Perspectives Online

Revealing the Secret Lives of Bees

Just how wild are wild honeybees, the bees found buzzing through a residential garden as opposed to those kept by a beekeeper, and how are those wild bees doing, living in the woods in a hollow tree?

An N.C. State University entomologist is trying to find out, and what she finds could end up helping all bees, whether managed or wild.

Dr. Deborah Delaney, a post-doctoral researcher in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is collecting what she calls feral bees across North Carolina. Delaney plans to study the DNA of the bees she has collected to determine whether they are, in fact, feral. It may be that what appear to be wild bees actually escaped from a managed hive and took up residence in the woods.

Delaney also hopes to learn from bee DNA whether feral bees are keeping a secret that allows them to survive better than managed bees. If feral bees are faring better than managed bees, and Delaney can find out why, that could be good news for all bees.

And bees could use some good news, for these are not good times for bees, managed or wild. They have been under assault for a number of years. First, there was a parasite called the Varroa mite. Then small hive beetles, minor pests of bees in their native Africa, showed up in the United States, where, it turns out, North American bees are not as good at protecting their hives from the beetles as their African cousins.

And most recently, Colony Collapse Disorder has afflicted bees and beekeepers. Colony Collapse Disorder is the term coined to describe the mysterious disappearance of bees from hives. While entomologists are still trying to determine what causes Colony Collapse Disorder, most now think it is a variety of factors, perhaps including both Varroa mites and small hive beetles.

The lives of bees became so bad in recent years that entomologists and others became concerned about the availability of bees to pollinate flowers and fruits and vegetables. In an effort to bolster the bee population, Dr. David Tarpy, CALS associate professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension apiculturist, got a grant that allowed him to give bee hives to 250 people across the state. Tarpy saw the 2005 bee giveaway as a means of strengthening the bee population by creating new beekeepers and increasing the number of managed bees in North Carolina.

In a serendipitous and indirect turn of events, the bee giveaway is now playing a role in Delaney’s project.

One of those new beekeepers was Ronnie Bouchon, a Cary, N.C. resident who also happens to be Web savvy. In addition to keeping bees, Bouchon created a Web site designed to locate unmanaged or feral bee nests. At the Web site (, anyone who knows the location of a feral bee nest can note the location of the nest on a map of the United States. While most of the nest locations on the map are in North Carolina, there are nest locations as far away as Maine and Michigan. Indeed, a number of nests have been located along the West Coast in California, Oregon and Washington.

Delaney is using the Web site as well as nest locations provided by North Carolina beekeeping groups to locate apparently feral bees for her project.

When she was working on her Ph.D. in 2004 and 2005, Delaney analyzed the DNA of feral honeybees collected throughout the Southeast between 1980 and 1992.

“We found that the feral population and the commercial population are actually very distinct genetically,” Delaney says of that earlier study.

She hopes to learn from the study in which she is now engaged whether that is still the case. And if that’s the case, is there something about feral bees that makes them better able to withstand the various assaults to which bees have been subjected?

“Whatever is surviving out there and has survived since the Varroa mite came, survived for some reason,” says Delaney. “We’re interested in looking at that stock to find out why it survived and maybe using that stock for breeding.”

– Dave Caldwell