Bees – Wild or Domestic - Who owns a swarm ?

We all know that a swarm in a public place can be taken by whoever gets there first, but that a bee swarm on private property can only be taken with the permission of the owner of the property. This convention is rooted in the old common law of property and the ownership of chattels.
An animal of a species which is generally tame and has become accustomed to association with human beings is known as a ‘domestic’ animal: McQuaker v Goddard [1940] 1 KB 687. As long ago as 1682, the British Courts decided that animals can be owned like other movable chattels and the owner retains ownership of the animal even if it strays or is lost: Putt v Roster (1682).

In contrast, an animal of a species that has not become accustomed to association with human beings is classified as a ‘wild’ animal. ‘Wild' does not necessarily mean savage in nature, but includes animals of a timid nature that are not classified as domestic  (Kearry v Pattinson [1939]). Bees, when not living in a manmade hive, are classified as ‘wild’. A person can gain ownership of a wild animal by one the following means:

per industriam  (by industry);
ratione impotentiae et loci ( by weakness and location);
ratione soli ( by the soil); or
ratione privilegii  (by privilege)

The first and the second ways of gaining ownership of wild animals have relevance to beekeepers, and are explained below.
Per industriam relates to gaining ownership by your own efforts such as lawfully taking or taming it, or confining it so that it cannot return to its natural liberty.

Ownership remains until the animal regains its liberty and has not `the mind to return': Case of Swans (1592) 7 Co Rep 15b.

Ratione impotentiae et loci relates to a landowner gaining ownership of a wild animal by virtue of the location of the animal on the landowner’s land and the inability of the animal to escape due to their weakness. It is referred to as the doctrine of ‘weakness and location’. This most commonly relates to the young of wild animals born on the land until those animals can fly or run away: Case of Swans as above.

Generally, a domestic animal that has reverted to the wild state does not become classified as a wild animal.
However, in the case of bees, bees that have left the owner's land and swarmed onto the land of another cease to belong to the owner and revert to being wild animals (ferae naturae). They are then free to be taken by the owner of the land: Kearry v Pattinson [1939] 1 KB 471 under the doctrines of ‘weakness and location’ as discussed above.

However, where a swarm of bees have landed on public land, they are free to be taken under the doctrine of per industriam, or ‘by industry’ as they have reverted to being ‘wild’ and do not belong to another person by reason of being on their land.
As can be seen, unlike most other animal species, the classification of bees as ‘wild’ or ‘domestic’ animals changes depending on the circumstances and the legal issues a beekeeper is facing. Bees are considered to be domestic animals when it comes to the law of liability for animal nuisance (mansuetae naturae): Stormer v
Ingram (1978), domestic animals for the purposes of ownership laws when managed by a beekeeper, but wild animals for the purposes of ownership laws if they have left the hive and swarmed.