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Research article2024Peer reviewedOpen access

Free-living colonies of native honey bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) in 19th and early 20th century Sweden

Niklasson, Mats; Svensson, Emil; Leidenberger, Sonja; Norrstrom, Niclas; Crawford, Elizabeth


Little information exists on the history and ecology of free-living colonies of European honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) in Europe, including its dark north-western subspecies (Apis mellifera mellifera). Our aim was to investigate the presence of colonies of free-living, native honey bees (A. m. mellifera) during the last two centuries in Sweden. For this we examined systematic interviews of beekeepers (176 answers from 158 questionnaires) performed in the years 1928-1981, with information dating back to the early 1800s. An overwhelming majority of answers (96%) confirmed the past presence of free-living colonies of honey bees in Sweden. While some stated that free-living colonies were simply absconded swarms from managed hives, the majority of interviewees (69%) believed that free-living colonies were of a truly wild origin. A decreasing trend in first-hand accounts of free-living colonies suggests that free-living populations underwent a dramatic decline at the end of the 19th century. This was also expressed in words by many interviewees, who in 14 cases stated that the loss of old forests and tree-cavity nest sites at the end of the 1800s was the primary cause of the decline. Direct accounts of perennial, free-living colonies, combined with detailed descriptions of the collection of large free-living colonies and/or wild honey, is strong evidence of free-living honey bees being well adapted to winter survival. These accounts contradict the officially supported view that the honey bee is a recently imported, domesticated, non-native species in Sweden. The results give a scientific underpinning and provide inspiration for the restoration of native forests which could facilitate populations of free-living colonies of A. m. mellifera exposed to natural selection. This could potentially lead to its return as a fully wild species. In an uncertain future, allowing for a natural lifestyle could increase resilience and reinstate characteristics that are otherwise lost in honey bees due to the increasing effects of artificial trait selection.Implications for insect conservationOur results present strong evidence for populations of free-living colonies of A. m. mellifera in the recent past, which calls for a revised look at its conservation status and management. Allowing and supporting free-living colonies of this subspecies should be evaluated as a method for conservation.


Free-living honey bees; Apis mellifera; Apis mellifera mellifera; Wild honey bees; Old-growth forests; Hollow trees; Rewilding

Published in

Journal of Insect Conservation
2024, Volume: 28, number: 3, pages: 389–400
Publisher: SPRINGER

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    SLU Plant Protection Network

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    SDG15 Life on land

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