So the honeybee populaiton of North America has dropped, as I understand it, pretty dramatically in the past forty years. Certainly I remember seeing lots of honeybees as a kid. While I admit I don’t spend nearly as much time as an adult looking at the ground, I just don’t see them any more, and this seems to be backed up by actual numbers as the result of colony collapse disorder.
But since bee keepers are still able to keep hives going, is there thought to be some problem with helping things along by letting a hive go feral, so to speak – grow until it swarms and letting the swarming bees land and build where they may? Can this help repopulate the great American plains with the proud honeybee? Are we doing this already, even?
The problem is that there’s not much incentive for a person to maintain a few beehives in their backyard. It’s an expensive hobby. I used to have six active hives, so I know. I got rid of five of them, and the lone hive has been active all on its own for about four years now.
Because honeybees are essential to the livelihood of many crops and thus our food supply, you would think state governments would provide an incentive for people to maintain beehives. At the very least I think hobbyist beekeepers should be able to deduct the costs of their supplies and equipment from state taxes.
Possibly encouraging the species kept commercially (the European bee, not a native species to the US) to go feral could actually be damaging.
It could potentially spread CCD (so far as I can find it the exact cause is not yet known, so how it would transfer is )- as well as several other diseases to new hives. It could certainly make extra ‘reservoirs’ of varroa mite, and other partly treatable problems, making it harder for those keeping bees to control them.
My gut feeling on that is that I doubt it would make much difference pest and disease wise, as hives are moved around so much anyway, and there’s already a lot of feral ones around. Depending on what you were actually trying to encourage, it could be more useful to just try and provide help (nest spaces, attractive flowers) for the native bees, which are not commercially viable for honey production, but can do just as good a job at pollinating; all are in decline I believe.
I went to a talk moderated by Carl Zimmer last November, and I’m trying to remember if he talked about colony collapse, or if one of his guests did. But in that talk, someone said that most of the bee hives in America are migratory. They’re owned by keepers who load them into semi trucks and follow crops as the flowers bloom.
The main route is South to North, then West to Washington, then down to California, then back South. He named off the main crops in each location.
Letting bees loose won’t help any of those crops particularly, because they need a big influx of bees at just the right time. Also, the owners don’t collect local bees, but breed their own or purchase them from breeders. So loose bees won’t be picked up and taken for the ride.
There was also some cross-breeding with the migration of the Africanized honey bees. I think any hives that showed signs of Africanization were destroyed. I think the Africanized bees do produce honey, but they are mean SOBs.
Feral bees are not a good idea. They tend to start colonies in places where they aren’t wanted, and have to be removed or destroyed. And it’s hard to harvest honey from hollow logs compared to modern, removable-frame hives.
If the definitive answer to the colony collapse disorder is found (and it’s looking a lot like a particular kind of pesticide is the culprit, or at least a major factor), commercial colonies could be built up very quickly. With the right kind of hive management, you can triple the number of colonies each year, and commercial breeders could help increase that 10 fold.
But without knowing for sure the problem and the solution, it would be risky to try and build colonies right now.
There’s no true honeybees (Apis species), but there are species which do produce honey in South and Central America. They were cultured long before the European honey bee was introduced, but don’t produce honey on anything like the same scale.
Hey, they’ve got pictures of melipona. Those things pollenate vanilla if I remember correctly. I didn’t realize those guys produced enough honey to actual collect it. (Even bumblebees produce honey but nowhere enough for people to bother to collect it.)