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  • Michael Joshin Thiele

Protecting an Eldorado of Wild Apis Mellifera Conservation

Conservation efforts and programs for wild, unmanaged populations of honeybees in the US have been both, rewarding and challenging. Apis Arborea¹ is a nonprofit organization in California that promotes arboreal apiculture and holistic apiology and is part of a global pioneering apian conservation community.

In the context of wild honeybee conservation, Apis Arborea integrates a system-based approach called ‘Wilding’. ‘Wilding is not defined by the geo-historical distribution of the species, but rather represents a shift towards the rehabilitation of their natural nesting site parameters, biodiversity, and the restoration of their fundamental birthrights.

The conditions in the US are somewhat unique and vary from many environments in Europe. Wild, self-sustaining populations of Apis mellifera are a constituent of wild landscapes throughout the country². Research by Thomas Seeley has documented their existence already in the 1970’s prior to the arrival of varroa³. After the introduction of varroa to the US, Seeley’s research revealed the positive outcome of natural selection and the successful adaption processes of wild honeybee populations that led to a symbiotic relationship with varroa ⁴ ⁵.

Anecdotal evidences had indicated for a long time what entomological research proposes now, and that is that wild honeybee populations thrive in a wide range of ecosystems and landscapes, like national parks, remote watersheds and other non-cultivated landscapes that are protected from a conventional beekeeping paradigm and practices. The associated average wild nest density is estimated at around one nest per square kilometer (2.5 per square mile).

Apis Arborea endorses the wild species as endemic in wilderness areas and promotes the categorization of wild unmanaged honeybees as a cosmopolitan species. As a neo-native and naturalized species alike, wild, unmanaged honeybees have become a co- constituent of diverse and balanced pollinator communities in the US. However, we have to be very clear here that the above categorizations only apply to the wild species, and that conventional beekeeping not only imposes harm to the honeybees themselves⁶, but also affects negatively many other species, in particular non-apis pollinator communities.

Challenges One challenge we face in the US is a credo of conservation biologists that considers honeybees as ‘alien’ and invasive. Yet as a 19th century concept⁷, the validity of the alien vs native dichotomy is being increasingly challenged by many stakeholders⁸. Climate emergency and the Anthropocene constitute new dynamics and conditions that are not well served with a static understanding of ecosystems⁹ and require an adaption and shift for conservationists and ecologists alike.

Additional push back against the protection of wild honeybees comes from countless studies that investigate the impact from managed honeybees on non-apis pollinator communities. Close to all of them investigate the impact from artificial conditions set by conventional beekeeping practices. The vast majority of them studies environments that exceed the natural nest density of honeybees¹⁰ by up to 1,400%. Instead of indicating that the findings represent the impact of beekeeping practices on the environment, the species in general is made responsible for the ramifications on ‘native’ flora and fauna. Apis Arborea is currently involved with field studies in remote watersheds and invites others to co-create a data base that documents the relationships between wild, unmanaged Apis m. and non-apis pollinators.

Another challenge comes from entomologists. Despite of all the pivotal research of wild Apis m. in the US, many national and international scientists consider honeybees as alien in the US and in other countries that are outside of the geo-historical distribution of the species. It is contradictory in that on one side it validates essential research data from the US but on the other side disputes the regional legitimacy of the species that was the object of the study.

Programs Apis Arborea is promoting an innovative framework of apiology that integrates log hives as a neoteric choice for research and surveying, to restore nest habitat and protect honeybees in a time of mass extinction. It is a disruptive and pioneering niche of conservation, one that we spearhead in the US and one that is also gaining traction in other places around the world.

One of the current programs of Apis Arborea is the Wild Honeybee Conservation & Rehabilitation Module. It is an innovative tool for field research and pollinator communities/ assemblages assessments, and provides a methodology and strategy for restoring apian nest habitat and the preservation of honeybees within a range of diverse watersheds, from wild unmanaged ecosystems, open space and forests to agricultural land, orchards and educational community farms. When implemented via land-based advocacy organizations, the modules present the opportunity to enhance ecological preservation, expand environmental best practices, implement nature -positive systems and deliver educational programming to key constituencies.

Apis Arborea, together with many other organizations like FreeTheBees in Switzerland, know about the importance of multi-disciplinary approaches and collaborative problem-solving. Outreach and educational programming are essential to inform various stakeholders. It is therefore important that the arboreal apiculture movement also serves as an intermediary facilitator between entomological research, land managers, farmers, educators, and beekeepers.

Terra incognita Arboreal apiculture in the 21th century is not a simple continuation of a millennia old Zeidler-like tradition¹¹. It has been adapting to the new world of the Anthropocene, with a focus on the conservation and preservation of honeybees as a wild species. An awareness for regenerative practices, ethics and birthrights also contribute to the evolution of this movement that is pioneering new ways.

Apis Arborea has been researching and developing rehabilitation and (re-) wilding programs since 2008. While bio-mimicry has been an inspiration for design and the construction of log hives, the assessment of diverse landscapes for the implementation of rehabilitation programs has been more challenging. It has been an informative struggle to understand local and regional dynamics. The perennial question has been to identify best practices for unique environments with various degrees of environmental degradation, and to stay open to sometimes surprising outcomes. What is the best approach for a remote wilderness that is shielded from conventional beekeeping? And how do we need to adapt when working in cultivated landscapes that are exposed to conventional beekeeping? These and other questions led to the creation of a guide that is based on diverse landscapes and reflects different conditions for and of wild Apis mellifera. (see attached table). It starts with 4 levels, from wild, remote to intermediate and unprotected (from conventional beekeeping) ecosystems. Each level identifies local conditions and gives options for a focus on research and conservation programming. It is a work in progress and will be further developed in the future. Feedback and suggestions are always welcome.

Outlook The field of arboreal apiculture - or a better term may be arboreal apiology - is pregnant with new possibilities, new ways of seeing, and the opening of other choices. It has radically transformed our views and understanding of the apian being, and introduced a fundamental challenge to conventional beekeeping practices. It also initiated a new era of apian conservation and preservation. Arboreal apiology has brought into our awareness notions of agency and sentience of honeybees and advocates for the rehabilitation of their basic birthrights.

The pioneering aspects of this global movement are also nourished by the fact that “the honeybee offers an example that defies our habitual categories of identity, and with them .... our normative assumptions” ¹². The apian matrix of life in all its plasticity and koan-like qualities (insects constituting a mammalian-like organism) is well matched with the deep changes in contemporary life sciences. Here, a postmodern inquiry challenges basic assumptions of the cartesian scientific paradigm and can become a fertile resource for exploring new dimensions of conservation and arboreal apiology. There is the opportunity to broaden our understanding of natural selection with new concepts like the hologenome as a new theory of evolution¹³ , that promotes a thinking

beyond individual genetic information. Furthermore, new scientific findings lead us into directions that transcend the self/nonself, subject/ object dichotomies that have characterized Western thought 14 and open up breathtaking new perspectives that also resonate with the exceptionality of the apian being. It is a very potent field with powerful new resources for conservation and the creation of comprehensive programs to safeguard Apis mellifera as a wild species and protect her from extinction.

Michael J. Thiele

Executive Director

Apis Arborea

Works Cited:

3 Seeley T.D. (1978) Life history strategy of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, Oecologia 32, 109–118. Seeley T.D., Morse R.A. (1976) The nest of the honey bee (Apis mellifera), Insectes Soc. 23, 495–512. Seeley T.D., Morse R.A. (1977) Dispersal behavior of honey bee swarms, Psyche 84, 199–209. Seeley T.D., Morse R.A. (1978) Nest site selection by the honey bee, Insectes Soc. 25, 323–337.

10 This study is from 2015 and researched the impact of managed honeybees / conventional beekeeping on non-apis pollinators at a hive density of 1,400% above the natural nest densities of wild honeybees: science/article/abs/pii/S1439179115001504


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