Busting the myth that honeybees are extinct in the wild

Zach Portman
4 min readApr 15, 2021

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.

A feral honeybee colony in California. Photo by iNaturalist user andy71, licensed under CC by 4.0.

How many feral honeybee colonies are out there?

Zach Portman

I am scientist who studies bees. My research covers the identification, biology, evolution, and conservation of native bees.