Something unique to our company is The Feral bee project. The queens in our honeybee colonies come from this project. People drive from all around the Western U.S. to try our bees.
We know how important bees our to our world. We saw that they are dying, and we wanted to do something to help. And so we started The Feral Bee Project years ago.
The Feral Bee Project is a honey bee breeding project that combines our own survivor stock after 30 years of beekeeping, plus genetics from drone bees from colonies that have been surviving on their own, in the rocks of Southern Utah, for even longer.
These bees have some sort of factor that helps them survive. Is it that they have genes for disease resistance that commercial beekeepers bred out by selecting for other traits? Is it their behavior? Instinct? Adaptation to their environment? A specific microbiome in the hive? We are still not sure, but whatever it is, we want it in our apiaries.
We believe that this project will help improve honeybee genetics and resistance to disease.
What does “Feral” mean?
A feral animal is one that used to be domesticated, but has become wild by living away from people. Honey bees were introduced by European settlers and spread across North America. They have become an essential part of our agriculture systems. Honey bees swarm to reproduce their colony. When they swarm into the wilderness, without a beekeeper, they become feral.
Why are feral honey bees important?
Over time, we (the beekeeping industry) have selected and bred honey bees exclusively for honey production. In this process, we’ve lost some of the bees’ genetic resistance to disease.
There is a movement in the industry to bring back some of these missing gene expressions that may still exist in isolated populations. We hope that doing so may re-introduce some of the bee’s natural abilities to overcome disease. We are still working through this process and hope you will join us in testing out this theory. Our preliminary results are promising.
How it came about
Seeing a bee miles from nowhere caused Stan to think about Dr. Sue Coby’s research about feral honey bees and missing disease-resistance alleles. He’d heard about the Feral Bee Lab at Penn State and their work and thought it would be a good idea to start his own feral bee project.
How do we find feral bee colonies?
As we travel through Southern Utah for recreation, we often stop the car and get out to look for honey bees on roadside flowers. When we see honey bees, we check for farms and ranches that could be keeping bees. If there are none nearby, we assume there is a feral colony nearby.
Stan also puts out swarm traps some years. He places empty hives out and hopes a swarm will move in. We can attract bees with the smell of beeswax, queen lure, or sometimes lemongrass essential oil. This has been our least successful method to find feral bees.
In the desert, we can find honey bees by looking at water sources. Stan found some colonies by following bees from the watering hole back to their bee tree.
Stan also goes “beelining.” Beelining is when he traps a few honey bees temporarily in a specialized beelining box. The box has a sponge with sugar syrup so that the foraging bees fill up with syrup. Then he lets one bee out. Since she is full of syrup, she will make a “beeline” for home. As she flies back, Stan runs to chase her as far as he can see her. If he repeats this process with enough workers, slowly following them home, he can usually find their colony.
PHOTO OF BEELINING BOX
Now that word of the project is out, our beekeeper friends and customers often refer us to new locations. One of our coolest feral bee colony finds came from a Traveleze trailer in Monument Valley on the Navajo Reservation. We worked with a native farmer to cut out the colony from the trailer, and then provided her a honey bee colony from it. The colony had some supersedure cells, and we brought some home with us.
But we don’t actually need to find the honeybee colony to capture its genetics. Once we find a feral colony, we take a mating nuc (a small colony with 1-2 frames of worker bees and a virgin queen) to the area. The virgin queen will fly out to a drone congregation area and mate with feral drone bees. As a queen only mates once in her lifetime, with a dozen-ish drones, she will store their sperm in her body to lay fertilized eggs during her reign.
We carefully remove all drones and drone cells from the mating nuc. Their removal ensures that the queen can only mate with feral drones, and that the feral gene pool will not be polluted.
We raise daughter queens from these eggs, and repeat the process of mating them with feral drone bees over several generations. This way, our queens have a high proportion of feral bee genetics, plus some of our own survivor stock.
We use these feral queens as breeding stock. Daughters from these queens will mate with local drones. We love how they are adapted to our local Utah climate (high mountain desert), and find success with them and see higher winter survival rates each year.
Are feral bees Africanized?
Because some parts of Southern Utah have Africanized bees, we sent a sample of our bees to the Utah Ag department. The results were negative for Africanized genes. They are European.
When you purchase a package or nuc from us, you will be getting one of these feral queens. People drive from all around the Western U.S. to try our bees. We offer them for local pickup in April and May, and do NOT ship bees at this time.
We have noticed that feral bees have a generally calm disposition, which makes them good backyard bees. They are also acclimated to our Utah high-desert environment. Generally we’ve noticed that they reduce the size of their brood chamber in fall and winter. This makes them so they are more winter hardy, need less honey and pollen to get through the winter, and it disrupts the varroa mite (bee pest) life cycle.
Our feral bee project has been a lot of fun. Please enjoy these photos and videos of our bee hunting adventures!