Science & Environment

Saving California's bees, one hive at a time

It was a daunting task, even for an experienced beekeeper.

A huge colony of feral bees had set up home in the loft of a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles and they had to be removed.

A previous attempt to kill the nest failed because the honeycomb, which contains honey and bee larvae, was left intact.

But Keith Roberts had no intention of exterminating the colony. Like many beekeepers, he is battling the worst crisis to hit the beekeeping world in decades.

For the fourth year in a row, about a third of honeybee hives in the United States died off during the past winter. Worker bees are succumbing to a mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which scientists are still struggling to understand.

So when Mr Roberts comes across a thriving nest of feral bees, his company views it as an opportunity to replenish the dwindling populations of commercial honeybees.

Our mission statement is: "Save the buzz, one hive at a time," he explains.

"We are passionate about bee relocation and the importance of identifying hives and their colonies that are located in structures.

"Instead of having the owner eliminate them, exterminate them, we take the time to put them into proper hives and take them out to the orchards where they can work properly and still continue on their happy lives."

There is evidence that despite CCD, there are thriving colonies of feral honeybees still intact in the wild. Enthusiasts believe that they could play a pivotal role in developing disease resistant stocks.

Pampered bees

"My experience has been that the feral colonies are survivors," explains Mr Roberts.

He says that because the bees have not been "pampered in apiaries and given the best of the best" they have more hygienic hives

"And they're exposed to a natural selection that enables them to be stronger," Mr Roberts continues.

"They may be the solution to the crisis because we're able to get those genetics and save them, hopefully utilise them and try to isolate why they are so much better, why they are stronger and increase their lineage to other hives."

Image caption The team removed an estimated 80,000 bees from the loft

The feral hive in the loft in Los Angeles, a thriving, buzzing mass of bees, presented a perfect opportunity to put the theory into practice.

The bees had entered the house through a tiny hole in the wall, under the eaves. Their nest, which had been in place for about three years, fit into a space approximately a metre square.

"It was by far the largest hive, feral colony, I have ever come across," says Mr Roberts.

"We removed a total over 80lbs (36kg) worth of honey."

An estimated 80,000 bees were removed from the loft. The bees were strongly defensive and flying around erratically when they were disturbed.

Their aggressive behaviour suggested they were partially Africanised or killer bees, as they are sometimes described.

Africanised honeybees are the result of interbreeding between European bees and bees from Africa. They are common in southern California and may not always be suitable for commercial honey production.

The rescued feral bees proved to be extremely strong and a colony that had clearly managed to survive CCD. They have been moved to hives so that their behaviour can be monitored.

"Just because they are a little more lively when I open up the hive doesn't mean that they are beyond hope," Mr Roberts explains .

"I can take a lot of time to save the good genetics, the good things about them and try to weed out the bad, like their aggressiveness.

"Hopefully [I can] produce queens that produce strong amounts of honey and a healthy hive without having to spend a lot of money and a lot of chemicals to medicate and treat my bees."

Bee enthusiasts around California are trying to convince communities to befriend feral bees.

The city of Santa Monica is currently re-evaluating its longstanding policy of exterminating swarms of bees and a law prohibiting the keeping of bees within city limits may be overturned.

Local advocates have urged the city to capture the swarms, re-house them in temporary hives on city land, and then transport them to agricultural areas in California where the bees are needed by farmers to pollinate crops.

"They're extremely healthy bees, strong producers and obviously very resistant to the varroa mites and the pathogens that are wiping out our bees across the country," says Mr Roberts.

"So these bees might very well hold the key to healthier bees in the general pool and I hope to put them to work."

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