Beekeeping with NM Feral Honeybees


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  • We have lot’s of feral bees in New Mexico. In the cooler northern areas or areas with an established beekeeping tradition, you will find mostly escapees from domestic hives, or their descendants. The Southern New Mexico regions fall within the temperate hybrid zone where African genetics mixes with Eastern and western European lineages. If you deal with honeybees in the Southern part of the state, you will see African genetics at some point. Northern beekeepers may be exposed to, but in a different way.
  • Not all of the sources of African genetics are from Brazil. There is a documented history of other African breeds having been imported to New Mexico and the desert southwest.
  • Mitochondrial DNA – which is different from Nuclear DNA – is passed on through the mother/queen. It has no effect on the resulting behavior and traits, which are passed on through nuclear DNA. It simply shows where the origins of the genetic line came from and does not change through the generations. From MTDNA research, it has been determined there have been at least 15 prior introductions of African honeybees, which preceed the Brazilian/AHB scare of the 1990’s. MTDNA from Apis Mellifera Lamarckii has also been found among our bees, but the number has been greatly reduced since the current Brazilian influx.
  • In the early 2005, Genetic research was conducted by Roxan Magnus and Dr. Allen Salanski on the origins of feral honeybees in the United States. In this study, they tested samples of MTDNA from feral honeybee colonies and determined multiple genetic lines of African DNA existed that were not Brazilian in origin. 12 genetic lines were observed - the most common mitotype found in New Mexico being the A1a mitotype from Morrocco. These results mirrored earlier work by USDA scientists (Linderer, and company), and seems to show a background of African genetics that was pre-existing before the Brazilian AHB migration. The diversity of the African genetics found in New Mexico was also much wider than in neighboring states, such as Texas and Mexico.
  • Of note – five of the nine AHB mitotypes observed in the USA have not been observed in Mexico or South America. This is possibly due to inaccuracies of the test process and the inability to distinguish minor variations in DNA. The testing performed in the USA was more accurate in nature. Regardless, species of honeybees exist which will give a false positive on the standard nuclear DNA test, such as the Spanish Honeybee, which is essentially a hybrid of the Western Dark Bee and the Tunisian or Morrocan Honeybee.
  • Talk about Dr Kerr being persecuted by the Brazilian government for civil rights protest.
  • My opinion is that beekeepers should worry more about other things than where their bees come from – like workability, production, and bears.
  • The classic AHB traits are simply “feral” traits that are exhibited by all bees left in the wild long enough to regress to their truly wild nature through natural selection.
  • Beekeeping with NM Feral Honeybees

    2. 2. A little about myself…  Run Black Mesa Bees - a small beekeeping operation (about 20 hives).  Do removals for Otero County and surrounding areas , usually the difficult ones.  It seems removals are my primary business. During the height of the season, I usually get a removal call just about every other day. I am partnered with the local Extension office and pest control services.  The removed feral honeybees are normally tested for African genetics and re-queened if needed and allowed to develop into a new hive as space permits. Some of them end up being sold locally as nucleus hives or splits after re-queening.  In April of 2013, I participated as a presenter before the City Of Alamogordo Board of Commissioners in a successful effort to have their beekeeping ban repealed. The data I collected during my removals was instrumental in getting this ban re-evaluated.
    3. 3. Why am I doing this?  In 2013, New Mexico discontinued all genetic testing of honeybees. It is unknown when or if it will start up again.  I believe Beekeepers should be competent to recognize the signs of undesirable feral genetics.  I feel that feral bees are a great resource and offer many genetic advantages for survival, but we must be selective about what we propagate.
    4. 4. Disclaimer  I am not advocating the keeping of bees with “Africanized” traits.  I am presenting information to help make guided decisions on whether re-queening should be undertaken for the beekeeper who maintains honeybees in an African Hybrid area or deals with feral honeybees.  Some of the information presented does not follow the standard canon on the popular story of Africanized Honeybees.
    5. 5. References  Analysis of Africanized honeybee mitochondrial DNA reveals further diversity of origin – Genetics and Molecular Biology Volume 22 – March 1999  Honeybees of African Origin Exist in Non-Africanized Areas of the Southern United States: Evidence from Mitochondrial DNA - 2007.  Mitochondrial DNA characterization of Africanized honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) populations from the USA – Journal of Apicultural Research, Vol. 49 April 2010  Assessment of the mitochondrial origin of honey bees from Argentina – IBRA 2007  Genetic Evidence for Honey Bees (Apis m e llife ra L. ) o f Middle Eastern Lineage in the United States – Sociobiology Vol. 55, 2010.  World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting - Eva Crane, Dec 1999  Aficanized Honey Bees in the Americas – Dewey Caron, 2001  My own totally un-scientific observations of Southern NM Feral Honeybee behavior.
    6. 6. A little background on our bees… • Feral honeybees are very common in the desert southwest. • In Northern NM where beekeeping is an established culture, these bees tend to be of European descent (mostly escapees). • The southern border regions are within the uppermost range of the Brazilian/African Honeybee. • A temperate hybrid zone extends from the Mexican border and covers the lower 1/3rd of the state. • If you keep bees in the American Southwest, you will be exposed to African genetics – particularly near the Mexican Border.
    7. 7. African Influences…  Unknown to most – there are actually several different influences for African genetics in our feral honeybees.  These influences include, Apis Mellifera Iberiiensis, (Spanish Black Bees), Apis Mellifera Intermissa (Tunisian Honeybees), Apis Mellifera Lamarckii (Egyptian Honeybees), and Apis Mellifera Scutellata (Brazilian/African Hybrids).
    8. 8. Prior introductions before the AHB scare… • Mitochondrial DNA testing indicates that throughout the range of the honeybee in the New World, there have been multiple introductions of African genetics that preceded the migration of the famous Brazilian/African hybrids. • There is evidence of an estimated 15 introductions of African DNA prior to the famous Brazilian/AHB Scare of the last decade. - Magnus/Salanski • Small traces of Middle Eastern Honeybee genetics have also been found in New Mexico
    9. 9. Research and Genetic Studies The research supporting these observations comes to us from:  Genetic studies conducted by Roxane Magnus and Dr Allen Salanski on the origin of feral honeybee colonies in the USA.  Research conducted by Walter S. Sheppard, Thomas Rinderer, Lionel Garney, and Hachiro Shimanuki on the genetic origins of feral colonies in the range of the Africanized Honeybee. • The results show that approximately 25% of all feral colonies have Northern African mitochondrial DNA and not South African A. M. Scute llata. The re sults fro m No rth vs. So uth Am e rica se e m pro po rtio nal. • Furthermore - Entomologist Keith DeLaplane of the University of Georgia Honeybee Program suggests in his lectures, that in some areas of the American Southwest, this number can reach nearly 68%.
    10. 10. Controversy of origin… • According to the studies conducted by Sheppard, Linderer, Garney, and Shimanuki - it is possible the role of A.M. Scutellata DNA has been overstated, and that African DNA was already in the New World in many locations. The arrival of Scutellata was simply the most recent. • The accuracy of current basic genetic testing is also questionable, as A.M Scutellata is assumed to be the originator of the African DNA and the DNA test is modeled after them. All it registers is African Yes/No. • Other subspecies exist which will give a false positive – for example A.M. Iberiensis (the Spanish Honeybee – a variant of the Western European Black Bee).
    11. 11. How did this African DNA get here? • There is historical evidence of importation of honeybees by Spanish settlers, the earliest date being 1513 c.e. • These bees were most likely A.M. Iberiensis (Spanish Black Bee) or A.M. Intermissa (Tunisian or Punic Bee). • These two varieties were commonly kept by early Spanish beekeepers. • Both test as African when genetically tested for Nuclear DNA using the standard test. • Syrian/Egyptian Bees also imported in 1800’s.
    12. 12. Are they still around? • We may still see remnants of these subspecies in our feral honeybees. • It is not out of the realm of possibility that we could find isolated populations of them in our more remote locations, where beekeeping has not been a prevalent activity - but they would be rare. • All of these genetic influences – Iberiensis, Intermissa, Lamarkii, and Scutellata appear to show up in the feral populations in varying degrees. • Prior to Africanization feral bees exhibited more Eastern European/Middle Eastern genetics. • Post-Africanization feral bees tend to show more African and Western European (black bee) genetics.
    13. 13. Brazilian Honeybees  A.M. Scutellata was imported in the late 1950’s and 1960’s by Brazil. (These bees were also imported by the US during approximately the same time period for research and limited distribution).  For a variety of reasons, un-domesticated queens were released into the South American environment. There were no feral honeybees at the time in South America, so they spread and became feral colonies.  Natural selection increased their feral nature. They are a reversion to a wilder, more feral honeybee.  As they migrated north and encountered other honeybees, they absorbed their genetic code. They can express traits from any previously encountered honeybee species.  The Scutellata hybrids encountered in temperate regions normally express qualities very similar to that of European Dark Bees (Black Bees), since this is the genetics most adapted for survival in many
    14. 14. The Results…  Our true feral bees, not domestic escapees, are a melting pot of diverse influences. It is almost impossible to tell what race a feral honeybee is these days - DNA testing is needed; and even that is suspect.  As much as 25% or more of the African genetics we now see were here before the Brazilian African “invasion”.  In states where the Black Bees and feral bees of previous generations have disappeared, the Africans in their various forms have taken their place. - it is arguable that NM started with Africans so never really lost anything.  In the flat desert areas of Southern NM, it is possible to find Scutellata influences, but full strength Scutellata are not that common. – The y are m o re o f a nuisance in m o st case s than any type o f thre at.  True AM Scutellata are really only found South of the Mexican border.  Bees in mountainous areas show less influence by Brazilian genetics, but can also be defensive (sometimes far worse).  Residual genetics and natural selection has made feral honeybees in most NM areas very hardy. Traits such as “Allo g ro o m ing ” are common.
    15. 15. Wild NM Honeybees  All of these influences have created a very unique breed of honeybee, found no where else but New Mexico.  Do not fear our feral bees – they have many traits we should be seeking to incorporate into our existing stock, while eliminating the bad.  We must be selective about what we include. Not all traits are acceptable. Nor should they be eliminated from the wild, if we are to ensure the continued survival of our honeybees.  Domestic bees are removed from natural selection and will never develop the survival traits needed to adapt to climate change, lack of forage, etc.  Many areas that had totally lost feral honeybees now have them again. But when doing removals – be choosy in the ones we take. - Fo r instance : Ino rm ally do no t re m o ve a co lo ny fro m a tre e unle ss it is causing pro ble m s o r g o ing to be de stro ye d. The fe ralbe e s m ust also be g ive n the ir space to de ve lo p o r we risk lo sing the ir
    16. 16. Pictorial Essay on Un-common Honeybee Breeds in the US. The following images are of honeybees that are not domesticated or very uncommon in the USA.
    17. 17. Apis Melliferia Iberiensis  Also known as the Gibraltar Bee or Spanish Black Bee.  It is a hybrid between Western Black Bees and Apis Melliferia Intermissa (Tunisian Honeybees).  Have North African traits mixed with the cold tolerance of the Black Bee.  Mostly dark brown to black with black queens.
    18. 18. Apis Melliferia Intermissa  Also known as the Tunisian, Morrocan, or Punic Bee.  Common in Arab beekeeping – even today.  From North Africa along the Mediterranean Coast.  Can be highly defensive.  Said to be not very cold hardy.
    19. 19. Apis Melliferia Scutellata  From the Central African savannah.  Tend to migrate with the food supply.  Can be highly defensive, and outcompete other local honeybees.  Greater number of guards.  Cannot survive extended periods of forage deprivation.  Hygienic behavior – will not tolerate intruders of any type.
    20. 20. Apis Melliferia Lamarkii  From the Nile Valley and Sudan.  Hygienic – said to groom before entry to hive.  Considered to be defensive.  Dark bee with yellow abdomen.  They do not collect propolis and are rumored to not cluster for Winter.  These bees have been kept for thousands of years – since the days
    21. 21. How to identify negative or potentially negative traits. We all should be selecting for good productivity, over-wintering ability, mite/disease resistance, and temperament from locally adapted bees. The best source for locally adapted bees, in many cases, are feral, but we must watch out for the following characteristics…
    22. 22. Generic Brazilian/African Hybrid traits… Not necessarily in line with the USDA guidelines  Opportunists – tend to nest where-ever they can. Small hives common (water meters, buckets, etc.)  Nest in closer proximity to humans.  Have a shorter development time from egg to adult. Queens hatch several days sooner than domestic honeybees.  Stronger Pheromones - communications are better. Reactions to stimuli tend to be more drastic.  Can be unpredictable – they are wild animals.  Contrary to popular opinion, most overwinter quite well and build up very fast in the Spring.  Weather does not affect their foraging habits – they forage in conditions other bees will not – and so m e tim e s in the m o o nlig ht!
    23. 23. More traits…  Defensiveness is variable – some are worse than others, some not at all.  Produce more drones. (They also kill them quicker at first sign of dearth).  Can be “swarmy” but not always.  “Turbo-bees” - tend to out-compete domestic honeybees.  They are the ultimate survivalists in the bee world. Very hardy.  Absconding is common (1 /3rd o f the hive s Ire m o ve and atte m pt to re -q ue e n absco nd).  Some hybrids are usurpers – they send out small swarms to take over domestic hives and replace the queen. Mo st hybrids o nly sho w a fe w o f the se traits.
    24. 24. Some bad traits to look for in removed feral bees…  Excessive defensiveness – but NOT a key indicator (only about 20% hives are overly defensive in my experience).  Nervous and skittish – they run around the combs or flee the hive box en masse when smoked or worked. - The be e s are scare d o f hum ans and run!  When frames are lifted from the hive, the bees drip off and festoon in large clumps, falling to the ground, running, and climbing everything in sight – including the beekeeper. Working calmly with them is very difficult.  Scared of smoke.  Heavy bearding at odd times. They like to hang o ut o n the fro nt po rch a lo t – but be careful, they are usually guards!  When the hive is opened they form a “bee collar” around the outside of the hive box.  Very little honey in the brood-nest ; usually just a small fist sized clump.  Every frame will be brood. If there is honey, it is above in a separate box.  Pollen is mixed with the brood in large amounts – similar to Black Bees.  Bees act like they are on “Speed” and literally blow out of the hive.
    25. 25. Dripping and Festooning
    26. 26. Little honey in brood-nest
    27. 27. Bee collar when hive is opened
    28. 28. Fleeing from smoke
    29. 29. Time to re-queen…  If you observe the previous traits – you should re-queen your bees.  These traits may take a month or two to show up in a captured colony.  Since the State of New Mexico is no longer testing DNA, it will be harder to determine accurately.  If you decide to play around with feral bees or do removals, you must watch them closely for these undesirable traits.  Most of these traits are not limited to African honeybees. They are generic feral traits commonly found in wilder breeds such as Western European Dark Bees.  Re-queening with new queen will change the entire genetics of the hive in approximately 6 weeks. If you use a queen cell, the resulting virgin queen will pick up survival traits from the local drones. Temperament is normally passed down through the queen.
    30. 30. Re-queening Africans.  Full Brazilian African genetics can be difficult to re-queen.  The difficulty lies in finding the queen and low acceptance rates – they don’t like domesticated queens.  It is sometimes easier to use a queen cell in a protector placed above the brood nest. – The hive m ay o r m ay no t be de -q ue e ne d first.  Make sure they are queen-less long enough that there are no eggs or larva to raise a new queen from before introducing a new queen. - De -q ue e n, wait a fe w days, the n g o thro ug h and e lim inate ce lls prio r to intro ducing a ne w q ue e n.  Bees can also be sifted through an excluder to find the queen – ho we ve r, so m e yo ung q ue e ns can sq ue e z e thro ug h an e xclude r.  Brazilian African hybrids are notorious for having more than one queen present. - usually a hidde n virg in.
    31. 31. Requeening strategies.  If you have honeybees of feral descent, watch them for the signs presented in the last few slides.  Worry less about genetic origin and more about behavior traits. There are some good qualities to be gained by a positive addition of feral genetics to the gene pool. - Many o f Ne w Me xico ’s fe ralbe e s te nd to be ve ry hardy, hyg ie nic, and naturally m ite re sistant. The y ne e d ve ry little be e ke e pe r inte rve ntio n (m o stly swarm pre ve ntio n).  If near the border or in areas subject to heavy African genetics, re-queen with a new queen line every two generations. – Bre aks the o ut-cro ssing cycle fro m fe raldro ne e xpo sure .
    32. 32. Stay Local  Try to stay local if at all possible – at least from within the state.  Importing queens from other regions should be avoided. Their escapees can water down the feral gene pool with negative domesticated traits – such as need for interventions and treatments – le ading to m ite o r parasite issue s fo r allo f us.  Virgin queens are a good solution, as they mate with the local drones and pick up their survival traits – though fully mated queens may be needed near the Mexican Border areas.
    33. 33. Do not be afraid of our feral bees…  We must continue catching swarms and performing cut-outs, however, we must be mindful of the traits we propagate.  If this was done on a large scale, we could theoretically breed out the bad traits, while retaining the good survival traits  The key is to know which traits require re- queening.  Know your Bees! Become a Better Beekeeper! If yo u are g o ing to de alwith fe ralbe e s, this is a re q uire m e nt!
    34. 34. Parting words…  We need more people working with feral bees so we can breed better regionally adapted queens!  Contact me at the following email address –  I am also on Facebook – Black Mesa Honeybees Thank yo u!