Using Citizen Science to Study Free-Living Colonies

An initiative of COLOSS Survivors Task Force

The honey bee genus consists of 11 species, ranging across all continents except Antarctica. These social insects play an essential role in maintaining biodiversity, ensuring food security, and providing nutrition by pollinating a vast multitude of plants consumed by humans and many animals that we rely on.

Unfortunately, around the world honey bees face a barrage of human-caused hardships — the spread of pests and pathogens, overuse of pesticides, lack of sufficient forage and natural habitats, poor management techniques — which have led to declining numbers in many regions. However, there have been a few documented cases of colonies surviving — even thriving — with little to no human intervention, i.e., “free-living.” Some of these have been studied in great depth, while many others await discovery. To date no wide-reaching study exists to record their numbers and geographic distribution.


COLOSS, the world’s largest association of honey bee scientists, was founded to improve the well-being of bees on a global scale, in particular the European honey bee (Apis mellifera). Its Survivors Task Force endeavors to identify untreated or unmanaged colonies in both apiaries and the wild, in order to better understand what behaviors and/or mechanisms encourage the survival of those colonies, in particular in relation to Varroa spp. mite infestations.

Bees living naturally in a tree, photo © Adelaide Valentini, Resilient Bee Project


Via a multi-year, international citizen-science project, the Survivors Task Force will gather data on surviving Apis mellifera populations — as well as Asian honey bees — to meet these main objectives: 

  • To fill in the “data deficiency” status of honey bees (including Apis mellifera and other Apis spp.) as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List for Threatened Species
  • To investigate and better understand how biological, behavioral, and environmental traits affect survivorship
  • To engage a wide audience in a science-based initiative, thus indirectly increasing their awareness of and appreciation for the importance of honey bees

Through surveys and web/mobile technology, an extensive database will be generated, featuring, for example, nest conditions, colony densities, surrounding environmental conditions. Based on predetermined protocols, Bee Guardians will periodically monitor colony activity, which will eventually be categorized. Bee Dispatchers will visit long-living colonies to conduct scientific field experiments and to collect samples. Laboratory assays and trials will then be utilized to assess diversity as well as other biological characteristics related to survivorship. Additionally, big data analyses will link all of the above data to environmental traits, thereby providing a holistic perspective when considering conservation efforts.

Honey bee drone, photo © Sam Droege, USGS


This citizen-science project aims to engage at least four distinct audiences:

  • Bee scientists within the COLOSS network
  • Existing projects that share our vision and are willing to merge data in exchange for COLOSS’s scientific guidance
  • Conventional and natural beekeepers, whose colonies are unmanaged, untreated against Varroa spp., or free-living
  • Citizens who find and/or are willing to periodically observe honey bee colonies in the wild or in unexpected places such as building walls, under eaves, in caves, on cliff sides, etc.
  • By engaging citizens, we expect their opinion of and appreciation for pollinators to grow favorably. 
  • By providing these useful data, IUCN can potentially update the current Red List, which could substantially increase global awareness about the importance of honey bees as well as pave a path towards their conservation. 
  • By understanding the biological and environmental traits related to survivorship, we can share those useful insights with wider audiences, with the aim of improving sustainable beekeeping and conservation efforts in the wild.
                     Honey bee foraging on dandelion, photo © Pau Cardellach


Project Lead: Steve Rogenstein (The Ambeessadors)
Science Coordinator: Arrigo Moro (Universität Bern)
Survivors TF Coordinator: Raffaele Dall'Olio (BeeSources)
COLOSS President: Peter Neumann (Universität Bern)

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Institute of Bee Health
Vetsuisse Faculty
University of Bern
Schwarzenburgstrasse 161
3003 Bern, Switzerland