Do wild honey bee colonies ever move into an abandoned hive?
May 5, 2014 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Not far from where I live is/was a wild bee colony in a living but semi-hollowed tree, and I've been observing this colony for a number of years as an amateur naturalist. About three years ago I noticed that the hive seemed empty from winter to winter, and I suspected it was a victim of CCD, but then the next two years after that the colony was back and seemed to thrive. Well, I stopped by this weekend and I find the hive seems abandoned, even after I saw activity earlier this year. I'm not assuming the colony collapsed, but I'm wondering if when it disappeared three years ago, was what I saw the years after that the same hive, or did a new colony move or grow there? Do wild colonies ever recolonize the hive of a previous colony?

The other details that I wonder about include the fact that this colony is very near a road with a residential home on one side, and a large farm on the opposite side. The tree hosting the colony is on the residential side, and the owner recently used glyphosate in a large area close to the colony. Blaming that though seems sketchy as I know the farm across the road also uses glyphosate, but I don't think they have this year, at least not yet. It's usually pretty obvious. And there certainly aren't studies conclusively pointing to glyphosate, I just think it's notable that the residential homeowner recently did. Both sides have used it in the past on years when the colony seemed to be thriving.

So I'm worried about this colony, particularly because when I visited last weekend, I saw quite a few ants crawling in and out of where I typically see bees entering the hive. If there were bees in there, I can't imagine they'd tolerate those ants, so I'm concerned. Checked again this weekend and I still saw nothing.

So it got me wondering if there could be a bounce back as it seemed to have occurred three years ago. Or did that colony actually collapse, and what I saw the year after was actually a new colony that moved in. My googling and small collection of bee books don't address the issue of wild colonies moving into abandoned colonies, so if you know, or can point to a resource that looks at this, I'd greatly appreciate it.
posted by Toekneesan to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Yes, it could have been a new colony that moved in.

When honeybee hives divide by swarming, the swarm will settle in a temporary location for a few hours or days while they send out scouts to search for a permanent home. The scouts range widely (~a mile?) and if they find an old hive in the vicinity, they'll often direct the colony there. Settling in a previously abandoned hive has a lot of advantages - it's often already built out with comb (which requires a lot of resources for the bees to do from scratch), well-sheltered enough to support a previous colony, etc.
posted by introcosm at 5:18 PM on May 5, 2014

Response by poster: Yeah, there does seem to be some advantages, but I'm also wondering about infection. If varroa destructor, the bee mite, had been a factor in this colony's disappearance, wouldn't recolonization have a risk of infection by that mite for the new colony? And if there were a poison causing the hive to be empty, then recolonizing in that same place risks re-poisoning. I'm not doubting this recolonization occurs, I'm just thinking through the pros and cons for the colony. Maybe that was an advantage at some point, but is it still?
posted by Toekneesan at 6:01 PM on May 5, 2014

Best answer: I don't think glyphosate really affects honey bees. . . its an herbicide AFAIK and their contact with it is probably not that common, though I could be wrong. Generally, if bees are poisoned, it's from a pesticide and it happens when plants bloom and the majority of foragers are working that particular bloom.

Having said that, it is fairly common for wild hives (and managed) to die and it is fairly common for swarms to move into any cavity that was previously used as a hive.

To expand on the first point, you seem to be aware that honeybees are faced with significantly more pressure than they were 30 years ago, due to a variety of factors that 7 years or so ago was lumped into the coverall term CCD. I am of the opinion that CCD, if it is in fact a thing, is a product of industrial beekeeping. I suffer about 10 percent or less winter losses in my own operation and usually know why. These days, most collapses in the wild are probably due to parasitism by a mite, Varroa Destructor, which you mention and can read extensively about. However, there is some evidence, as published by Thomas Seeley out of Cornell, that mites and bees are starting, in some cases, to enter into a sustainable relationship. Perhaps we will start to see more long lasting bee trees in the wild. Of course, we also just had a really cold winter and that probably didn't help. I would like to say though that a dead hive is not necessarily a tragedy, it does happen and is a part of the circle of life.

As to moving into previously occupied cavities: this is so common that is a strategy beekeepers use to replenish their hive count after winter losses (you can google 'swarm traps'). The cavity is not only full of comb as pointed out, but it is imbued with all kinds of scents and odors that are attractive to bees. It is also important to understand that bees choose their nest spots, and they do it in via a decision making progress that is quite fascinating, based on very specific criteria. The result is that what was appealing to one swarm of bees is almost certain to appeal to another down the line.

Now, as to any risks. . . Reinfection by Varroa is unlikely because the life cycle of the mite is tied directly to that of the bee: they need bee brood to reproduce. No bees, no way for the mites to reproduce, they eventually die off. This ignores the broader important point, however, that Varroa is here to stay, and is now a part of being a bee in North America. All hives will have some level of infestation, and if they are to develop strategies that will enable them to life with the mites (instead of being destructored) they need to be exposed to the mites in the wild, away from the interventions of beekeepers.

It can happen that sometimes a hive will be destroyed with pesticide and the pollen and even wax can be loaded with contaminants. . . I have seen cavities with living hives built right next to dead comb (that, since these are in houses, I suspect were sprayed) but they totally ignore the old comb. Dunno, bees are crazy. In addition, beetles and wax moths demolish the wax of a dead hive in short order and a swarm of bees is certainly equipped to just build it again, provided the cavity was suitable. To put it short, its not really that big of a risk.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 8:51 AM on May 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing, since bees can forage over such a vast area, in a circle around their nest, if they were/do get poisoned and bring it back home (many of them die before they get back), it could be anyone within 6 miles, which is a huge amount of square acreage, so the fault very well might not be with the adjacent neighbors.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 9:12 AM on May 7, 2014

Response by poster: I'm pretty sure the colony has perished. Hopefully a new one will move in. Thanks for these great answers.
posted by Toekneesan at 7:11 PM on May 24, 2014

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