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The search for the elusive wild honey bee
Garden Path

The search for the elusive wild honey bee

by Faye Peterson 5 min. 16.03.2021 From our online archive
Garden correspondent Faye Peterson talks to a group of citizen scientists aiming to shed some light on the notoriously hard to track pollinator
A swarm of honey bees
A swarm of honey bees
Photo credit: Shutterstock

During a recent hike in Luxembourg’s Grunewald forest an image on the information board of local people harvesting honey from ‘wild bees’ centuries ago made me pause and reflect: where have all the ‘wild’ honey bees gone?

Fortunately, I was able to speak to the team at Honey Bee Wild who shed some light on this elusive honey bee and its whereabouts.   

David Burke, John Park, Amanda Surbey and Christian Zewen are four, of the nine, citizen scientist volunteers whose contributions and hard work make up the organisation ‘Honey Bee Wild’. 

Honey Bee Wild, with the support of the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR), are passionate about documenting and researching wild honey bees, otherwise referred to as ‘free-living bees’. 

Survival of the fittest…Bee wild

The decline of our bees has been well documented in the media with beekeepers worldwide facing challenges to maintain healthy honey bee colonies.  In contrast, free-living honey bee populations that have remained isolated in the wild appear relatively stable, even though they are facing the same issues.  Why?

David Burke says that these wild honey bees have ‘‘chosen their own homes and are not managed by humans.  As a result, successive generations may be naturally adapted to the environment around them which has allowed them to develop traits better serving their own survival interests.’’ Of course they are subject to the same pests and diseases as managed honey bees, but crucially, says Burke, ‘‘they may have adapted to cope with it.’’

The team at Honey Bee Wild take a hands off approach to documenting their subject; ideally seeking out the nests of wild honey bees who have had no human intervention. In reality, Burke advises, ‘‘free living species will have interactions with managed colonies.  The bees are not genetically distinct populations.’’ 

Christian Zewen explains: ‘‘Many people have stated that it is no longer possible for bees to live without human intervention. 80% of the swarms do not survive the first winter. Natural selection is rigorous and tough. Many people think that the world is now so managed that there is no place for free-living anymore.’’ 

 The primary question of Honey Bee Wild’s study is to find out whether there are any such free-living bees in Luxembourg and, if so, how many and how they are faring in the wild.

A project by the Honey Bee Wild group is aiming to collect data on wild honey bees in Luxembourg
A project by the Honey Bee Wild group is aiming to collect data on wild honey bees in Luxembourg
Honey Bee Wild

Citizen scientist - Bee curious

With recent reports from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species (ICUN) highlighting how 56.7% of European wild bee species cannot be evaluated due to the lack of experts, data and funding; more solid evidence is required in order for these species to be removed from the data deficient list. 

Honey Bee Wild’s current project aims to redress these figures, but they need your help. Local volunteers are needed to become ‘citizen scientists’ and record their sightings of free-living bee nests in the wild.  Nests can be found in natural structures, like a tree cavity, or manufactured constructions, such as chimneys. 

Christian Zewen encourages us to report any sightings ‘‘even if you are unsure they are honey bees.’’  The team appreciates receiving the location of the nest and good quality photographs to identify the insect species.    

Anyone can be a citizen scientist. If you are happy voluntarily contributing your time and resources towards scientific research, either in collaboration with professional scientists or alone, then you qualify for this role. You don’t need a background in science or a formal scientific qualification, a natural curiosity about bees and their habitats is enough. 


Go further - Bee kind

Want to do more? Look to your land. However small your patch of green, you can help. Planting native species, foregoing traditional pesticides and aiming to have plants that perpetually bloom from spring right through to autumn helps the bees. 

When it comes to insect hotels and bee baths, John Park’s advice is simple. ‘‘Insects pretty much find their own hotels," he says. "It may be better to create a wood or log pile with your cuttings from the garden to attract a myriad of insects.  Bare ground is also needed in our gardens as 70% of our solitary bees nest in the ground.’’

A bee bath can be made from any shallow, water tight container.  The most important feature of these water stations is to design it in such a way that bees cannot drown when drinking; placing stones or similar objects into the container at regular intervals helps prevent this.

My favourite piece of advice though comes from Amanda Surbey.  She encourages us to ‘‘sit on our hands’’ where gardening is concerned.

‘‘The messy garden is a haven for bees’’, she says. ‘‘Whatever is growing including weeds are very important. Dandelions are one of the first plants to bloom, providing food in the form of nectar and pollen - a source of energy and protein - for our pollinators in the spring.’’

So, sit back and relax.  Being a citizen scientist is not such hard work after all. 

Want to find out more about the project or volunteer on a permanent basis with Honey Bee Wild? See contact information: -


Mobile/GSM/WhatsApp/Signal: 661 15 52 50

Create an account on iNaturalist to join the project and upload your photo to:

#freelivingbeeslux on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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