Feral honey bees

Honey bee losses in the US continue to be over 40% on average every year. In Pennsylvania, the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) reported that approximately 53% of colonies were lost during 2015-2016, placing PA as the fourth state with largest honey bee losses across the country. One of the major causes associated with these losses is the varroa mite that weakens bee immunity and vectors deadly viruses.

Studies of mite-resistant populations all over the world show that overtime feral colonies can evolve a balanced host-parasite relationship with varroa mites (Locke 2016). In the US, a recent study in North Carolina showed that unmanaged (feral) honey bees exhibit stronger immune systems than managed bees in the same region (Youngsteadt et al 2015). It has been shown that honey bees with stronger immune systems can directly interfere with mite fitness. Therefore, it may be possible that these feral honey bees could be a source of genetic material for mite-resistant bees in the US.

The Lopez-Uribe lab at Penn State is working on a project to understand differences in the immune systems of feral and managed honey bee colonies, Tracking Feral Bee Health. We are mapping feral colonies across Pennsylvania to analyze their immune systems and pathogen loads of unmanaged colonies. We have identified 31 feral colonies in 2017, even though 11 died before the spring.

Here is a visual summary of feral colony collections. The collections range from front porches to roadside hives.

Cities of feral colonies that were sampled in 2017 (green) and red (2018). Addresses and/or specific GPS locations of both managed and feral locations that are shared with us will remain private and not be shared with the public.

Tracking feral bee health

Beekeepers are facing serious challenges that threaten their economic viability. One of the major problems honey bees are dealing with is the large cocktail of parasites and pathogens that attack them. Currently, most managed honey bee colonies cannot survive the winter without disease treatment, and even with intensive management regime, beekeepers nationwide are losing on average 40% of their colonies, with Pennsylvania being among the worst. On the contrary, some feral (unmanaged) bee populations have been reported as stable through time despite the lack of beekeeper assistance, suggesting that these colonies may have adapted to be resilient to these multiple disease stressors. In 2016 we began a project that aims to compare the levels of immune gene expression and loads of viral pathogens to test whether feral honey bees have stronger immune systems than managed honey bees. Our first goal is to identify the location of feral honey bee colonies across Pennsylvania. About 50 foraging bees will be collected at each site, but the colony will remain UNHARMED. By identifying feral colonies with stronger immune systems, we are hoping to identify genetic stocks of locally adapted bees that could be used for breeding programs. If you are aware of an unmanaged or feral honey bee colony, please share with us information regarding its location via our Tracking Feral Bee Health FORM (FORM is available below) or via email at the López-Uribe Lab (lopezuribelab@gmail.com). All information that you share with us is confidential.

This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Animal Health Appropriations under Project #PEN04620 and Accession #1011873.

Here is the general protocol we will use to collect samples from feral and managed colonies this summer. You DO NOT need to collect samples to participate. Please provide us with the feral and manage bee locations, and our team will contact you to do the collections.   

  1. Contact the López-Uribe lab with information and a location of the feral colony
  2. Take GPS coordinates of the location of the feral colony. If you have a smartphone, download the app ‘GPS data’ and record the latitude, longitude coordinates. It is also helpful to have information about the address, town and zip code of the closest location that can be used to access the feral colony. You can also obtain GPS coordinates via Google Map App on your smartphone.
  3. The colony must have survived at least one winter to consider it ‘feral’. 
  4. In addition, we would need to sample bees from a managed colony somewhere in the vicinity of the feral colony. Please let us know if you have information about a managed colony that we would be able to sample. 
  5. We will sample the same colonies, the feral colony and one managed colony, twice per season: spring (April/May) and early fall (October). We will collect 50 adult bees from the entrance of the colony each time we visit. The colony will remain unharmed.


Do you know of locations of any feral honey bee colonies?

Please help us collect these data by submitting your information below