The neglected bee trees: European beech forests as a home for feral honey bee colonies.
It is a common belief that feral honey bee colonies (Apis mellifera L.) were eradicated in Europe through the loss of habitats, domestication by man and spread of pathogens and parasites. Interestingly, no scientific data are available, neither about the past nor the present status of naturally nesting honeybee colonies. We expected near-natural beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) forests to provide enough suitable nest sites to be a home for feral honey bee colonies in Europe. Here, we made a first assessment of their occurrence and density in two German woodland areas based on two methods, the tracing of nest sites based on forager flight routes (beelining technique), and the direct inspection of potential cavity trees. Further, we established experimental swarms at forest edges and decoded dances for nest sites performed by scout bees in order to study how far swarms from beekeeper-managed hives would potentially move into a forest. We found that feral honey bee colonies regularly inhabit tree cavities in near-natural beech forests at densities of at least 0.11-0.14 colonies/km2. Colonies were not confined to the forest edges; they were also living deep inside the forests. We estimated a median distance of 2,600 m from the bee trees to the next apiaries, while scout bees in experimental swarms communicated nest sites in close distances (median: 470 m). We extrapolate that there are several thousand feral honey bee colonies in German woodlands. These have to be taken in account when assessing the role of forest areas in providing pollination services to the surrounding land, and their occurrence has implications for the species' perception among researchers, beekeepers and conservationists. This study provides a starting point for investigating the life-histories and the ecological interactions of honey bees in temperate European forest environments.