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, the Climate Crisis — which have led to declining numbers in many regions. In particular the survival of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) is critically threatened by the invasive parasitic mite Varroa destructor. It is assumed that almost all of the world’s colonies are infested with Varroa and will die within two to three years unless chemically treated.

Intending to find a solution to this pessimistic scenario, thousands of studies have investigated the relationship between A. mellifera and V. destructor. Unfortunately, the majority have focused almost exclusively on managed and treated colonies. As such, there exists a huge gap in our understanding of whether and how infested A. mellifera colonies can live in the wild or without the aid of treatments. There have been a few documented cases of colonies surviving — even thriving — with little to no human intervention, i.e., “free-living,” some of which 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.
Honey Bee Watch is a multi-year, global citizen-science study to better understand the biological, behavioral, and environmental traits that support survivorship among untreated and free-living honey bee colonies.

Starting with a pilot program in the UK focused on Western honey bees (Apis mellifera), we will eventually expand to new regions and all Apis species.

Bees living naturally in a tree, photo © Adelaide Valentini, Resilient Bee Project
  • To build an international coalition of scientists, researchers, beekeepers, NGOs, governmental agencies, and others who share data, methods, best practices, and resources
  • To increase scientific knowledge about untreated and free-living honey bee colonies
  • To work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to reassess Apis mellifera in order to fill in its “data deficiency” status as well as make a first assessment of other Apis species around the world
  • To engage the wider public in a science-based initiative, thus educating them on the importance of honey bees
  • To improve beekeeping practices to be healthier and more sustainable
  • To develop educational programs and conservation initiatives to inspire people to act locally to protect threatened or endangered populations
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, participants (aka 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 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

Honey Bee Watch aims to engage at least four distinct audiences:

  • Bee scientists within the COLOSS network
  • Research partners with existing studies on untreated and/or free-living colonies, who share our vision and are willing to merge data in exchange for COLOSS’s scientific guidance and resources
  • Beekeepers with treatment-free colonies
  • 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 Director: Steve Rogenstein at The Ambeessadors
Science Director: Arrigo Moro at University of Galway

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