is used for reference in future, as it is written as I have seen it in the wild, not as set up for experiments in different conditions.

I have taken or been involved in taking several hundred wild colonies out of various places including trees and buildings, but I am largely confining my comments to nests in trees, because I consider they are more natural than buildings. At one stage I was involved in removing 10-15 colonies a year from trees and probably only 2-3 from buildings. Now it is around 5 colonies a year, mainly from buildings.

Tree cavities are usually much taller than they are wide, so bees naturally move their brood nest vertically. Buildings rarely replicate this, meaning bees often have to adjust what they do naturally to suit the building, exactly the same as they do in a hive. A couple of common examples are a nest in a chimney may be tall and narrow like a tree, but is likely to have the opening at the top, rather than the bottom, as most tree cavities are, and a nest between a floor and ceiling is very shallow, so the bees are forced to build horizontally. Bees seem to manage both situations well, showing how adaptable they are.

I am using my observations to build up a picture of what I think would have happened on mainland U.K. Please accept that some is conjecture, but it is all based on what I have seen, much of it pre-varroa, which since it's introduction, has made it very difficult for bees to live very long in the wild.

The native bee in the U.K is the dark European honey bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) that is native to the whole of Northern Europe. It is thought that honey bees followed the receding ice after the Last Ice Age, then were cut off by the channel landbridge being closed due to rising sea levels. In geographical terms I include the U.K. and Ireland, but I'm not sure when bees arrived in Ireland.

It is reasonable to assume the pioneer honey bees would have needed three things:-

Those bees must have been living on the edge of their range and probably quite sparsely populated. I'm assuming that nest sites would have been few and losses quite high, due to the conditions. I have often wondered if this may have caused inbreeding problems, but we will probably never know for sure. I once heard a lecture where the speaker told us that swarming bees always went south to find a new nest. I think the theory was they went towards the sun, so presumably that is only in the northern hemisphere. If that is the case then how did they spread their range? Those of us who have kept bees some time will know this is incorrect, but an example of one of the myths of beekeeping.

Those bees must have been pretty tough and natural selection would have soon sorted out the weak. When they became established they obviously did well and had to deal with varying conditions. These included the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age that followed it. They both lasted several hundred years, although it is now thought the variation in temperature was only a few degrees. This must have made significant changes as global warming does today.

When a colony of honey bees are preparing to swarm they send out scouts to look for a new nest site. There are figures often quoted about the volume of the cavity they seek, but you need to remember that research may have been done in other countries, where the bees may be much more prolific than Amm and need much bigger cavities. I am convinced they also select a home that is over a point where at least two ley lines cross, often more. I understand some may be sceptical and not accept that view, but I'm only telling you what I have found. This is based on a large number over a long time where I have never found a natural nest that wasn't situated over ley lines.

On the subject of ley lines, occasionally a swarm will build a nest in the branches of trees and bushes in the open. I have never seen one of these live very long, not even until the end of the year, usually dying out in October or November. They have the damp and cold weather to deal with and it is difficult to defend their stores. For years I asked myself why they tried to fight a certainty. Since I have learnt about ley lines I think I have found the answer. Every nest I have seen in the open has a much higher number of ley lines crossing at this point. The most I have come across is 13, the least is 8, when a normal nest has perhaps 2-4, occasionally more. It is my view the spot is a "magnet" and they feel happy there.

Bees prefer to nest where bees have nested before. This can be seen where a swarm will come into a hive or cavity with comb in it in preference to one without. If a colony has recently died out, a new swarm will simply take over whatever is there. It is easy to think it's because there is comb there, but could it be because it is over ley lines - or both?

If the previous colony died out as the result of foul brood, then the incoming swarm will soon be infected and will subsequently die. Nature has a way of dealing with this and wax moth is the answer. Greater wax moth will destroy the combs with the whole nest being consumed. This will be quicker in warmer weather. There will be a mass of wax moth cocoons which in turn will be destroyed by a variety of wildlife, with the rubbish falling to the bottom of the cavity, leaving a clear space for another colony to come into a clean home. If the wax moth have started work, but not yet destroyed the comb, there is such a mess it is virtually impossible for bees to deal with it.

On many occasions I have been asked to help with a colony in a hive that hasn't been looked at for some time. Very often the combs in the brood box are built crossways to the frames. What has happened is the greater wax moth have destroyed the combs, leaving a clean cavity for a swarm to enter. On many occasions I have heard and read that a natural colony dies out and wax moth takes over, so getting rid of disease and providing the colony with new combs, as if it happens continually. I don't believe that is the case, nice though the theory might sound. Pre-varroa, the vast majority of combs I came across were very old, suggesting this theory is quite rare.

If the cavity is empty, the bees start to build comb and very often the queen is laying within 24 hours if she is fertile. This we can see when we collect a swarm late one day and hive it the following morning, where very often there will be a small piece of comb with eggs in it. The swarm has brought some honey with them and this is used to produce wax to build the first pieces of comb. Foragers will soon collect nectar and pollen to bring back to store. If there is already comb in the nest, the nectar and/or honey is placed in the cells quite quickly. We can see this when a swarm comes into a bait hive or is hived on comb. Although they don't need it for brood rearing for several days, there is pollen stored in cells within a few hours of a swarm taking up residence. A look at a swarm will show there are a significant number of bees carrying pollen, so they bring everything they need with them. This is good insurance against bad foraging weather in the next few days.

I have rarely, if ever, known a swarm in it's first year build drone comb, which is one of the reasons why you don't usually get drone cells in the centre of combs. In nature they have no need to produce drones at this stage. Even if the queen is a virgin it will take too long for drones to mature. All their resources are therefore concentrated on surviving their first winter. In their second year they expand the nest and build drone comb on the periphery. We tend to think that bees always build combs with the points of the cells towards the top, but they don't. In perhaps 30% of combs they have the horizontal to the top and often at random orientation.

In natural nests, especially in trees, there is usually a large gap underneath the combs. There is no point in bees building more comb than they need and this gap creates somewhere for the hive debris to collect. Wax moth feed on this and as in managed hives a strong colony will prevent them from destroying combs. Nests in confined spaces in buildings usually have a gap under combs. I may be wrong, but I have a suspicion that in the day or so before a swarm issues from a natural colony the bees that subsequently make up the swarm collect on the bottom of the combs. You read that bees rush around the hive, then jostle the queen, forcing her out of the hive, but I think this night be as a result of the bees reacting to a manufactured situation where there is no gap.

We are used to seeing bees in a hive, where the brood area is usually confined between a floorboard at the bottom and either a crown board or queen excluder at the top. We tend to put empty combs on the top of the brood, where in the natural nest empty comb is at the bottom. This gives us a distorted view of what bees do naturally.

All races of honey bees will put honey at the top of the nest. We are often told that pollen is put in the combs in an arch between the brood and the honey, but this is only true with non-Amm bees, as Amm will put pollen around the brood.

In a natural nest the brood area is moving up and down all the time, depending on whether nectar and pollen are coming in or not. As more food comes in, the brood area is forced downwards. Unlike in a beehive during a nectar flow, the queen lays in vacant cells at the bottom of the existing brood, so the older brood is at the top. When the brood at the top emerges the cells are filled with honey and pollen. It is erroneously thought by many that in a beehive bees immediately put nectar in the supers, but they don't. They dump it in any vacant cells, then start to process it before placing it above the brood, usually overnight. This can be seen in the afternoon and evening in a nectar flow where any vacant brood cells will be filled. The following morning it has gone. When pollen is placed in the combs, the bees never completely fill the cells, leaving a gap of 3-4mm from the top. Any pollen that isn't used has a small amount of honey put on top of it, then sealed for keeping. This ensures that pollen is distributed fairly evenly throughout the honey store for use when there is little coming in.

When there is more food needed than is coming in, the bees consume the store, leaving vacant cells above the existing brood that the queen lays eggs in and the brood area rises, reversing the earlier process. This means the store that is needed from perhaps September to April (earlier and/or later in some districts) has stored pollen fairly evenly distributed ready for use.

In my early beekeeping years I worked very closely with a man called George Wakeford, who like me, was born and brought up on a farm, but because the income was poor he joined a timber cutting gang. Although he had left timber cutting and taken up full time beekeeping by the time I knew him, he still knew the other timber cutters locally. Whenever they found a colony in a tree, George was asked to remove them and when he got too old I carried on. These were mainly well established colonies that had been there for many years, not a short time as is now the case. There were often similarities in the colonies and some were:-

I had around 20 colonies on Ebernoe Common in West Sussex for about 20 years. This is a large area of woodland pasture with some very old oak trees, many of which had bees in. I set up a lot of bait hives and most years I got at least 6 swarms. They were always good, dark and gentle bees and very few needed requeening because they were worse than what I already had, where swarms I collected from elsewhere, that had probably come from "managed" hives, almost always needed requeening because they were worse than what I already had.

In the vast majority of cases where I have taken bees out of trees, the cavity is usually cylindrical and much higher than wide. Occasionally there is a core of rotten wood the bees build the comb around. It is noticeable there are often many holes through the combs and plenty of bee spaces, which are presumably for communication and ease of travel through the nest. These could be a help in the winter and may help prevent isolation starvation. My guess is that isolation starvation is mainly a problem in beehives where false situations occur.

Entrances are usually small or propolised to reduce the size. In trees they are usually at the bottom or towards the bottom of the cavity. This is usually the case in buildings, but not always, depending on circumstances. I have seen nests some distance from the entrance that must be more difficult for bees to defend. Wherever bees choose to nest, the direction of the entrance doesn't seem to matter, with many facing north, getting no sun at all.

In the U.K. the time when more food is coming in than is required for maintenance is quite short, so the store is likely to be reducing for around seven months of the year and in some localities nine. There will probably be a small amount of incoming nectar and pollen in autumn and spring, but the bees already have their store and this includes scattered pollen that is easily accessed.

The inside of a tree cavity is rotten, but the bees coat it with propolis, which makes it a fairly stable surface. There is a theory, that makes sense to me, that this propolis is an anti-bacterial shield. If the entrance is large, the bees propolise it up to make it smaller and occasionally there are propolis "curtains" inside the entrance. It can only be guessed at the reason for these, but it may be defence or to divert draught. These curtains are incredible structures. The longest I have seen was about 250mm long and they usually seem to be about 3-4mm thick, occasionally up to 8mm.

When managing our own bees we don't often understand that a wild colony is an ongoing organism and they store heavily in times of plenty, so they can survive poor times. The U.K. climate is such, that in some summers there is probably not enough forage collected to sustain a colony from the end of that summer to the start of the next, so it would have to use some of the store that was collected the previous summer. This means that a colony would probably have to survive from perhaps August one year to around April the year after the following one, on what has been stored, plus a little of what could be foraged in the good spells - a period of around 20 months. This needed bees that were frugal and looked after their stores. One way of doing this is for queens to only lay when there was sufficient food to support the brood. Native bees certainly don't waste their stores.

Unless there is urgency, the majority of deciduous trees are cut during the winter when there are no leaves on them, so most bees are removed from trees between October and April, with many in the depth of winter. This has given me an opportunity to observe what happens with brood rearing. I have opened a large number of both managed and wild colonies during the winter and there is no regular pattern where you can state what bees do, or don't do, although I have seen and heard it stated - usually based on a small number of examples by people who may have got their information from hearsay. I think the amount of brood reared during the winter depends on a number of things, including the genetics of the bees, climate, insulation of the nest and the size of the colony. There may be other reasons too.

I am in no doubt that what I have observed is not what native bees may have done in the past. I'm sure the importation of bees has caused so much mongrelisation that what we see now is done to suit the genetics of the individual colony. I will describe what I have observed in the colonies I have dealt with. In natural colonies I have seen a complete brood break over several weeks, between perhaps early December and mid January, although I have seen more colonies without brood in early December than early January. I obviously haven't been able to monitor individual colonies, so I am unable to say how long the break is. It is my view that if there is a brood break it is earlier than is commonly thought, where I think it is assumed there is no brood rearing about the time of minimum daylight. Native bees Amm have apparently a different way of laying down fat than some of the exotics and it seems logical to me they live longer. For that reason my guess is there is a longer break in brood rearing during the winter because they don't lose the number of adult bees the exotics do, so don't need replacements. It is my guess that Amm probably have a complete break for 6-8 weeks, but that will depend on a lot of other things too. I'm sure it is longer in the colder regions.

When queens start to lay again after a break, there is often an imbalance in the brood ratios, with either mainly sealed or unsealed brood, very often without eggs. It is easy to think in human terms about what happens, but I have come to the conclusion that queens lay a patch of eggs, then go off lay for several days until either the brood emerges or the nest has expanded, where they lay a band outside the sealed brood. My thinking is this is a natural method of food conservation, or the sealed brood creates it's own heat, so contributing to the warmth of the cluster. This conflicts with the common view that queens start to lay, then gradually ramp up to full production. When the weather warms up and the number of young bees increases, the bees break cluster and the queen can lay full time. In March and April after a cold snap I have seen obvious brood breaks, where I think the bees have gone back into cluster or semi-cluster.

If a colony is removed after a warmish, but non - foraging spell, there is often unsealed food next to the empty cells where the bees cluster. I think the warmer weather allows them to break cluster and "forage" for food within the nest. This happens in a managed hive too, which is understandable, because there is usually less food above than on most natural nests. It doesn't seem logical for this behaviour in a natural situation, but perhaps it's a way of using food on the periphery that may not be accessible when the bees are in tight cluster.

I have given a considerable amount of thought to how long a colony would live in the wild before it died out. Presumably the first winter was crucial and must have depended on the time of year the swarm issued and the weather. I have seen estimates that only 30% of swarms survive the first winter, but I have to disagree with that. I think these estimates are based on modern prolific or moderately prolific bees and swarming later in the year than naturally occurs. I suspect the survival figure was much higher with Amm, especially if the weather was warm in the weeks after the swarm took up residence. I believe the natural colonies probably swarmed early in the season, which gave them longer to build up a store and they were non - prolific bees with long lived workers that could survive on minimal stores.

Once a colony had survived the first winter, I believe they would have lived for some time. I'm guessing that losses in all bar the most severe winters were very low, probably 5% or less. Even at 5% that means a colony lives 20 years on average and my guess is that the life of some natural colonies could easily have been in excess of 50 years. I know the modern view is that combs should be changed regularly for health reasons, but I have seen some very old wild combs. I suspect they are much better insulators than new comb and I have seen signs of bees chewing and rebuild them, presumably because the cells get smaller with each cocoon. I have also seen evidence of colonies in buildings move to one side and build new combs, allowing wax moth to destroy the vacated comb, so they can move back again at a later date, although this would be difficult in a tree cavity.

The late John Dews was an expert on the native bee Amm and in email correspondence he told me he thought that Amm in it's natural state probably only swarmed once every 10 years. I don't know where he got his view from, but it does agree with my hunch that has been formed by observing wild colonies over a long time, where they seemed to swarm a lot less than managed colonies. John Dews was working with fairly pure native bees over a very long period, where I have experience of bees that are probably highly mongrelised, but have been selected by natural forces to display native characteristics. The cynic in me also suggests that managed colonies swarm a lot in response to the "mismanagement" they have to endure! If John and myself are correct it supports my view that losses were probably very small. Even if all swarms survived, it means that to keep a stable population the average losses would be less than 10%. What it does mean is that queens were superseded, rather than swarmed. I have worked closely with beekeepers from Orkney, where their bees are virtually pure Amm and swarming is a very rare occurrence.

Swarming is the only way honey bees have to increase their colonies, to invade new territory or to make good any losses. Losses would be due to such things as weakness, severe weather, starvation and disease. The diseases that may have been possibilities would have been acarine, nosema, EFB and AFB. It seems to be widely accepted that Amm are resistant to acarine and nosema. There has been some suggestion in the past that Amm are resistant to EFB and AFB, but that is one of the claims I'm a bit sceptical about, as they are killers of colonies. Just whilst writing this I'm wondering if EFB and AFB were present in the U.K. or if they were introduced from elsewhere when bees were imported - something else we will probably never know.

As already mentioned, please accept the above as conjecture. I have pieced it together using what knowledge I have and experience of removing a large number of wild colonies over a period of 50 years. I have placed it here to help people understand a bit more about beekeeping. What is certain is that much of what we do is working against the natural instincts of bees and that includes both conventional and "natural" beekeeping methods.

We are often forcibly told by some what is "best practice" and we are bad beekeepers if we don't do it that way. Some is in direct contravention to what bees do naturally, so is the practice "best" or what has been dreamt up, often by committees, based on "false logic" and a lack of understanding?

Some random thoughts:-

I am aware there are other people who write and lecture on bees in the wild. I have read and listened to some of it and I have to say that some isn't my experience, which can be for a number of reasons. There is no doubt in my mind that bees behaved differently pre - varroa. Some information is the result of scientific experiments, but bees may be reacting to the way the experiments were set up, rather than their natural instincts. The sample size is probably much smaller than the number of colonies I have dealt with. Some experiments have been conducted in the USA, where honey bees aren't indigenous and the bees are very much more prolific than native British bees. I am not saying the other folks are wrong, just that we should be careful to compare like with like. Different bees in different locations don't behave the same - if they survive.

In conclusion I wonder if we are actually doing any good by insisting on what is good for bees, often based on the usual failure of trying to humanise them. In writing the above I have thought a lot about some of the things beekeepers do and I can picture some of the more vociferous ones telling us why their thoughts are the only ones that are correct. In the meantime bees are quite capable of managing on their own - or they would have done if humans hadn't have thought they knew better.

I return to the word "natural" and ask if any of us have much understanding of what it means as far as the bees are concerned. I think not - even the "natural" beekeepers.

Based on my experience of removing several hundred colonies from wild places I now give a lecture "Honey Bees in the Wild - What can we Learn From Them?" Many of the points raised above and others are covered together with photo's and illustrations.

Roger Patterson.