When/where should honeybees be marked as wild/non-wild?

A local cemetery has kept beehives for several years, as do many other sites. Should honeybees (Apis mellifera) in this vicinity be marked wild or captive? If captive, how far away from the nearest hive before we mark them wild again? That is, how far do honeybees travel?

If it matters this is on North America.


If it’s close to known hives, it’s safer to think those are captive, bees usually visit the same fields, so it’s probably possible to find out which spots are visited by those bees, but here locally there’re no captive hives and still tons of honeybees, so you may never know which one you see. I would mark everything further than 300-500 metres as wild, just because of uncertainty.

The typical foraging range for Apis mellifera is generally given as 2 miles (3.2 km), although they’re known to fly farther during lean times. I’d assume any honey bees in North America are captive unless tracked to a nest in the wild.


Honey bees can travel quite a distance (several miles) and there are feral colonies. So I would agree that more than a couple of hundred yards can be safely called wild. Also, feral honey bees can look different from domestic honey bees. Might be worth looking up the visual differences.

I wouldn’t worry about marking honeybees as wild/non-wild. I doubt there would be any benefit from doing so as they’re kept everywhere and they transition from wild to non-wild all the time. Wild colonies are captured and kept in boxes and “captive” colonies escape to the wild. And there’s no way to know if any one bee is wild/non-wild unless you photograph them actually on/in the hive.


I’m curious about your comment about visual differences between feral and managed honey bees. Since all feral honey bees in N. America originated as escapees from management, where would the differences come from? There is considerable variation in coloration of various stocks of A. mellifera, but in all my years of beekeeping, I’ve never come across a swarm (either my own capture or a colleague’s capture) that was visually different from managed bees. Nor have yet found a reference to such differences in the beekeeping literature. Could you point me toward a reference? I’d be very interested to learn about it.

1 Like

I’d thought the best approach was to categorize bees from known managed hives captive, but not to do so for any which could be wild (regardless of how likely).

Most honeybees come from captive hives . . . most. Which ones? I don’t know! Can’t know! So I leave them all marked wild (except in the rare case where I know I’m very close to a box) and let any researcher deal with the question later. (I figure that any researcher who doesn’t know about this issue shouldn’t be researching honeybees in the first place.)


Agreed. I wouldn’t worry too much about marking them not wild unless you know for sure they’re from a captive hive.


My understanding of it is that feral honey bees tend to be darker than their managed counterparts, but I have just heard that from a couple of beekeepers and don’t have a written source for it. This may be out of date information though, my understanding is that A mellifera mellifera which is dark, used to be very common in the feral population but isn’t anymore, while many managed hives are A mellifera ligustica which is rather orange.

Multiple A. mellifera subspecies have been imported to N. America: A. m. mellifera (dark, and the first imported, rarely found now), A. m. ligustica (gold, currently the most common), A. m. carnica (dark, second most popular), A. m. caucasica (also dark), and perhaps a few others in minor quantities. Further complicating matters, none of the subspecies are present in pure form in N. America, so everything you see will be a mix. Your local blend will depend on the preferences of your local beekeepers. And, since honey bees are polyandrous, you might find several different colorations in one colony.

Sorry to drone on. It’s a side effect of beekeeping.


My yard is located a mere quarter mile from the nearest bee farm. I’ve walked down the road to buy their honey and get some pictures of the bees entering and exiting their hives. (I was told to move slowly and avoid blocking their flight path and all should be fine. Quite an experience to stand right beside a row of busy bee hives taking close-ups with them buzzing in and out like you don’t even exist. I like to think that they may have recognized me as the friendly gardener providing flowers for them, but that’s probably just human self-deception, haha.)

So I assume that every honeybee visiting my pollinator garden is a domesticated farm animal and not wild since we’re such close neighbors. That said, there are occasional reports of swarms in the area. The ones I know of were collected by beekeepers but it’s entirely possible there may be feral hives around that have escaped notice. It’s hard to know for sure, but in the case of my yard I think it’s more likely that a visiting honeybee is from the hives just a quarter mile down the road.


Are you certain? In my neighborhood, I know of no managed hive boxes (there are a couple across town, but those are about 5 miles away) but I’ve found no less than 12 active wild hives within a half a mile from my house - and those are just the ones near the public trails, I’m sure there’s dozens more.

My rule is to only mark them captive if they’re actually photographed entering or exiting a managed hive.

Besides, bees, even managed bees, have a certain control over their own destiny - if the location is not suitable bee habitat, they’ll just move out and find somewhere else to make the hive. And if it’s good bee habitat and there is no human-made hive, a swarm will move into a hole in a tree and live there.
If there’s ‘captive’ bees in the area, there’s wild ones as well… and they can change from ‘captive’ to ‘wild’ to ‘captive’ again on a whim.

When I worked at a local farm that had a bee hive, we were a bit upset when all our bees swarmed and left one weekend. A week later, we realized we had bees again… completely different, slightly larger, bees - a different swarm had come along and moved right in! Then they left as well a few months later.


I’m sure it depends on where you are located. In rural Arizona, USA, where I live, nearly all of the (many) Apis mellifera I encounter are from wild-occuring colonies. There are hives scattered throughout the desert, grassland, and lower mountains, in tree cavities and rock crevices. Also occasional hives found within house walls and in attics and outbuildings. There are few or no captive hives nearby, and it’s a common sight in summer to have swarms pass overhead.


I’m sorry. You’re right, @graysquirrel and @suecar – In my area the many backyard beekeepers plus many acres of bee-pollinated crops mean that most honeybees probably are captive, but the proportion varies from one area to the next. Plus, as you say, bees move between captive and wild states. Good reason to mark them wild unless evidence for captivity is strong.


Thank you for asking this interesting question! I have enjoyed reading the replies.

I have one top bar hive, located in an organic farm. The bees died out this winter, and a new swarm moved in. I haven’t “managed” the hive, except to make sure there is water nearby.
So are my bees feral or captive? Seems like a non-question.


In a hive they are now captive.

But if they chose the empty hive as their home and moved in without human intervention, they are where they want to be. If we’re arguing that just supplying the hive box is enough to make them captive, then any bird nesting in a box supplied by humans should be captive, too?

Birds are passing thru, spending most of their life OUT of the nesting box. But hived bees spend most? of their life in the hive.

We still have wild bees. Researchers studying them. Our climate is fire adapted like California. Wild bees build a propolis wall which protects the hive from fire. Their whole (wild and free) life is different to hived bees managed for honey.