The Feral Bee Project

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, with genetics from colonies that have been surviving on their own, in the rocks in the deserts of Southern Utah, for much 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.

How it came about 

One of the first feral bees we spotted

While horseback riding in Southern Utah several years ago, many miles from agriculture or population, we noticed a honeybee on a flower. Bees don’t forage farther from home than they have to, a mile or two. Considering the distance it was from town, the bees’ colony must have been a feral colony. It was too far away to be a recently-escaped swarm and must have been there for many years.

Breeding Process

We started with a breeder queen from our own colonies. We raised some daughters from her, and when they were virgin queens, we took them to Southern Utah to mate with feral drones. When they came back, we raised the next generation of daughters, and repeated the process to get higher and higher percentages of feral bee genetics. 

In 2017, some Navajo beekeepers invited us to Monument Valley to help them cut out a colony of honey bees from a Travel trailer. The colony was massive, and had been there for decades, but someone wanted to live in the trailer. We created several colonies from the cut out and left most of the bees with a native farmer on the reservation, and brought a mated queen back to our apiary.

We added this queen (which was 100% feral) to our breeding program, raising her daughters, returning often to Southern Utah for virgins to mate with feral drones. This means we incorporate feral genetics through both the queens and the drones.

Mating Nucs

We don’t actually need to find a honeybee colony to capture its genetics. Once we find an area with 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.

We carefully remove all drones and drone cells from the mating nuc before moving it to the mating area. Their removal ensures that the queen can only mate with feral drones, and that the feral gene pool will not be polluted. 

The virgin queen will fly out to a drone congregation area (DCA) 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. 

The unique thing about The Feral Bee Project is that the feral colonies are located miles from civilization in the vast Utah desert. There is a very slim chance (almost zero chance) that virgin queens will mate with any other drones besides the feral bees. It is a truly isolated mating yard. It is a cool opportunity to work with them. 

The queen comes back from the mating area and lays eggs. We raise daughter queens from these eggs, and repeat the process of traveling to Southern Utah to mate 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 for the honeybee colonies we sell. Daughters from these queens will mate with local drones at home. We love how they are adapted to our local Utah climate (high mountain desert), and we find success with them. 

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.

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. This makes them more winter hardy.

Our feral bee project has been a lot of fun.

Do You Sell Feral Queens?

Sometimes. Check availability on our ONLINE SHOP. The best way to add genetics from The Feral Bee Project to your apiary is to buy a starter colony from us in the spring, either a package of bees or a nucleus colony.

 Feral Bee Project Videos