A persistent myth that I’ve heard repeatedly over the years is that honeybees (Apis mellifera) are extinct in the wild and the only ones left are in managed colonies kept by people.
There’s just one problem…this is completely false. Wild honeybee colonies are doing fine and they are in no danger of going extinct.
What is the origin of this myth?
Some of this confusion appears to be due to a lack of understanding of the nuances involved in bee declines, since it can be difficult for the media and general public to understand the differences between managed bees, wild bees, and native bees.
For example, the yearly report on honeybee colony losses put out by the Bee Informed Partnership only deals with managed honeybee colonies, not feral ones. When those reports talk about “unsustainable losses,” it does not mean honeybees are in danger of going extinct. Instead, the danger is more that beekeeping is less economically viable.
However, it seems likely that at least some of the confusion dates back to when wild honeybee colonies experienced population crashes following the introduction of Varroa mites. At the time, wild honeybees were doing quite poorly, but research has shown that they did not go extinct and their populations bounced back within just a few years. In the United States, this recovery of wild populations was seen across the country, in places including Arizona, New York, and Texas. For a full account, I recommend the book “The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild” by honeybee researcher Thomas Seeley.
Another potential source of confusion is that this myth continues to appear in some scientific papers. For example, in a major paper on bee declines published in 2010, the authors state “most wild and feral honey bee colonies in Europe and the USA have vanished, leaving only those kept by beekeepers.” For a more recent example, a paper published in 2020 states “The only remaining wild and unmanaged western honeybee populations are in Africa.” It’s easy to see how people could get confused when even some peer-reviewed scientific articles don’t get it right.
How many feral honeybee colonies are out there?
Recently, in 2018, scientists from the University of Sydney and the University of New England in Australia reviewed 23 studies looking at wild honey bee colony density. They found that estimates of density can vary a lot based on which technique was used to measure them. However, it’s clear that no matter which way they were counted, there are a lot of wild honey bee colonies out there.
Between those 23 studies, there were estimates of honeybee colony density from 72 areas across the globe. Here is the breakdown, where I simply took the average of all the studies from a given region:
Africa (13 locations): 8.1 colonies/km²
Asia (just 2 locations): 2.9 colonies/km²
Australia (28 locations): 13.8 colonies/km²
Europe (17 locations): 3.6 colonies/km²
North America (12 locations): 5.3 colonies/km²
Note this is a very rough estimate and there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge. For example, the paper didn’t include any studies from South America and some of the studies are a bit outdated, so the densities may not be the same today. Plus this is an issue that relatively few people are looking at, especially compared to the attention given to managed honeybees.
In the United States, where I live, the estimate of approximately 1 colony/km² from a study in forests New York state in 2011 is probably more representative of most areas. Though colony densities can be much higher, especially in warmer climates. For example, one study in an Australian national park estimated there were a whopping 77.1 colonies per km².
No matter which way you cut it, it’s clear that there are a lot of wild honeybee colonies out there and they are certainly not extinct. And remember, Africa and parts of Europe are the only places where honeybees (Apis mellifera) are native. In the other areas, honey bees are introduced and can compete with native bees as well as spread diseases to them.
Overall, we can safely consider this myth busted.