Let’s remove the word feral from beekeeping

Approximately two and a half years and 41 posts and it’s my first rant so please just bear with me.

One word I would like to remove from beekeeping is the term feral when used to describe colonies or nest sites other than in managed hives. I hear it all the time, a feral colony, in a tree, a swarm, from a feral colony, feral colony etc etc.

The origins of the word are from the early 17c and the Latin words, ferus and fera meaning  ‘wild, fierce, untamed, uncivilized and savage’

In the Oxford dictionary the  description for feral is “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication”

These days the word feral is used to describe something that is bad, out of control and vicious, feral cats ect and sad to say sometimes difficult families.

It all suggests that a colony of bees not managed by a beekeeper is a negative thing and we have somehow domesticated this fascinating  insect and its not able to survive without our help and once back out in the wild are a nuisance and not welcome.

Cats and dogs who after centuries of breeding have changed from the wild animal almost beyond recognition especially in the case of dogs and they turn feral when back in the wild calling on some deep seated instinct of survival but in no way near their true wild state.

Bees on the other hand are very much the same insect they have always been. This despite man’s attempts to breed bees to favour a particular desirable character and some would say this has only contributed to the problems bees face today. But despite all this the honey bee remains a wild insect and always will.

I realise some people use the term without fully understanding what they are saying about the colony and the image they are portraying. But some people use it and insist on using it. These beekeepers fall into the, I know best camp, and I am the master of the bees and not a partner with the bees.

Man has made the same mistake over and over again when it comes to nature in the mindset of “I know best” sometimes with disastrous consequences.

We should consider our relationship with the bees as a partnership and the bees are very much a wild insect either in a managed hive or a wild colony in whatever cavity they chose.

We are so fortunate that nature has given us this wonderful insect that allows us to work with them, harvest lovely honey and recover beeswax so we should respect them more and stop referring to wild colonies as feral.

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13 Responses to Let’s remove the word feral from beekeeping

  1. Justin says:

    Well said. I deal with plenty of swarms that have set up home in inconvenient places, and as a rule, my customers don’t use the word feral. Is it just a beekeeping community thing?

  2. Emily Scott says:

    Hadn’t thought about it this way Tom. If I’ve used it before no negative associations were meant! Will more rants be following or is this your main beekeeping gripe?

    • Hi Emily I don’t remember you ever saying it and find it hard you would. Actually don’t remember it ever mentioned around the table at Ealing as we are all good respectful beekeepers, but you see it on the internet all the time. I think it’s out of my system now but maybe a rant every now and then could be a good thing 😉

  3. The Apiarist says:

    I disagree … the Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘feral’ is probably pretty close to the meaning of the word when used currently. I don’t dispute that the word may have had slightly different meaning originally. Miriam-Webster define it as “of, relating to, or resembling a wild beast
    —used to describe an animal (such as a cat or dog) that has escaped and become wild”.

    Catherine Thompson has conducted a study of ‘feral’ colonies in the UK and showed that the vast majority of those analysed are genetically closely related to the nearby colonies kept – or more correctly lost – by local beekeepers. If these were naturally wild colonies, entirely self-sustaining, you would expect significant genetic differences between the managed colonies and those occupying the nearby church tower. There’s a brief article on this on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/28290890) and it gets a passing mention (based on morphometry, not genetics) in a paper from Catherine in PLoS One (http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0105164). The key quote from this is “There were no apparent differences in wing morphometry between feral and managed colonies, suggesting feral colonies could simply be escapees from the managed population”. I don’t think the genetic study has been published yet, but it’s been discussed at a number of meetings, both scientific and beekeeping.

    That’s not to say that there are NO wild, self-sustaining colonies … there might be, but I’d expect them to be in remote areas where pathogen spread (including Varroa) by drifting – see http://theapiarist.org/drifting-honeybees/ – is minimal.

    I don’t think ‘feral’ has any negative connotations … if used correctly “escaped from captivity” without implying “escaped from domestication”. Bees are ‘managed’ but certainly not domesticated. However … the colony in the church tower is almost certainly not ‘wild’.

    Nothing wrong with ranting about it though … but I think it’s more what people assume the word means, rather than what it actually means …


    • Thanks David
      I have a feeling you may have missed my point and perhaps thinking about AMM as the only wild bees. They are for sure our native wild bees.
      I don’t see any difference in the bees in my hive and the bees in the church tower to me they are both wild insects.
      Sure AMM is now only pushed to the remote parts of the UK and bee imports have messed with the genetics but basically very similar and still a wild insect.
      Feral is only ever used in beekeeping. Why? If it is a good description of a wild animal or insect why dont we hear it used more?
      Outside of beekeeping the term feral is only ever used to describe something bad, dangerous and out of control.

  4. The Apiarist says:

    OK Thomas … I see what you’re getting at. I attempted, but clearly failed, to address this in my closing sentences. Feral doesn’t have to mean wild and out of control. If you assume the word simply means ‘escaped from captivity’, which is one of the meanings of the word, then describing the bees in the church tower as feral bees is both accurate and not derogatory. I do use the term ‘feral bees’ to distinguish them from wild, self-sustaining populations that may still exist, but I certainly don’t mean to use it in a disparaging or derogatory way. I don’t think we hear ‘feral’ used of other wild animals or insects as these haven’t escaped. Perhaps beekeepers should be stressing the ‘escaped from captivity (management)’ meaning a bit more? There’s certainly no difference as far as the bees are concerned … and, to paraphrase the old joke, “These bees aren’t wild … they’re livid”. 😉

    • Lol David I like your last sentence first time I have heard it.
      We have all met a livid colony from time to time and I could be persuaded to think of those colonies as feral and not pleasant to deal with 🙂
      Escaped from captivity, but the bees are not a captive insect when you think about it. We may contain the queen but this is only for short periods otherwise they are free to come and go and even abscond, although thankfully for us with the european honey bee this is rare.
      Perhaps it is more about what people interpret feral to mean. I recognise, or it seems to be, most beekeepers think nothing of it, but to me its a negative.
      I assume you collect swarms as a service to your community. Does the swarm remain as feral in your eyes onced hived? In your part of Scotland you may have some wild colonies close to AMM or even the real deal. If they throw out a swarm is that a feral swarm? Or if that hived swarm the following year throws out a swarm will that be feral?
      I think we have to think a bit about the use of feral, it’s often used to freely and has simply become standard amongst beekeepers to describe anything other than in a hive.
      Thankfully most of this talk is amongst us beekeepers and not the wider public as confusion would certainly arise.

  5. Justin says:

    Personally, I find words and their meanings or perceived meanings fascinating. It’s a bit of a grey area with bees because the basic insect is not actually domesticated or tamed, it is merely housed and escapes. It then carries on exactly as it would if managed.

    • Yes that’s right Justin there is no difference in the bees in the hollow tree and a managed hive. Perhaps some beekeepers see the bees in the tree as unwanted competition and have negative thoughts to them and perhaos why feral has become so popular. With other beekeepers following without fully realising it simply doesn’t fit the situation.

  6. Justin says:

    I think my pet misconstrued word is “humane” when referring to (in pest control) traps. I’d be interested in other views son this. Let’s say, for example “humane mouse trap” what springs to mind?

  7. solarbeez says:

    Actually, I’d love to get some ‘feral’ bee swarms. In my opinion, they have the genetics of survival bees. Unfortunately, I think my swarms might have been tainted by the commercial bees that are brought in to pollinate the cranberries. It’s possible those commercial hives are brought into the area from the almond orchards, where bees from all over can spread mites, viruses, and bad health. 😦

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