Can you imagine the ancient forests in Ireland, with their majestic pines and oaks, towering above the forest floor? Trees that could tell a thousand tales of times past.
These forests were home to a variety of animals, birds and insects as well as the important fungi that interlaced the earth below the trees.
They were the home of self-sufficiency, providing the necessities of life, while, at the same time, enriching the environment.
While we see pictures of beehives and beekeepers in their space-like suits, armed with lighted smokers and a box of beekeeping gadgets, necessary for working at beehives, we can easily forget that bees once lived in different circumstances.
Those working at tree-felling, would in the past, have been used to coming across nests of bees in felled trees. This may have created some excitement on discovery as the vibrations from sawing drew the bees out in defence of their home.
Before man intervened
As trees age, rot may take place within the trunk. Honeybees, in need of a home, will readily take note of this and will clean out the soft material turning it into a cavity for nesting. This was their typical nest site long before houses, with their chimneys, soffits, tiles and cavity walls, became plentiful. Since the natural woods have contracted and in some cases, vanished, our houses are the next best site for a home.
Once we humans figured out how to keep bees in baskets, earthen jars or as in the recent past, butter boxes (yes – for packing butter into), beekeeping was born. Before this, the brave ones climbed the trees and stole the bee’s honey, a practice used across the world. One could go honey hunting in Nepal up to recent times as a short holiday activity.
Beekeepers often loose swarms from their hives. Sometimes they are picked up by other beekeepers and placed in hives.
Those that are not collected will seek out a new home, be it in the roof of a house or tree cavity. Such bees are termed “feral” or wild colonies. Allowing bees to swarm and choose their own abode could be considered rewilding.
Bees living wild may not survive for very long, perhaps a couple of years before succumbing to viral infections resulting from high levels of varroa mites. However, some very few may survive and propagate through producing their own swarms. It is precisely these bees which may have the genetic material to survive, by controlling the mite levels, and so will be a prized possession to have for future propagation.
In recent years, here in Ireland – as well as some other countries – scientists have engaged the public to report bees nesting in trees or other sites. Monitoring such sites provides information on the survivability of these colonies. Samples of bees surviving for many years provide scientists with the material to hopefully discover what it is that makes them better survivors.
Unfortunately, the population of feral colonies is greatly reduced by beekeeping practice, viral infections and other diseases. We beekeepers still do our part in monitoring our bee colonies for mite resistant traits amongst others, which benefit the bees and honey production.