Wild Honeybees Can Still Be Found in the Galicia Region of Northwest Spain

A honeybee sips nectar from a purple wallflower.
A honeybee sips nectar from a purple wallflower. Jackie Bale / Moment / Getty Images

There’s something comforting and wise about species that have been around for millions of years, like the ancient redwoods and horseshoe crabs, which have existed relatively unchanged since their evolutionary processes were perfected for their niches in the ecosystem.

Many people are aware of the importance as well as the plight of bees. You may have noticed that not as many of the flowers in your neighborhood are buzzing and that there are fewer fuzzy yellow and black bodies flitting from flower to flower. That’s because, according to Greenpeace, in the past 60 years the number of working bee colonies per hectare — a hectare equals about 2.5 acres — has decreased by 90 percent. Habitat loss and increased winter die-off rates are two of the main reasons for the steep decline.

But have you ever wondered where the bees that are responsible for much of the food you eat originated?

Honeybees are not native to North America, but were brought over from Europe for honey production in the early 17th century, according to Texas A&M University. The first subspecies came from Italy in 1859, followed later by subspecies from Spain, Portugal and other locations.

According to an entomologist with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station Dr. Spencer Johnston, a study of honeybees collected from Africa and Europe showed four distinct genetic groups, but the U.S. bee genome “was a complete mix of the three different introduced European subspecies,” reported Texas A&M.

Until not long ago, it was thought unlikely that wild honeybees still existed in Europe, reported Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg (JMU). But two biologists from Bavaria have disproved that assumption in a new study.

The study, “Semi-natural habitats promote winter survival of wild-living honeybees in an agricultural landscape” by Benjamin Rutschmann and Patrick Kohl, two doctoral students at the JMU Chair of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, was published last month in the journal Biological Conservation. Their research shows that there are wild honeybees living and thriving in the Galicia region in the northwest of Spain.

“We started our project in 2019, but there have probably always been wild-living honey bees in Galicia,” Rutschmann told EcoWatch in an email.

In October of 2019, Rutschmann and Kohl began researching honeybees in Galicia. Their colleague Alejandro Machado had previously found swarms of the bees living inside hollowed out electric poles and suggested that they study them.

The researchers combed an area of about 52.5 square miles in search of other colonies of wild honeybees living in hollowed out poles.

“We discovered 214 poles,” Rutschmann said, as JMU reported. “In the first year of our investigation, we found 29 colonies.”

They next visited the region in March of 2020 and discovered that 17 of them had made it through the winter, “even though they had neither been fed nor treated against parasites,” said Rutschmann, as reported by JMU.

According to Rutschmann, unlike in Germany the wild honeybees of Galicia are not descended from imported honeybee subspecies raised by beekeepers, JMU reported.

The wing pattern of the Galician honeybees studied by the researchers showed that the members of the power pole colonies were those of the Iberian honeybee (Apis mellifera iberiensis) of Spain.

“Wild-living and managed honeybees form the same population: They mate with each other, and swarms immigrate from beekeepers. So, they form one population but even the different way of living could have an influence on their survival,” Rutschmann told EcoWatch.

The Galician honeybees’ survival is greatly dependent upon the natural state of their surroundings, reported JMU. Electric poles in the midst of heathland, shrubland or forests saw a greater number of colonies making it through the winter than those surrounded by fields that had been extensively cultivated.

Natural habitats provide more food for the honeybees, and, in surroundings that were more than half “semi-natural,” at least every other wild honeybee colony made it through the winter, JMU reported. However, in habitats that were less than a quarter semi-natural, wild honeybees had little chance of survival.

“While colonies don’t survive in intensive agricultural areas, semi-natural areas are important for the bees,” Rutschmann said to EcoWatch. “We think that important food sources are: sweet chestnut, bramble, raspberry, heather, Erica and genista spp. species. Generally, Galicia is a region with a long tradition of beekeeping and honey production, most likely because forage is historically abundant there.”

As the study makes clear, the preservation and restoration of near-natural landscapes is of utmost importance to the survival of the wild honeybees of Galicia.

“Without sufficient nesting and feeding habitats, even the banning of pesticides or the halt of climate change will not help insects,” Kohl said, as reported by JMU.

Machado, who lives in Galicia, said that after studying 52 honeybee colonies over a period of two years, the researchers observed that about 40 percent of them made it through the winter.

The survival data for the wild honeybees of Galicia is the first ever compiled for any colonies of wild honeybees in Europe, but Rutschmann believes they exist all across the continent.

“We think that there are wild-living honey bees all over Europe. It’s unclear how long they can survive in different regions. This depends not only on parasites and pathogens but due to our research also mainly on food resources and the availability of suitable nesting sites,” Rutschmann told EcoWatch.

According to Rutschmann, there are various things people can do to help to increase the survival rate of the wild Galician honeybees.

“Preserving nesting sites for wild-living bee colonies (in the case of the power poles this is depending on the electric company). Preserve also old trees with cavities! We show that semi-natural areas can mitigate honey bee colonies losses; these should be protected. The use of pesticide should be banned or limited to the minimum needed,” said Rutschmann.

Thankfully, the wild honeybee population in Spain is currently stable, but it remains to be seen if their numbers can continue to be sustained with the onslaught of intensive cultivation and its use of dangerous fertilizers and pesticides.

Rutschmann’s recommendations for what people can do to help preserve the habitat of the wild honeybees of Galicia are things that are universally good for the planet.

“Eat local organic food, don’t support intensive agriculture, avoid meat as much as possible,” Rutschmann said.

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