I have been pondering the question whether to classify bees as wild or domestic creatures or if it even matters. To most people I suppose it doesn’t matter, but with my background in biology and chemistry I am not comfortable with something being unclassified. In doing some research for this post I have seen both sides defended vehemently and been amazed and intrigued by the logic behind those answers.
The reason this is weighing on my mind has to do with determining a course of action when performing selection in my apiary. I am struggling with a common practice in beekeeping. The practice of replacing the queen in a colony that has been identified as too aggressive or HOT. I am also perplexed at the lack of any standard for making such a determination. Just to be clear to all readers: I am not speaking about Africanized Bee levels of aggression. This post is regarding European Honey bees only. I don’t have Africanized bees in my area and have no experience with them.
Prior to this summer I was not as concerned with any of this. After performing several cut-outs and visiting a lot more bee trees, I made an observation that has me thinking of it a lot now. In the majority of my dealings with bees surviving a feral existence I would classify them all as at least highly irritable if not downright HOT. In several instances I have gotten head bumps and sting greetings by merely standing in a flight path long enough to snap off a couple pictures. That’s HOT!
This consistency in aggressiveness or pro-active guard behaviour seems to also correlate with other traits that I find valuable in my bee operation. Overall vigour and ability to overwinter without intervention is important to me. In all of this summers cut-outs hive numbers were large, indicating good laying queens. Substantial amounts of honey were found within the hives as well, indicating both numbers and good work ethic. Several cut-out hives had several years worth stored up, showing that they were able to produce a surplus consistently year to year. All of these traits were displayed and there was no ongoing human intervention. My kind of bees!
The bees removed from an old house near here featured in YouTube video: Christmas in July Cutout 2012-07-28 were ON FIRE!!! When the cutout began even though a lot of smoke was used, the guard bees came out with nothing on their minds, but vengeance for our intrusion. I was stung 10-15 times within seconds. I had to get away and put on more layers of clothing. The two other guys took just as many hits and had to do the same thing. But wait….. These are stinging insects, and I was destroying their home, that happened to have almost five – 5 gallon buckets of honey in it. I can’t fault them for stinging, or call them mean.
So are bees wild animals? All except one of my hives have come from some form of feral/wild existence. Even that one has re-queened itself since being acquired and taken on a slightly different, more aggressive personality (Hive 1001). I do not know what other keepers would do if they had these hives. They can be worked without gloves on perfect bee days with no wind, but if opened on a less than ideal day you had better be wearing protection. I would never attempt to work any of my hives without a veil. At this time, given the multitude of problems faced by the beekeeping industry perhaps it may be wise to rethink the selection processes we have been using. Currently my method of selection is being based solely on the bees ability to overwinter without feed or treatment. Kinda like how bees living a feral or wild/existence would be selected. Therefore I can see the logic of not killing queens if you think that bees are wild animals.
Disagree and think it is cut and dry that bees ARE domestic animals? My next question would then be, are we treating bees like other domestic animals? How many beekeepers have raised any other domesticated animal other than a dog or cat? Growing up around both hogs and cattle, I know that even though both are classified as domestic, and like a good scratching around their head and ears, NEITHER CAN EVER BE TRUSTED. Taking precautions and being safe around them was just part of growing up on a farm. I know from experience, if you turn your back on a bull or a boar, they are aware that you are not watching. That is when you get hurt. My daughter will attest that our rooster will wait for you to turn around before he will try to attack. It isn’t that they are mean, it’s because they are animals and that’s what they do.
I know protective clothing is hot and it makes for good pictures when we can work our bees without it. It is good for us, but is it really beneficial for our bees other than making us slow down a bit. Perhaps protective clothing could be looked at just another domestic animal precaution since we can’t watch every single one of them. Even if they are “domestic” I can see the logic in not wanting to kill queens based upon an unstandardised interpretation of ill-temperment ALONE.
My wife will probably attest that I have days or even weeks where my mood is a little less than cheery. I would venture that a hive of bees collectively could be similar. During periods of dearth or even very windy days I have observed moody bees while trying to mow the yard. Don’t think a hive of bees “mood” can change? You will change your mind if you have one go queen-less and attempt to do a hive manipulation or have a surprise thunder storm pop up unexpectedly while checking a hive. A Dr. Jekyll hive suddenly can display all of Mr. Hyde’s personality in the blink of an eye.
So how does all of this tie in with a discussion of bees being wild or domestic? Next week I will be writing about some experiments performed over the last 50 years with fox domestication. In the experiment animals were selected based on aggressiveness of behaviour. Basically, did they try to bite a human if they got the chance. Based on a fairly simple form of selection, amazing and unexpected behavioural, physical, and neurochemical changes have taken place. The moral of the story: selection based on behaviour can have unintended effects on a population. What if selecting for bees based on behavioural factors could have consequences we have no way of predicting?
After reading what happened with the foxes, I think I have passed WHAT IF as a question. I want to think about what the consequences might already be.
- Are bees domestic or wild?
- Does it matter?
- Would you answer to the previous question alter your decisions on replacing a queen for aggressive behaviour?
- Is there or should there be a “Scale of Behavioural Aggression” to assist us with making such selective determinations to make them more objective?
- How do we assure ourselves a subjective assessment of aggression is a result of genetics, and not some unobserved environmental factor resulting in the destruction “moody bees” with valuable genetic lines that could have overcome varroa, SHB, or even CCD?
What do you think?
Have a nice weekend, but don’t stop thinking.