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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 (assarting) 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 presentations 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. Terminology is difficult to determine and probably open to disagreement. I have stated "...in the wild", which I believe to be correct, because they are unmanaged, but are they wild or feral colonies? A wild animal is one that has never been domesticated, so is easy to describe, but honey bees are different than mammals. It is unlikely that a colony of bees that is living in the wild in many parts of the world is truly wild. A feral colony is one that is derived from a managed colony. Because of the uncertainty, I prefer to use the term "free-living", as that suggests living in a home they selected themselves and are unmanaged, irrespective of whether they are wild or feral.

I have removed, or been involved in removing, 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 no more than 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 its introduction, has made it very difficult for bees to survive for very long in the wild. I'm sure bees have adapted to the activities of humans, whether that is the growing of large areas of crops, forage loss, increased colony density, management techniques, importation or many other things.

The native bee of 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 or how honey 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 fallacies of beekeeping.

The pioneer 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, often for several days in advance of the swarm issueing. The figure of 40 litres is often quoted as the volume of the cavity that a swarm seeks, 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. Is 40 litres correct anyway? There are many people (probably the ones who quote 40 litres!) who will tell you that a BS National brood box isn't big enough for a queen to lay in or to contain enough food to over-winter a colony. A BS National brood box is 35 litres, which isn't that much smaller. I have seen many swarms enter a nuc box and I have had one enter a pile of 9 supers with a total volume of 210 litres. I am convinced they also select a home that is over a point where at least four energy lines converge, 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 energy lines.

On the subject of energy 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 many years, I asked myself why they tried to fight a certainty. Since I have learnt about energy lines, I think I have found the answer. Every nest I have seen in the open has a much higher number of energy lines crossing at this point. The most I have come across is 13, the least is 8, when a normal nest usually has a minimum of 4. It is my view the spot is a "magnet" and they feel happy there.

Bees seem to 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 energy lines - or both?

I believe that varroa has changed the activities of wax moth. Pre-varroa, there were less colonies dying, so there was little chance of wax moth taking hold. If a colony died out, then another swarm would soon take up residence, but since varroa has arrived, there are more colony deaths, so nests are often vacant for longer, allowing wax moth to take hold. Contrary to popular opinion, cavities aren't usually cleared out by wax moth. Cocoons are tough and tend to hold together, making it difficult for bees to remove them. I suspect a bird may have cleared it out to build a nest. Pre-varroa, the vast majority of combs I came across were very old, suggesting the commonly held view that wax moth destroy combs is quite rare.

If the cavity is empty, the incoming swarm starts to build comb quickly and very often the queen lays eggs within 24 hours if she is fertile. This we can see when we collect a swarm late one day, leave it in a container, usually a skep and hive it the following morning, where very often there will be a small piece of comb, about the size of a human hand, with eggs in it. The swarm has brought some nectar and honey with them, which 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. Beekeepers often think that bees always build combs with the points of the cells towards the top, but they don't, they vary the orientation considerably, even only an inch or two away.

In natural nests, especially in trees, there is usually a large gap underneath the combs. Bees only build the amount of comb that they need and this gap creates somewhere for the hive debris, mainly brood cappings, to collect. Wax moth feed on this and, as there is a fairly regular amount, there is little need for them to invade the combs, unlike in managed hives, where beekeepers clean floors, so wax moth have little to feed on. Nests in buildings are usually in confined spaces, although often a different shape than a tree cavity. Bees make the best use of a false situation and it can be interesting to see how they manage it. If reasonably tall, they usually have a gap under combs, but if there is little height, such as between a ceiling and floorboards, there is little gap. 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 wonder if this might be as a result of the bees reacting to a manufactured situation, where there is little gap under the frames.

Beekeepers are used to seeing bees in hives, where the brood area is usually confined between a floorboard at the bottom and either a crown board or queen excluder at the top, both of which can be moved. 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, which may be why they are accused of not reading the books when they do what they would do naturally, rather than having to respond to what they are given.

We are often told that pollen is put in the combs in an arch between the brood and the honey, but this is in managed colonies, where I believe that bees are reacting to restrictions. 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 usually lays eggs in vacant cells underneath and at the side of the existing brood, so the older brood is at the top. When the brood at the top emerges, the cells are randomly 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 within the brood area, then start to process the nectar before placing it above the brood, usually overnight. This can be seen in the afternoon and evening in a heavy nectar flow, where any vacant brood cells will be filled with nectar and pollen. The following morning the nectar has usually gone, although pollen will usually still be there. The equivalent of an empty super in a natural nest are the uppermost vacated brood cells. 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 quickly is turned into bee bread, then has a small amount of honey put on top of it and 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 preserved pollen fairly evenly distributed, ready for use when needed.

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. I helped him 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.

Having experience of many free-living and managed colonies, I have noticed there are often patterns, especially relative to locality. In managed colonies, I often see greatly varying types of bees, with different appearances and characteristics, but predictable in some locations. In regions of harsh climate, or where it is marginal for bees, they are native Amm or of a similar type, presumably because they are the best suited to survive the conditions. In kinder conditions for bees, or where beekeepers "mollycoddle" them, I see managed colonies that are very variable, often yellowish and headed by prolific queens. In free-living colonies that I have seen, if they have been established over at least one winter, they are usually fairly similar, suggesting to me that natural selection, which is absolutely ruthless, has taken out the ones that don't suit the environment.

Workers in established free-living colonies I have removed are usually much darker than I see in many managed colonies, with very little yellow, although lighter bands are common. I never see yellow queens or drones, like I often see in managed colonies. I'm assuming it's because yellow bees are generally more prolific, they can't store enough food for maintenance and don't look after it as well as the darker bees do, so they starve. I do see yellow queens and drones in colonies that have clearly only just swarmed into a cavity, but they don't survive the first winter. Perhaps the reason a high percentage loss rate is often quoted for the first winter is because many swarms come from managed colonies.

In normal circumstances, free living colonies are always strong, so defence is rarely a problem. They are always healthy, apart from varroa related conditions and even these seem to be less than I see in hives. I have never seen foul brood in a wild nest. Any chalk brood or sacbrood, if present, is very light, suggesting that natural selection may take out the weak. I have never experienced a bad tempered colony in the wild that was well established, yet I have removed some very unpleasant ones that had recently taken up residence. This has always made me think that as many colonies that swarm into the wild have come from managed colonies, perhaps they are showing the influence of importation.

As a keen observer, I have noticed a lot of things about wild nests. Comb spacing where there are worker cells is usually consistently 36-38mm centres, although this may change on small infill pieces, or where there is drone comb. Drone comb is usually on the periphery of the nest and rarely near the top or the centre of the combs. Although I have never measured it, I estimate that drone comb is usually about 10-15% of the total area. Much has been said and written about the direction in which bees build combs naturally. They can be built in any direction and the bees don't seem to mind, but the main combs always seem to be built in the direction of energy lines. In July 2013, I was involved in removing 3 colonies out of the same wooden wall of the partly derelict railway station building at Selham, West Sussex. There had been a fourth colony at some stage, but that was completely destroyed by greater wax moth. All the cavities were similar, each with one entrance, although one had been attacked by a woodpecker and had been propolised up, presumably to reduce the size. There was an energy line running the length of the wall and several others crossing it where the bees were. Not all the main combs were built in the same direction, but they were all in the same direction as energy lines, with each colony being different. I have removed several colonies that had recently gone into cavities where the previous nests had been removed, but with evidence of previous combs. Very often new comb is built in a different direction than the previous colony, but in line with a different energy line. I am now able to predict one of several directions of the combs before they are exposed.

In a managed colony, you can usually see the evidence of emergency cells, sometimes several years after they have been used, because bees don't always repair the comb. I have never seen evidence of emergency cells in a wild colony, suggesting they are rarely needed by the bees naturally.

For about 20 years, I had around 20 colonies on Ebernoe Common in West Sussex. This is a large area of previously woodland pasture with some very old oak trees, several having 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, very few needing 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 my own bees.

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 the bees presumably use for communication, pheromone distribution 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 there may be few holes in combs.

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 this is only a bonus, as the bees already have their store, that includes well distributed pollen they can easily access.

The inside of a tree cavity is usually rotten, but the bees coat it with propolis, which makes it a fairly stable surface. We now know that this propolis coating is an anti-bacterial shield that bees use for self-medication. If the entrance is large, the bees propolise it up to make it smaller and sometimes, though not always, 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, usually about 3-4mm thick, occasionally up to 8mm.

When managing their own bees, beekeepers don't often understand that a wild colony is an ongoing organism, storing heavily in times of plenty, so they can survive poor times. The U.K. climate is such, that in some summers there may not be 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 previously. This means that a colony may have to survive from perhaps August one year to at least 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. In unmanaged colonies, this needs bees that are frugal and conserve their stores. One way bees do this is by having non-prolific queens that reduce egg laying when there was insufficient food to support the brood. I have removed colonies where the cappings on the uppermost stores is very dark, suggesting it has been there several years.

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 several 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 is often stated as happening in the winter in managed colonies, in particular brood breaks, if indeed there are any, 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 in many areas now is influenced by the genetics of the individual colony. I will describe what I have observed in the colonies I have dealt with, which is rather different than what we are often told, especially when treating for varroa, when it is best done during a brood break. In natural colonies, I have seen a complete brood break over several weeks, between perhaps mid November and the end of December. It is my conjecture that as free-living colonies are subject to the forces of natural selection, they have become locally adapted, so a winter brood break is a food conservation measure.

When queens start to lay again after a winter brood break, I have noticed 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 often lay a patch of eggs, then go off lay for several days until the brood is sealed, 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 more eggs.

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 believe the warmer weather allows them to break cluster and "forage" for food within the nest. This happens in a managed hive too, which is often seen if a colony is opened during the winter, where broken cappings with bees removing the contents can often be seen on the periphery. In a hive this is understandable, because there is usually less food above the brood or clustering space than in 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 and before the heavy mongrelisation we have today. Presumably the first winter was crucial and must have depended on the time of year the swarm issued and the weather for the following few weeks. I have seen estimates that 30%, or less, of swarms survive the first winter, but I have doubts about that in a real natural situation. I think these estimates are based on modern prolific or moderately prolific bees that swarm later in the year than naturally occurred, perhaps being triggered by the beekeeper. With a colony able to make its own decisions without human interference, I give them much more credit than is often given. I suspect the survival figure in the past was much higher with Amm, especially if the weather was warm in the weeks after the swarm took up residence. Managed colonies may swarm by reacting to something the beekeeper has, or hasn't, done, but a free-living colony can do what it pleases. I definitely don't rule out their ability to predict the weather for a few weeks in advance, so perhaps they are almost guaranteed a little favourable weather to establish the nest. 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. Surely evolution would have removed any late swarming instincts.

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 (neither of us knew for sure), it supports my view that losses were probably much smaller than beekeepers experience today. 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 there.

Swarming is the only way that honey bees have of increasing 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. I have already suggested that pre-varroa, I believe that losses in the free-living population would have been much lower than in managed colonies. Natural selection would probably have removed those with poor characteristics, so they didn't influence future generations. That would have taken care of starvation and susceptibility to disease. Severe weather is little problem to a wild colony, because all it does is cluster more tightly when the temperature drops. It is almost certain that acarine, nosema and both the foul broods have been with us for centuries, so resistance would have built up in the Amm population. I mention all this because although I'm not a geneticist, I believe that natural selection soon deals with the less well adapted, so leaving a population that will survive in whatever climate they find themselves in. My reasoning for this is that my observations tell me that characteristics of the established free-living colonies that I have dealt with in my heavily mongrelised area fairly closely resemble those of Amm.

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 (or their!) 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, or forceful individuals, based on "false logic" and a lack of understanding?

Some random thoughts:-

I am aware there are other people who write and lecture on honey bees in the wild. I have read and listened to some of it and I have to say that some isn't my experience or what the bees have told me, which can be for several reasons. There is no doubt in my mind that bees behaved differently pre - varroa. Some information that is often quoted 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?" A video of the presentation to the National Honey Show can be found here. Many of the points raised above and others are covered together with photo's and illustrations.

Roger Patterson.

Page updated 09/02/2023