"The Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas:  A Biological Revolution with Human Cultural Implications"

American Bee Journal (2006), Five Parts, March thru July.


This document is an expanded version of  what was  published in the American Bee Journal




Dr. Malcolm T. Sanford






Too much it seems cannot be said about the Africanized honey bee in the Americas, especially when it is referred to by its more sensationalized names, “abeja asesina” in Spanish or “killer bee” in English.  Unfortunately, these names conjure up an insect that exists on planet earth for one purpose, to kill.  And not only can it kill but in a most horrible and gruesome way via a barbed sting filled with life-destroying venom.  This killer bee image, like that of sharks, tigers and other species known to harm humans, continues to be perpetuated in the mind of the average citizen, who knows little about insects in general and honey bees in particular.  Perhaps the most concrete example of this is the large fiber glass and steel statue of the bee constructed by the citizens of the City of Hidalgo, Texas, where the Africanized bee was first observed to have crossed the border into the United States of America.  This statue was originally mounted on a cart and continues to be trotted out during festivals and other occasions as a way to provide publicity for the town of Hidalgo but, in a real way, continues the myth that somehow the Africanized honey bee is larger than life.1


It’s time to get over this sensationalized image and put a realistic perspective on the Africanized honey bee.  This social insect is nothing more than a honey bee with the same scientific name of all its cousins worldwide, Apis mellifera.  It is virtually indistinguishable at a glance from the other honey bees found in, but not native to, the Americas.  It is the result of only one of literally hundreds of honey bee introductions that have occurred over the last 300 years into the New World. 


Although referred to as a particular insect, it may be more relevant to view the Africanized honey bee as an evolutionary “work in progress,” rather than a finished product.  It is the result of a revolution that can occur when any living entity is introduced into a biological system.  The list of such species across the world is very long and each has its own story.  How systems react to these introductions has been dubbed the “Nemesis effect” by Chris Bright in World Watch Magazine, 2 who describes the results of this phenomenon as unforseen and destructive.  The Africanized honey bee’s introduction certainly contains many of the characteristics described as part of the “Nemesis effect.”


What makes the Africanized honey bee revolution unique is its direct human cultural implications.  For not only is the honey bee of significance to the average citizen because of its biological activity and defensive behavior, it is also the basis for an agricultural industry consisting of products and services this insect provides to humanity.  The purpose of this publication is to describe the history of the Africanized honey bee in the Americas and provide some perspective regarding its present and potential impact on human culture and activity in that part of the globe.


History of the Biological Revolution:  Origin of Honey Bees


Honey bees are an Old-World species, thought to have originated in Asia.  They are in the genus Apis, which is thought to be based on the Egyptian word for “sacred bull.”  There are seven or so species of Apis bees identified world wide, and, with new taxonomic tools (DNA analysis) available today, more species no doubt can be expected in the future.  A comparison of species coloration is found at Dr. J. Woyke’s World Wide Web page.3  It is thought that bees in Asia such as Apis dorsata, A. florea and others gave rise to both the Eastern honey bee (Apis cerana) and the only species that now has worldwide distribution, Apis mellifera.  This is the western honey bee, sometimes referred to as Apis mellifica in European scientific literature.  The western honey bee is a social insect that lives in relatively large colonies consisting of three morphologically distinct individuals (queen, drone, worker) and has a complex division of labor.  This insect is most known for its production of honey, a sweet that humans have craved over centuries and, thus, when Homo sapiens migrated from the Old to the New World, the honey bee was taken along.  The aborigines in North America called the honey bee “the white man’s fly,” appropriately giving it a deserved human association, although it is not a fly in the insect order Diptera, but in the order Hymenoptera.


From now on in this publication, the term honey bee will refer specifically to the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).  A special quality of the honey bee is that, unlike most solitary or primitively-social insects, it develops a perennial nest that continues year after year.  In addition, the insect has the ability to regulate its colony temperature and, thus, can persist in extremely hot and/or cold environments.  This is the reason that the honey bee can be found almost anywhere on the globe from the tropics to the polar circles.


Apis mellifera in the Americas:  The European Honey Bee


Many subspecies, often called “races,” of Apis mellifera exist.  In northern Europe, the prevailing subspecies are Apis mellifera mellifera (German or dark bee), Apis mellifera ligustica (Italian bee), Apis mellifera caucasica (Caucasian bee) and Apis mellifera carnica (Carniolan bee).  In Spain is found Apis mellifera iberica (named for the Iberian peninsula).


It is important to understand that all subspecies of Apis mellifera readily interbreed, effectively exchanging genetic material.  Thus, the existence of any kind of genetically pure honey bee subspecies is extremely rare.  However, over the centuries certain populations of honey bees with specific adaptations, somewhat isolated from each other over time, called “ecotypes,” have flourished in specialized environments.  Ecotypes have certain behaviors that allow them to persist in specific climatological conditions in conjunction with prevailing plants (flora) of an area.  Two large regions of the earth that have a number of indigenous honey bee races or ecotypes are Europe and Africa.


The earliest European honey bee ecotypes brought over by the Spanish and English were probably predominantly Apis mellifera iberica (Iberian peninsula) and Apis mellifera mellifera (north west Europe), respectively, but this is not known for sure.  Others were introduced later, including species from the middle east (Apis mellifera syriaca) and North Africa (Apis mellifera lamarckii).  Perhaps the most common type in North America is the Italian ecotype Apis mellifera ligustica, and is the one predominantly in use by beekeepers.  Like most European honey bees, this race survives in temperate conditions characterized by more or less defined seasons.  It is also adapted to temperate plants that flower based on photoperiod (day length).  Most importantly, it is suited to surviving cold, generally continental climatic conditions.  This means it lays in a large store of surplus honey (usually more than the colony needs).  It is this surplus that the beekeeper harvests, which can be removed without risking the death of a colony due to lack of food (starvation).  The ability to judge how much honey to take while still leaving the colony enough to survive a cold temperate winter is one of the traits of a master beekeeper. 


European honey bee ecotypes reproduce by swarming, where replacement queens are reared and a colony splits in half with a new queen heading up the parent colony and the original queen flying off with a complement of bees (swarm) to find another home.  This is similar to vegetative reproduction in plants.  Usually there is a defined swarming season in temperate climates, and colonies usually swarm once or sometimes twice during that time.  European honey bee ecotypes have relatively few enemies and are usually not characterized as “defensive.”  The “gentleness” of managed European honey bees is considered to be the result of many years of selection by human beekeepers.  This does not mean that all European honey bees are gentle.  Certain colonies may even be selected for fierceness to avoid them being vandalized.  Colonies found in the wild may also be more defensive, though not necessarily so.


Apis mellifera in the tropics: The African Honey Bee


It is thought that over millennia the African and European races of Apis mellifera are the result of groups of honey bees that migrated out of Asia where more primitive races are still found.  Although only a handful are found in Europe, over thirty-five races have been described in Africa; many having developed into ecotypes that survive well in tropical rather than temperate conditions.  In the tropics, rainfall rather than temperature determines the yearly season, and plants depend more on precipitation than photoperiod.  Honey bee reproduction is more important in the tropics than in temperate areas, and so is migration.  Both are accomplished by swarming.  Thus, tropical honey bees swarm more than European honey bees on the average.  There is a relatively greater number of enemies (parasites and predators, including humans) in the tropics, known for its biological diversity, which often produces highly defensive reactions in honey bees.  Ecotypes in the tropics more easily abandon their nest (abscond) when challenged by disease, predation or lack of resources.  Ecotypes in the temperate zone do not abscond as readily.


Many of the tropical honey bees of Africa have a relatively larger defensiveness and swarming quotient than their European cousins, along with a greater propensity to abandon the nest (abscond) should resources run low or the nest be overrun by diseases or pests.  And it is behavior, not structure (morphology), that is the greatest difference between the honey bees of the tropics and those inhabiting the temperate zones.


Tropical versus Temperate Honey Bees:  The Basis for Africanization in the Americas


The story of the Africanized honey bee, therefore, is firmly rooted in behavioral differences between tropical and temperate honey bees.  The first bees brought to the Americas were European honey bee ecotypes, adapted to the harsh winters and predictable plant phenologies of the temperate zones.  They also reproduced based on fairly predictable climatic cues of predominantly climax vegetation and regular photoperiods.  They were “stay-at-home insects,” swarming infrequently and seldom abandoning their nests in times of stress.  In temperate North America, European honey bees flourished like many introduced species that quickly occupy a new niche or ecological vacuum, and in a way paralleled the westward expansion of their human, European counterparts as they too settled the rich North American continent.  Centuries of human selection also produced gentle (not defensive) European honey bees, such that they might be considered by some as very close to domestic animals.4


Over time, it became apparent that European honey bees, adapted to temperate zones did not flourish as well in the American tropics.  They were simply not in tune with the environment. A list of the differences between tropical and temperate honey bees is detailed by Dr. Mark Winston.5  These include nest characteristics (volume and cell size), individual life span (shorter for Africanized bees), age-based worker behavior, colony growth and reproduction, drone rearing, and seasonal patterns of swarming and absconding.  The latter two qualities (swarming and absconding) are perhaps the most dramatic differences seen between these two kinds of honey bees and have led to the phenomenal migration success of the Africanized honey bee.  Although generally this is the case, it should be stressed that it does not hold across the full extent of the environments in question.  For example, although a large beekeeping industry based on European honey bees never flourished in sub tropical Brazil, it did in the Yucatan of Mexico, which in the 1940s and 50s was the world’s largest honey exporting region.


It was in Brazil that one of the seemingly universal behaviors of human behavior occurred setting the stage for the Africanized honey bee story; introduction of genetic material to improve local stock.  Dr. Warwick Estevam Kerr, an eminent Brazilian geneticist, who was travelling to Africa to study native “stingless” bees (not honey bees), was prevailed upon to search out productive tropical honey bees in Africa and bring them back to his country


Dr. Kerr’s story is a fascinating one of science mixed with politics.  Perhaps the best treatment is that by Wallace White.6  According to Mr. White, Dr. Kerr was originally asked to import queens from Angola, South Africa and Tanzania.  All those from Angola died, but Dr. Kerr arrived in Rio de Janeiro with seventy-five from South Africa.  Dr. Kerr was aware that African honey bees, although productive, were also likely to be fiercely defensive, far more so than the gentle European (Italian) bees then employed in Brazilian apiculture.  Thus, he used precautions by introducing the queens into nuclei (small colonies) of European bees and quarantining the colonies in the Rio Claro area.  The idea was to control the genetics through instrumental insemination or II. 


Mr. White reported that after some selection and natural mortality, 28 or 29 nuclei became the basis for the breeding effort by Dr. Kerr.  From these colonies a group of queens were reared and inseminated from sperm of European (Apis mellifera ligustica) drones.  Selection from the first cross, or F1 hybrid, produced daughter queens for subsequent generations.  One queen in particular from Tanzania produced colonies that appeared more productive but, unfortunately,  were extremely defensive as well.  All was progressing well until one day in the fall of 1957 when a visiting beekeeper removed the barriers (queen excluders) keeping the queens from escaping.  Twenty-six of the queens accompanied by swarms of workers left these hives and are considered the origin of the so-called Africanized honey bee.


Although there has been much emphasis on the queens’ role in the process, Mr. White reported that Dr. Kerr believed the importance of drones should not be underestimated.  Thus, if each of the daughter queens of the twenty-six swarms (queens) was mated by as many as seventeen drones, this would have fantastically increased the plasticity and viability of the population.  In any case, the hybrids that resulted from these matings began spreading rapidly. 


Again, the changes observed in Brazil were due to the shift from European temperate honey bee behavior to that of the African tropical honey bee, as described elsewhere in this publication.  The one that has received the vast majority of the attention, however, and continues to do so today is defensive behavior.  Many wild colonies and, more significantly, managed colonies by beekeepers in Brazil and elsewhere in the American tropics have become much more defensive in the wave of the continent’s shift to Africanized honey bees.  This has led to stinging incidents that have generally been over sensationalized by media outlets.


Defensive versus Aggressive Behavior in Honey Bees


Stinging behavior by honey bees has evolved as a strictly defensive measure and is usually confined to protecting the nest or colony.  Honey bees in the field seldom sting and are never “aggressive,” that is, seek out hosts to sting.  However, most writings in the lay press and reports on television about honey bees emphasize the latter term, not the former.  This habit unfortunately has also crept into the scientific and even beekeeping communities.  Thus, honey bees often appear to the sensitized general public as simply “aggressive.”  And because people and animals have been killed by these insects, it probably is inevitable that the term “killer bee” would be coined and continues to be used with reference to honey bees, particularly those found in the tropics usually referred to as “Africanized.”


It is emphasized that defensive behavior is a relative term.  Perhaps the most gentle bees this author has observed are those of the Ile d’Yeu off the Northwest Coast of France.7  These are considered pure caucasian honey bees (Apis mellifera caucasica).  In comparison, almost all other honey bees might be classified as “over-defensive.”  On the other side of the spectrum, this author has observed honey bees in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Mexico that can only be described as very fierce.  Between the extremely fierce and placidly gentle, however, exist the vast majority of honey bees that are "somewhat" defensive.  These differences can really only be measured on a probabilistic scale.  It is important to realize that the whole range of defensive behavior can also be seen in colonies even within the same bee yard at times.  It is a well-known beekeeping practice, for example, for very defensive colonies to be located in the periphery of a bee yard to deter vandalism or theft.


Studies in Africanized honey bee areas indicate that not all colonies of bees become over-defensive, but even a minority of such colonies within an apiary or operation may cause abandonment of apiaries by beekeepers.8  Since defensive behavior is really what beekeepers and the general public are concerned about with reference to Africanized bees, one of the more reasonable, but not scientifically acceptable, ways to identify these bees is to provoke an attack (i.e. kick a hive) to see the kind of defensive behavior elicited.  A beekeeper with experience working colonies very quickly can judge a range of defensiveness shown in a colony or apiary and can take appropriate measures from applying more smoke to exiting the apiary to requeening colonies considered over defensive.  Many beekeepers believe that the most defensive colonies are the better honey producers.


New research techniques may provide some innovative ways to manage stinging behavior:  Drs. E. Guzman-Novoa and G. Hunt, for example, have developed specific gene markers that are associated with the probability of queen bees having the African version of stinging genes so it will be easier for breeders to avoid using them.  They conclude: "Now that we have the markers we can selectively breed for gentle bees."9  The DNA markers are available to other scientists to determine if honey bee populations in their regions have genes for aggressive behavior. This research also could lead to the isolation of genes that influence bee behavior and suggest ways to decrease stinging incidents.


Spread of the Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas


The Africanized honey bee has truly taken the Americas by storm.  It marched out of Brazil in the late fifties and entered the United States in 1990, taking only a little more than 40 years to make the journey.  This was natural movement; not exacerbated by human introductions of populations, showing that the Africanized honey bee is a migratory insect par excelance.


Countries first receiving migrations of Africanized honey bees were Brazil’s neighbors, the Guianas and Venezuela to the north and Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia to the south and west during the 1970s.  Later, the bee arrived in the west-coast countries of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.  Argentina and Chile were also affected and are special cases, given their temperate climates.  The invasion navigated the Darien peninsula and moved quickly through Central America and Mexico in the 1980s. 


There are studies of the Africanization process in several of these countries.  Perhaps it is best documented in French Guiana, Venezuela and Peru in the 1970s and Costa Rica in the 1980s.  The Venezuelan experience was seminal in that it was studied intensively by several research groups and produced many students who are today actively involved in honey bee research and educational activities.  Of special significance were those mentored by Dr. Orley (Chip) Taylor10 University of Kansas and Dr. Thomas Rinderer of the USDA’s Baton Rouge Lab (Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Laboratory.11 


Venezuela was colonized in the mid 1970s by Africanized honey bees migrating from the Guianas and Brazil.  Mirroring their migration in most other areas of the tropics, they moved 300-400 kilometers a year and finally entered Colombia in 1981.  Reports of the bee’s impact on beekeeping in the country became the reference point for much of the subsequent sensationalized press coverage in both beekeeping and lay publications.  This included a drastic decline in honey production, average colony yields dropping from 75 to 125 kg/year to as low as 25 or less.  The total crop also reflected these numbers; Venezuela produced only 78 metric tons of honey in 1981 and no longer had any surplus for export12.  Venezuela suffered more than other countries subsequently invaded by the bee due to lack of information about how to manage the insect in either an apicultural or public health context at the time.


The Costa Rican experience was studied extensively by Dr. Marla Spivak.13  She looked at different aspects of the migration based on elevation and found what was later to be recognized in many zones of active Africanization, that altitude made a difference in the process.  Thus, in the hot, tropical lowlands there was rapid establishment of migratory swarms and abrupt changes in local bee populations.  At higher elevations, the Africanization process did not occur so quickly.  The final distribution of Africanized traits also appears to mirror this, as anecdotal evidence, from Peru to Mexico.  There is some controversy about the altitude at which tropically adapted Africanized bees can be found.  Research on certain colonies shows that they can persist at fairly cold temperatures.14


The question is not whether Africanized honey bee colonies survive, however, but if a viable population with strongly Africanized characteristics can establish itself at high altitudes.  Peru, for example, has areas where the Africanized bee has not persisted.  As expected, the Africanized honey bee quickly colonized the Peruvian lowlands east of the Andes but took some time the breach this formidable mountain range.  Once it appeared on the western side (Tumbes and Piura provinces), however, in the late 1970’s, it quickly migrated to the south toward Lima and north into Ecuador.  Nevertheless, the bee did not establish populations above 1,500 feet despite these being very close to lowland areas, which are highly saturated.15  Anecdotal information also suggests that Africanized honey bees in the highlands are not as defensively or otherwise behaviorally extreme as in the lowland tropics.


For those in temperate North America, the Argentine experience may be most representative.  It is known that two distinct populations of honey bees exist in that country, and there is also a hybrid transition zone between them.  In the more tropical northern regions, the honey bee population is highly Africanized.  As one moves south into the humid pampa, however, the European bee predominates.  Studies have shown that Africanized honey bees are as able to survive under as cold conditions as Europeans.  However, it is suggested that other environmental conditions including nest site availability, water and food sources, influenced by weather conditions, may be contributing if not major factors involved.16  This author’s experience in both Uruguay and Brazil reveals that beekeepers generally prefer European honey bees in the more temperate latitudes.  European bees appear to be more productive in spite of the fact that Africanized honey bees are more pest and predator tolerant.


Controversy over cold hardiness is the basis for very different maps drawn concerning the eventual distribution of the Africanized honey bee in North America.  One is by Drs. O. Taylor and M. Spivak. 17 Another map was developed by Dr. Alfred Dietz 18. 


Although the Africanized honey bee is not expected to become established in high latitude, temperate climates, the Canadian border remains closed to honey bee shipments, principally because of the presence of the bee in the neighboring southern United States.


It was thought that much of the riddle about where the Africanized honey bee would take up residence would be answered when the bees entered the United States.  However, it continues to take researchers and beekeepers by surprise.  The Africanized honey bee spread westward from Texas into the arid environments of southern New Mexico, Arizona and California fairly rapidly but has yet to inhabit most of the humid Gulf of Mexico coastline in the United States.  It is instructive to monitor the latest information from California showing that sightings are continuing to increase.19


The Africanized honey bee has not moved east and, over a decade after its arrival, a population has not been reported in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama nor Florida, where it was thought it might establish its highest concentration.  A provocative hypothesis is that an entrenched population of Varroa mites somehow has derailed the migration in North American humid environments.20 


Although a permanent population has not developed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, there continue to be isolated introductions of Africanized honey bees in that area.  These mostly are from ships.  In Florida, where extensive monitoring is occurring both at ports and along the border with Alabama (Perdido River), so far only one colony has been captured outside a port area.21  A record of sightings and other reports in the United States can be seen on the National Agricultural Pest Information System web site.22


Managing the Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas:  Unpredictability


All countries invaded by the Africanized honey bee have gone through more or less a similar history to that of Brazil, related elsewhere in this publication.  Dr. Spivak concludes from the Costa Rican experience:


 “In all regions, there were beekeepers who were unwilling to modify their practices to adapt to new circumstances.  They soon experienced extreme stinging responses and high incidences of swarming and absconding.  Ultimately, these beekeepers abandoned their colonies.  Based on these occurrences, the idea was erroneously perpetuated that the entire population displayed uniform characteristics and that all bees were both dangerous to the public and undesirable from a management standpoint.


“When swarms and colonies from all areas were observed and assessed on an individual basis, however, they clearly displayed a wide range of behavioral characteristics.  It was the minority of colonies which were consistently unmanageable and extremely defensive.  Those beekeepers who were willing to requeen or kill such colonies and modify their management practices were able to work Africanized colonies profitably and with minimal danger to the beekeeper or public." 23


Looking at the manageability of the Africanized honey bee in all environments it occupies, suggests that there is often no pattern that can be logically discerned among colonies.  Even the same colony can be highly manageable on one occasion, yet completely out of control the next.  Management of any system requires some degree of predictability.  That certainly is the case for European honey bees.  In the vast majority of cases, these insects can be counted on to take advantage of the same nectar resources, build their population numbers in regular fashion and otherwise behave in a consistent manner.  This is especially important not only for honey production, but commercial pollination and the one behavior beekeepers and the general public are most concerned about, defensive response. 


Adding to the general phenomena of unpredictability in managing Africanized bee colonies is the fact that swarms (reproductive and migratory) are completely different in temperament than established colonies.  Many novice beekeepers have gotten into trouble when they hived a swarm with low defensive behavior and later mistakenly thought they could also manipulate an established colony of the same bees using similar techniques. 


The general unpredictability of the Africanized honey bee leads to all kinds of management concerns.  Dr. Eric Mussen perhaps reported it best, quoting southern Texas beekeeper Bill Vanderput, "...25 percent more stings, 25 percent more work and 25 percent more sweat”. 24


Since both Mexico and the United States were among the last countries in the Americas to experience the Africanized honey bee, they benefited enormously from information developed elsewhere as the migration advanced.   Mexico in particular has been extremely successful in providing information about the bee and preparing citizens for its arrival.  That country now has advanced bee breeding programs to help improve beekeeping conditions,25 and sponsors a seminar each year attended by the beekeeping community.  This author was privileged to attend several, including the last in the City of Tepic, State of Nayarit.26


With reference to productivity, there can also be unpredictability.  One problem is the paucity of studies.  How productive so-called “hybrids” between European and Africanized honey bees are continues to be controversial.  Drs. H.G. Hall and J. F. Harrison have provided the first (and so far only) solid data to show that African-European hybrids are at a disadvantage in their struggle for survival.  They measured the in-flight carbon dioxide output of 15 colonies of hybrids that Dr. Hall had established in Honduras with colleagues at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana. They also tested the Africanized and European parent colonies for comparison.


The results, as reported in the Apis newsletter27 taken from May 20th issue of the international journal, Nature, show that Africanized bees are "souped up," they have higher metabolic capacities than European bees as predicted and observed.  However, the hybrids' energy-producing capacities were not intermediate, as originally thought, but only equivalent to or lower than those of Europeans.  The hybrids' lower metabolic rate may result in inferior flight performance or in other ways make them less adaptive in the tropics.  Certain enzymes in the mitochondria, where the oxygen is used and energy produced, require mitochondrial genes that come just from the mother, as well as nuclear genes that come from both the mother and the father.  Hall hypothesized that because Africanized and European bees have been separated for many thousands of years, the components of these enzymes may not be perfectly compatible. 


This information further confirms the prediction and subsequent observations that two distinct populations of bees exist in areas being colonized by Africanized bees.  The population of European managed bees is constantly under threat of being Africanized by the other, consisting of many wild Africanized colonies.  Because the Africanized mother lines are intact, however, the reverse is not true; very few European queens manage to produce drones which will hybridize with Africanized queens.  Finally, this suggests that hybrids produced in the wild are at an extreme disadvantage and their survival is questionable.


From a practical standpoint this means that to continue managing European stock in tropical areas, beekeepers must consistently requeen with European queens which must come from outside the area under siege by African bees.  To keep things in perspective, however, Dr. Hall suggests that some hybrids, which are managed properly by beekeepers, may actually be superior producers in certain situations.  This may be analagous to the current situation where those investigating mite resistance in various strains of bees suggest that some tradeoff may be necessary to keep a balance, in effect substituting superior honey production for less vulnerability to parasitic mites.


Identification of Africanized Honey Bees:  What’s in a Name?


The Africanized honey bee has been called many names during it’s occupation of the Americas.  Dr. Mark Winston has declared it the "pop insect" of the twentieth century with the name most people know as the “killer bee.”28  The name “Brazilian bee” was given it first by a cadre of entomologists who authored a document entitled Final Report: Committee on the African Honey Bee:  “Since the strain of honey bee now spreading widely in South America is not pure Apis mellifera adansonii, but the result of greater or lesser hybridization followed by natural selection, it seems appropriate to call it the Brazilian honey bee.  The term African honey bee, as used in this report, refers to Apis mellifera adansonii as it occurs in Africa."29   It is ironic given the amount of information that was to be acquired about this insect after the document was published that this report should be characterized as “final.”  In reality, it was only the beginning step in a remarkable and controversial scientific investigation that continues to this day.


Given the insect’s reputation, the term “Brazilian Bee” did not sit well with many in the country.  Brazilians were also upset about the conclusions in the report, believing that they did not reflect what was happening in the country at the time30.  The name was also not accurate taxonomically speaking and has given way to either “African” or “Africanized” in the ensuing years.  Although originally thought to be a derivative of Apis mellifera adansonii from central Africa, as depicted in the “Final Report”, it is now recognized that the subspecies associated with the Africanized honey bee is the more southerly Apis mellifera scutellata. 


The naming problem exists to this day in scientific circles with some insisting that the best term for neotropical honey bees is “African” rather than “Africanized” and vice versa.  According to M. Winston, important biological implications result from such a nomenclatural dispute, with far-reaching applications in both management and control.  Two critical issues are: (1) how similar are bees in the Americas to African stock originally introduced into Brazil, and (2) how and to what extent has the Africanization of European bees occurred in Latin America?


Addressing the above questions, Dr. Winston says, is deceptively complex.  This well characterizes the conundrum beekeepers, regulators and others face in trying to identify the insect.  That’s because the behavior of Africanized honey bees is easy to distinguish from its European sisters.  Unfortunately, naming according to such a “subjective taxonomy” gives little information about how “European” or “African” a colony might be.31


The first effort to identify Africanized honey bees, and the one still in place for “official” diagnosis, is the classical one used in most biological classification (taxonomy), morphometrics.  This refers to measurements of body parts.  Two subclasses are univariate and multivariate analyses.  The former type has quickly given way to the latter, which is considered more accurate. 


A comprehensive publication on morphometrics and honey bees is by F. Ruttner.32  Morphometric multivariate analysis for honey bees was further pioneered by H.  Daly and colleagues.  “When Africanized and European bees are compared on the basis of single characters, the variation in characters usually overlaps between groups.  An intermediate specimen or sample from a colony, therefore, cannot be identified at a high level of probability by a single character.” 33


The method developed by Daly and colleagues employs twenty-five separate measurements.  These include “four linear measurements and ten angles between veins of the fore wing, number of hamuli (hooks that attach fore and hind wings), two linear measurements of the hind wing, four linear measurements of the hind leg, and four of the third sternum.”34  Taken together these measurements are calculated to determine the probablility of Africanization.  As might be imagined, this is a tedious and time-consuming process. 


In an effort to make the technique available to regulatory officials and others, a version called Fast Africanized Bee Identification System or FABIS35was developed at the USDA Baton Rouge Honey Bee Laboratory.36  This involves a procedure that uses both fore wing length and weight of degastered bees (bees without abdomens).  Although named FABIS, the system as it is used really is better characterized as a fast European bee identification system.  This is because it discriminates European bees very well.  Comparing them with Africanized bees, on the other hand, is not well discriminated in the system (90% or less) and they must be subjected to further analysis, called the Universal System for Detecting Africanization (USDA-ID), which uses the full morphometrics technique.


Morphometrics has undergone a revolution in the last two decades.  “Now that the synthesis is established, the emphasis can shift to the application of morphometrics in various biological disciplines.”37  Morphometrics-based identification has been criticized over the years for several reasons.  One is that the baseline of information to design the original system may have been too narrow or limited.  Another is that a great deal of measurement is prone to random error that can infiltrate the system.  Finally, environmental factors cannot be ruled out as influencing morphometrics.  Most telling perhaps is determination of bee size based on the cells they are reared in.  Thus, informal identification techniques in Latin America and elsewhere do not use the bees themselves, but cell size (the average width of ten cells found side by side in a comb).  Those bees having a cell width averaging 4.9 cm or less are declared Africanized, while those averaging 5.2 cm are determined to be European.


Other methods of identification have been suggested and employed.  One is characterizing allozymes (isozyme variants) using electrophoresis.  Especially important have been hexokinase and malate dehydrogenase.  According to Daly, "The use of allozymes to identify Africanized bees remains a viable option in need of improvement.”  Disadvantages include the need for specialized equipment, frozen samples and the fact that an adequate baseline of expected genotype frequencies in certain geographical areas has not been established.


The same might be said of using cuticular hydrocarbon analysis, which has also been proposed.  “Analyses of extractable hydrocarbons have demonstrated a number of differences in composition that are of potential use in identification.”39  Frozen samples are not necessary; a single bee can be analyzed; and the process can be automated.  However, questions concerning the affects of bee age and potential hybridization remain.


Perhaps more focused than any method of honey bee discrimination is that provided by DNA research.  Studies pioneered by H. G. Hall show that DNA polymorphisms do exist that distinguish African from European honey bees.  Two types of DNA occur in biological species, allowing for differing kinds of analyses.  Whereas nuclear DNA is the result of the union of egg and sperm, mitochondrial DNA is only maternally inherited.  Again, detractors of this method point to small sample sizes and the need for expensive labor and equipment to perform routine analysis of honey bee samples.  Nevertheless, Dr. Hall states: “Results from DNA research provide a detailed view of African-European bee genetic relationship not possible with other methods.  Morphological and protein similarities have masked an underlying genetic variability only now being revealed by the bees’ DNA.”40  The results of Dr. Hall’s research have convinced him that the term “Africanized” should not refer to the invading bees as it implies that they were originally European.  Thus, he prefers to call these bees “African.”


With new analyses and better interpretations of data, morphometrics may be in the process of being abandoned altogether.  Thus, according to H.R. Hepburn and S.E. Radloff, “There is an emerging paradigm shift from the morphometric mean, as the paramount statistic for defining subspecies, to that of the F statistic to characterise populations.”41  Independent geographic variation and non-morphometric knowledge creates problems in developing specific names that are biologically meaningful.  It seems that “One must choose between newfound biological meaningfulness and traditional taxonomic convenience, which entirely depends on the level of knowledge available about the extent of natural variation within a species.”42.  This author specifically asked Dr. Hepburn at the 2001 Apimondia meeting in Durban, South Africa about his concept of the Africanized honey bee in the Americas.  His reply was that they were “nasty, little bees from Pretoria,” which seemed to put him in the more African than Africanized camp.


In the final analysis, of course, none of the above discussion matters much to either the general public or the beekeeper who must deal daily with honey bees at the field level.  Both human populations are interested only in one characteristic, defensive behavior.  Few beekeepers enjoy managing over-defensive colonies.  As for the general public, it seems that Dr. Winston’s analysis continues to be correct.  “The media have largely ignored the intriguing natural history behind this insect’s proliferation and have paid scant attention to its economic impact.  Rather, attention has focused on shock stories and jokes, bad puns, and lurid tales of death by stinging.  As a result, the public’s impression of the Africanized honey bee goes far beyond it natural significance, and the normal fear in which people hold bees has become exaggerated to a ludicrous extent.”43


Perhaps in response to the fact that the terms “African” and “Africanized” were so problematic, a new name is creeping into the literature, AHB.  This neutral acronym solves several problems; it defuses the naming problem and also reduces sensationalism.  Although its use seems to be on the rise in both the lay and popular press, AHB is meaningless with reference to the scientific millieu that surrounds these bees.  In the long run, therefore, it may confuse rather than clarify the naming problem.  In this publication, the name for these bees will continue to be “Africanized” as in its title.


Biological Basis for Africanization:  An Asymmetric Process


Perhaps the most important issue surrounding neotropical honey bees introduced into Brazil is that concerning the best way to describe the process of Africanization.  This is an important key to determining in the long run how to begin to deal with this insect.  Unfortunately, the arena remains obscured by lack of basic information and controversy.  An important contribution on this topic was provided by Dr. Glenn Hall at the University of Florida, who characterized the hybridization (Africanization) process as asymmetric in nature.  Thus, as noted elsewhere, Dr. Hall continues to use the terms “African” and “European” in his work to classify both Old and New World honey bees according to their continents of origin, limiting the name “Africanized” to European maternal lines hybridized to African males.44


As noted in the pages of the APIS newsletter, as reported in the journal Nature (Hall and Muralidharan, v. 339: 211-213):


"Dr. Hall provides evidence that African honey bees are spread as a result of swarming by queens.  Of nineteen feral colonies collected in Mexico, all had typical African mitochondrial DNA.  Because only the African mother carries this kind of DNA, not one single generation of bees provided by European queens are represented in this sample.  In other words, the bees have maintained their African mitochondrial DNA even when it could have been lost by only one European queen providing offspring during their journey from Brazil through Central America into Mexico.


"The probability that all swarms collected by Dr. Hall would have African mitochondrial DNA should be small considering the fact that the bees are 5,000 miles and over 150 generations removed from their beginnings in Brazil.  In addition, the swarms were collected only fifteen months after arrival of the African bee in the area of Mexico where collections took place, and the region still has many managed colonies of European honey bees.  That every single sample had African mitochondrial DNA is extraordinary, so much so that it warranted publication in Nature.  A companion paper authored by D. Smith (Smith, Taylor and Brown, vol. 338: 213-215) offers independent verification of Dr. Hall's results.  Of a mixture of colonies and swarms from Brazil, Venezuela and Mexico, 59 out of 61 had African type mitochondrial DNA. In conclusion, the author states: '...an essentially African population is expanding...through migration and colonization of new territory by African females.'


"In a comment on the above papers in the same journal, Dr. Robert Page, University of California at Davis, said: 'The reported demonstration of high frequencies of African-type mitochondria in honey-bee populations in South and Central America, together with Mexico, suggests an unbroken African maternal lineage for most feral bees observed.'


"The interpretation of the above information is that drones play a much smaller role in the propagation of African bees in the tropics than do queens.  If drones were the prime force causing Africanization of European bees in places like Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico, then there should be a greater mixture of African/European mitochondrial DNA than the above studies show.  The practical significance of this is that breeding programs in the tropics relying on European drones to ‘dilute’ African traits will not have much effect because (1) there are so few European drones to mate with, and (2) the African mother lines are continuing to produce numbers of African drones.  Hybridization between European and African bees, therefore is asymmetric in the tropics, favoring African bees. This has been observed in all places so far colonized by African bees in the Americas.


"Part and parcel of this interpretation is the prediction that two populations of bees exist in areas being colonized by African bees.  One population of European managed bees is constantly under threat of being Africanized by the great many wild African colonies in the area.  Because the African mother lines are intact, however, the reverse is not true; very few European queens manage to produce drones which will hybridize with African queens.  This means that to continue managing European stock, beekeepers must consistently requeen with European queens which must come from outside the area under siege by African bees.  This is the scenario many beekeepers will face, especially in the southern U.S., with the arrival of the African bee.


"The above interpretation is not without detractors.  Although there have and continue to be many words said at bee meetings and other gatherings concerning the potential hybridization between European and African bees in the tropics, no reviewed publications exist to refute the findings reported above.


According to Dr. Hall, DNA findings to date can be easily summarized.


1. The migrating force of African bees consists of unbroken African mother lines spreading as feral swarms.  Evidence for this is found in results of the mitochondrial DNA studies mentioned above.


2. In the tropics, African queens in feral swarms have hybridized only to a small extent, if at all, with European drones.  Evidence for this is found in nuclear DNA study.


3. European queens in tropical apiaries extensively hybridize with African drones, and can be called Africanized.


Therefore, as Dr. Hall pointed out in his report on DNA research funded partially by the Florida State Beekeepers Association in a recent association newsletter: ‘As the bees move north into temperate regions, where European bees have advantages, increasing amounts of hybridization should take place.  African behavior among feral bees should become reduced. European and African bees will probably establish a hybrid boundary across the southern U.S., as Dr. Orley Taylor and Dr. Marla Spivak, at the University. of Kansas, forecasted years ago. However, even in areas such as Florida, where European bees do survive well, feral hybrids may also survive to a greater extent than they do in the tropics." 45


Dr. Hall’s view of asymmetric hybridization remains controversial.  Mostly it seems to boil down to a matter of how much hybridization one is willing to accept and/or can prove.  For example, as R. Helmich and T. Rinderer state,


“It is important to understand that Africanized bees are hybrids.  The processes of Africanization resist changes in gene frequency toward the European types and yet there is sufficient mating between Africanized and European bees that extensive measurable hybridization exists throughout the Africanized population.  Since Africanized bees only resist cross breeding but are not insulated from it, the processes of Africanization are imperfect.  Consequently, (1) hybrid populations form throughout the range of bees in the New World, (2) programs by agencies, groups or individual beekeepers that promote mitigation of Africanization through hybridization are likely to be successful, and (3) variation derived from hybridization can provide a good basis for the development of quality strains using selection programs throughout the New World.”46


In this context, information is needed on how hybrids interact and behave.  G. Hall at the University of Florida and O.  Taylor, University of Kansas, teamed up at the 1993 Florida State Beekeepers Association meeting in West Palm Beach to discuss hybrid honey bee biology as reported in the Apis newsletter47.  Dr. Taylor's studies of queen and worker development time in Mexico, Dr. Hall's investigations of metabolic rates in collaboration with Dr. Harrison of Arizona State University, and analyses of honey production at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana (Zamorano) in Honduras all show similar patterns.


African mother lines generally propagate better-performing hybrid offspring than do Europeans in the first generation (called F1 by geneticists), although European mother lines do produce viable stock. In succeeding generations (back crosses), both African and European mother lines become progressively less vigorous. However, the European mother lines do so to a much greater degree.


Thus, instead of uniform hybridization between the two populations, these investigations suggest a parental influence skewed towards the African side in the American tropics. It was stressed that these dynamics have been studied in mostly feral or wild bee populations. Colony management (helping them become more competitive) by beekeepers in the honey production study appeared to help hybrid stock compensate.  In one African-European cross, for example, while metabolic rates were lower, suggesting a less productive bee, honey production was almost the same level as that of the maternal African parent.


Dr. Taylor said that in the tropics, a zone of temporary hybridization may first appear along the feral African bee invading front, but that population becomes more African-like over time. How much of a hybrid African-European feral population will eventually persist across the southern tier of states in the United States, as is now found in northern Argentina, he stated, is unknown at present.


According to Dr. Hall, these studies collectively reveal that far more attention may have to be paid to the contribution of the African mother line when developing hybrid honey bees for beekeeper use in the southern United States.  Simply saturating an area with European drones or requeening with European certified stock may not be enough to keep the feral African-derived population's influence at bay.  In the final analysis, the only way to answer many of these questions is to intensively study the hybrid biology of African and European bees where they collide.


The term hybridization, however, may mean little when it comes to describing the Africanized bee with reference how closely are Africanized honey bees related to their African ancestors.  According to Dr. D. Fletcher, genetically “pure” African Apis mellifera scutellata may not have been imported into Brazil in the first place, and although overwhelmingly African in behavior, or there would have been no “Africanized bee problem,” there is a high probability that African bees in Mexico differ from African populations they came from.  Although hybridization is a possibility, other explanations cannot be ruled out.  These include:


1.  The founder effect:  That the genetic material introduced was limited and was not representative of the original population as a whole.


2.  Selection in the tropics:   That the transvaal A. m. scutellata are not nearly as tropical as those of Central Africa.  However, they will have crossed the entire tropics from north to south, a 33-year journey. It is hard not to conclude that the African bees now at the tropic of cancer are more tropical genotypically and phenotypically than those that left Pretoria.


3.  Attrition of patrilines:  Few patrilines would survive the initial stages of developing a feral African population.  Dr. Fletcher did not mention if these are European patrilines.


4.  Attrition of matrilines:  If all 26 original matrilines survived, there still would be a relatively small sample of the genes present in the African population.


Thus, Dr. Fletcher concludes, “There is strong empirical and deductive evidence to suggest that the African bees that will enter the United States differ in many important characteristics from those of their parental population in southern Africa.  These differences, of course, are of degree rather than kind (this author's emphasis).  Whatever genetic changes have occurred, many are detrimental from the practical standpoint of the North American beekeeper.  The question is, what can be done about this?” 48


Plans to Deal With the Africanized Honey Bee: Latin America


Humans have conjured up plans to deal with the Africanized honey bee ever since it was first introduced.  It took experiences in Brazil, the Guianas and Venezuela, however, to begin to understand the real problems associated with this insect.  As noted above, behaviors characterizing Africanized bees, especially defense of the nest, were erratic and not predictable.  In addition, a huge feral (wild) population of bees built up in the tropics where there had not been much honey bee presence before.  Humans were not used to these bees in their environment.  Africanized bees were also found in nest sites in places European bees would not inhabit, confounding even those who had some bee management experience.  These included ground and open-air nests in trees.  Many stinging incidents were the results of this kind of nesting behavior.  A North American example is that almost every underground water-metering device in the city of Tucson, Arizona now is reported to have or predicted to have a nest of these bees in the future49.  Migrating swarms are also common, and more and more bees are found in human conveyances like heavy trucks, railroad cars and ships.


Immediate concerns in areas invaded by the bee are the changes the Africanized honey bee will demand of a local beekeeping industry and public safety.  In essence the bees will not change; the people dealing with these insects much adapt their behavior. 


There is no question that most regions in South America where the bees have migrated have suffered large reductions in honey production.  Beekeepers using European honey bees were either not prepared nor willing to put up with the erratic behavior of Africanized colonies.  In addition, Africanized honey bees were generally thought to be less productive.  However, some colonies produced large quantities of honey.  The majority, though, appeared to be marginal in size and prone to swarming, reducing their productivity.  The total reduction in honey crops wherever these bees were first found often led to the generalization that they were “poor” honey producers.  This is not easy to judge, since honey reduction on a large-scale may not necessarily be a result of poor colony productivity but the fact that many beekeepers simply quit the activity, and so beekeeping as a whole declined.


The Brazilian Experience


Brazil is clearly ahead of the pack when it comes to effectively using the  Africanized honey bee.  Ever since the early 1980s, researchers and beekeepers in the country have continued to state that these insects are the best thing to have happened to Brazilian beekeeping productivity.  Decades later it is difficult to argue with this conclusion as a new much-improved version of Brazilian apiculture has been invented based on this insect.


Although the European honey bee had been introduced two centuries before, wild nests were rare and the craft of beekeeping was practiced by only a few dedicated persons, who often kept colonies in mostly rustic, fixed-comb hives, not of the modern moveable-frame Langstroth design.  This changed greatly with introduction of the Africanized honey according to Eng. Agr. Paulo Gustavo Sommer,


“Introduction of the Africanized honey bee in 1956, however, was a seminal turning point.  The result of twenty-six queens escaping confinement in Rio Claro in the state of São Paulo, according to Eng Sommer, was a huge expansion of Africanized bees in the wild.  The insects quickly saturated much of tropical Brazil and migrated into neighboring countries.  The result was most immediately felt, however, among beekeepers, as the defensive nature of their colonies, usually kept in rustic hives, increased dramatically.  This in fact resulted in complete destruction of beekeeping as it was then known with European bees.


“Rising phoenix-like from these ashes, however, has come a robust commercial activity based on Africanized bees, according to Eng. Sommer.  Over ninety percent of Brazilian colonies are now managed in modern moveable-frame Langstroth equipment.  A growth rate of 4.5 percent per year in honey production since 1985 has resulted in production of 35,000 tons in 1996, rivaling nearby Uruguay.  And there seems little reason, Eng. Sommer concluded, that a level of 200,000 tons per year could not be reached in the future.


“Besides the Langstroth hive, other modifications in beekeeping technique have been made in Brazil to accommodate the Africanized honey bee according to Eng. Sommer.  Wax foundation has been adjusted to the bee's size, somewhat smaller than the European bee.  The increased defensive behavior required a different smoking technique.  Huge numbers of migratory and reproductive swarms nesting in many places and the possibility of them stinging the general public has presented challenges and opportunities in trapping bees.  Finally, beekeepers have actively selected their bees to eliminate many objectionable behaviors for which this bee is generally known."50


“Among the most important attributes of the Africanized bee in Brazil are:


1. Increased hygienic behavior.

2. More efficient foraging.

3. Greater natural resistance against pests and diseases.

4. Superior pollination in intensively cultivated fields.

5. Stronger genetic dominance.

5. Increased defensive and swarming behavior.


"The latter behaviors would seem to be counterproductive, but proof that they are controllable is found in the present condition of Brazil's beekeeping industry. As part of this activity, Eng. Sommer, concluded, the country can count hundreds of short courses, symposiums, seminars and many national congresses."51


The scientific energy engendered is also apparent. The proceedings of the eleventh Brazilian beekeeping congress in Teresina, for example, contains 429 pages.  It includes summaries and full presentations of major talks, open discussions, small conferences and 79 posters, mostly by a large number of academics and students that were present from all over Brazil and a sprinkling of other countries.  Subsequent meetings in Bahia (1998) and Florianópolis (2000) have been comparable in size.


A lead institution in Brazilian bee research and education is the University of São Paulo at Ribeirão Preto (USPRP/SP), one of six campuses associated with the university bearing the name of Brazil's largest and most dynamic city.  This author attended a conference given on that campus in June, 1996 known as the Second Encontro de Abelhas that showcased the scientific energy going into bee research of all kinds and at many levels.  It was near Ribeirão Preto that the Africanized honey bee was introduced.  Much of what has gone on subsequently in bee research is owed to that event.  Since then, the third and fourth Encontros have been held.  The latter was dedicated to three giants of Brazilian bee research, Drs. W. Kerr and P. Nogueira Neto and Padre J. Moure51. 


A summary of the considerable body of scientific knowledge accumulated since introduction of the Africanized honey bee was published as homage to Dr. Kerr on his 70th Birthday in 1992, containing  600 pages in Portuguese with English abstracts of theses and dissertations.  It is characterized in the introduction as "...a resource for beekeepers, teachers, students and researchers in Brazil and around the world. 52


Another important topic in Brazil is governmental recognition and regulation of bee products for human health.  Since 1990, there has been a great increase in the number of extracts, cremes, and powders made from honey, wax, propolis, royal jelly and pollen.  And the fact that current beekeeping in Brazil does not require use of antibiotics nor pesticides also presents a unique opportunity to market so-called "organic" bee products to the world.  According to A. Stort,


"Research and selection of Africanized honey bee behavior has occurred in two important and controversial areas in Brazil: defensiveness and food collection (production).  Stinging behavior has been a major concern of Brazilian beekeepers ever since the arrival of the bees.  Their productivity has also been an important topic in Brazil and other countries invaded by the bee.


"There is great variability in defensiveness in Brazil, it has been shown that climactic factors are important, as is production of alarm pheromone.  Using this information, selection at the Ribeirão Preto campus and the subsequent release of well over 30,000 European queens to the beekeeping industry has ameliorated substantially the defensiveness in colonies over the last 40 years.  Not only have Brazilian beekeepers learned the effectiveness of requeening, however, but they also have adapted in other ways, including more judicious use of smoke.  Thus, defensiveness is no longer the number one concern of the beekeeping industry.


"Honey production has also climbed since introduction of the Africanized honey bee into Brazil.  Research has shown that the Africanized bee and its hybrid crossed with Europeans produces more honey than pure Europeans.  A standardized test has been devised to compare colonies. Worker bees are trained to a 50 percent sugar solution located 70 meters from a hive and the following variables are studied:


1. The weight of the bee for each visit.

2. The amount of syrup collected.

3. The time spent at the syrup source.

4. The time spent in a colony between visits.

5. The time before the syrup source is located.

6. The flying time to the source and back to the colony.


"Analyzing the above over time, it has been possible to show that Africanized worker bees fly faster, spend less time in the colony and more in the field and recruit sister bees better than Europeans. These taken together make them more productive, and these traits have also been incorporated by selection into local bee populations."53


Advances in Managing Africanized Bees in Brazil


According to Dr. A. Soares, selection programs in Brazil have included use of different instrumental insemination syringes and needles and techniques in semen storage, including cocoa water as a semen dilutent.  Two kinds of swarming behavior can be seen in Africanized bees.  One is reproductive in nature and similar to European bees.  The other is absconding, or leaving the nest when environmental conditions require it (migratory).  Both have led to a huge number of honey bees looking for living quarters.  Much of the land around Ribeirão Preto, for example, has now been converted from coffee to sugar cane.  Sugar is used in huge quantities in Brazil to make alcohol, a major part of the fuel for automobiles.  Large sugar plantations, however, provide little good nesting habitat for honey bees.  As a consequence, bees have moved into the city in increasing numbers, posing a risk to the public.  To reduce this, Dr. Soares and colleagues are working on developing a trapping mechanism with Nassanov pheromone lure.  This is being tested at local schools and industry.


Another Brazilian development is creating a honey bee with a "split sting," resulting from exposing the insects to radiation from cobalt 60.  The process creates a mutation and the sting apparatus does not develop correctly. As a result, these bees cannot sting.  Beekeepers themselves have been reported not to use this kind of bee, which is in effect defenseless, however it has potential in some areas where risks of stings must be minimized.  Stinging incidents can be greatly reduced in urban areas, Dr. Soares says, by using the following techniques:


1. Manipulating colonies with great care.

2. Locating hives correctly.

3. Using adequate equipment and protective clothing.

4. Manipulating only when climatic conditions are favorable.

5. Selecting for less-defensive bees and using European bees when necessary.

6. Taking advantage of mutations such as the split sting.54


The present robustness and vitality of the Brazilian beekeeping industry cannot be ignored.  This author has seen it first hand on several occasions.  Perhaps the turning point was the year 1989, when the world apicultural congress (Apimondia) met in Rio de Janeiro.  Subsequently the author attended both the eleventh and thirteenth Brazilian Apicultural Congresses. The energy of the apicultural industry at these meetings was extraordinary.  And paradoxically, this can be all traced to the infamous “killer bee.”


A prime example of new opportunities provided by Africanized honey bees is the history of beekeeping in the sertão of northern Brazil.  The bee is well adapted to produce the migratory swarms required by this harsh environment.  The region is also home to a large number of stingless bees that produce smaller amounts of a qualitatively different honey than Apis bees. Although not as efficient in collecting and processing nectar, native, stingless bees are important to the region's ecology and increasingly, its economy.


In spite of the honey beekeeping resources of the caatinga, the predominant vegetation of the sertão, the area was not exploited until the brothers Arlindo and Arnaldo Wenzel, from the southern state of Paulo, and Américo Bende, from the northern state of Piauí, teamed up to bring the first Langstroth hives to the region.  In December 1977, they introduced 300 colonies of Apis bees to Piauí state.  The results were nothing less than spectacular. In three months, they produced the same amount of honey as during an entire year in São Paulo state.  Since then, the Wenzels have averaged 200 tons of honey per year with 5,000 colonies, reaching their highest yield in 1988 of 375 tons. This began a beekeeping boom that is apparent to any apicultural visitor to Piauí.


Another opportunity provided by the Africanized honey bee in Brazil is the real possibility of producing pesticide or chemical-free (organic) bee products (honey, wax, propolis, pollen, royal jelly, venom).  The tolerance of this bee to diseases (American foulbrood has yet to be detected) and the Varroa bee mite means that no drug treatments nor chemical control applications are needed nor being used in the country.  There seems little doubt that as the world food-consuming population becomes more well-off, educated and discerning, the demand for organic products will only increase.




Perhaps the most intensive management plan in Latin America was the one developed by Panama in the middle 1980s as the Africanized bee invaded that country.  One advantage at the time was the great amount of resources available through the Panama Canal Commission, then run by the U.S. Government.  The Commission’s plan was developed by the staff of the Sanitation and Grounds Management Division.  A reporting network was established  and procedures developed to report all swarms that might be found on land or the numerous ships plying the canal.  Special “swat” teams were also developed.  The program was deemed a success.  Some 19,771 swarms were handled by under the Commission’s plan for the years 1982 to 1985.  This was not done without incident, however.  For example, from July 1982 through 1985 a total of 157 firemen received medical treatment due to multiple bee stings.  In addition, there was a 35.5 percent decline in colony numbers and a 67.5 percent decrease in honey production55.


The Bee Regulated Zone in Mexico


The largest concerted effort to stop the Africanized honey bee migration was a program called the Bee Regulated Zone (BRZ) that took shape in the mid 1980s.   According to a description in a leading bee journal at the time,


   total man-power and equipment expenditures were briefly outlined to give those attending an idea of what the proposed $8 million would be used for. There would be a total of 88 stations located along the barrier zone.  Each station would contain 44 apiaries of 4-20 colonies spaced at 3 kilometer distances. Also, each station would have 177 drone traps spaced 1.5 kilometers apart. Approximately 1600 bait stations would he established. Each unit would need a supervisor, identifier, control workers, 2-3 vehicles and a control worksite to perform identification work. Each worker would be required to: Check 4.3 apiaries per month; 17.3 drone traps periodically every day and 156.4 bait stations every two weeks.  Total figures for the project are: 3,872 apiaries; 38,700 colonies; 15,500 drone traps; 141,000 bait stations and hives; 1,114 unskilled employees; 220 vehicles; 88 remote work sites and 1 central headquarters. Additional activities of the group would include: Swarm trapping; requeening and equipment moderization; trapping AHB drones and intensive production of European drones at queen production sites; establishing an ARS laboratory in Yucatan and establishing a Mexican research laboratory in Chiapas.”56


The BRZ was controversial.  However, the elements put into place laid a basis for other future control efforts.  They included identification and quarantines, swarm and colony destruction using trapping methods, maintenance of European bees and controlling drones (trapping and flooding).  In the end, the program failed to stop the bees but was a useful model for extension efforts to assist beekeepers.  The role of information delivery played an important part and became the basis for Mexico’s current effort: “Programa Nacional para el Control de la Abeja Africanizada.”  This was created in October 1984 by presidential decree and has a representative in every political entity and the mission to protect the social and economic value of Mexican apiculture.57  As one of its major programs, it sponsors a beekeeping seminar each year.  The author was invited to the 2001 event in the Tepic, State of Nyarit.  This innovative program has also developed public service television announcements and published various pamphlets oriented towards beekeepers and the general public. 


As the value of these programs become evident, more and more countries in Latin America are implementing elements found in them.  This is an ongoing situation and, therefore, good quality, factual information for both beekeepers and the general public will continue to be developed and should play a vital role in reducing future problems with Africanized honey bees in the region.


Trapping Technology:  The Basis for Monitoring and Managing Populations


Swarm traps of every conceivable size and shape have been used to chart the progress of Africanized honey bees through Central America and into the United States.  They also are used to reduce populations of Africanized bees in other areas, such as that found in Ribeirão Preto, Brazil reported elsewhere in this publication.  Trapping technology has been well studied, and there is evidence that selecting proper trap sizes in conjunction with using a Nasanov pheromone lure is quite effective in intercepting swarms in urban environments. 58  Traps are now available commercially based on USDA Agricultural Research.  A current program of the Division of Plant Industry in the state of Florida, for example, is to maintain traps in every major sea port and also on the state line. 59 


According to S. Thoenes, in the Tucson, Arizona area in 1994, only 15 percent of the trapped swarms were Africanized.  By 1997 almost 90 percent were this kind of bee. 60  Latest information from Tucson, Arizona, the area most affected by wild honey bee migration, is that several separate pest control companies in Western states are regularly monitoring traps and destroying feral nests of Africanized honey bees.


Plans to Deal With the Africanized Honey Bee: North America


North America has benefited substantially from the results of informational programs in Central and South America.  It was logical that efforts would be made to develop a nation-wide program in the United States that would help beekeepers overcome many of the perceptual and actual problems this insect posed. 


Several special meetings on the Africanized honey bee occurred in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s as the insect approached the Texas border.  An informal conference on the public relations aspects of the situation was held in conjunction with the Entomological Society of America at its annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas (December 1984).  At that event, Max Heppner, Public Affairs Specialist, APHIS Information Division spelled out the challenge: “We must prepare ourselves for the public outcry that will come surely as night follows day, once the bee has arrived.”   In March, 1989 at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an Africanized Honey Bee Program Initiative was held, which looked at coordination of state experiment station activities, in conjunction with national and international programs.  A conference was held in September 1990 in Tempe, Arizona as part of joint meeting of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists (AAPA)61 and the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA)62.  A weakness of most of these meetings was lack of input by the commercial beekeeping industry.


A turning point was a workshop held October 24-26, 1991 in St. Louis, MO.  Both USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and NASDA (National Association of State Departments of Agriculture63) sponsored it in an effort to develop a model honey bee certification program.  As reported in the Apis newsletter, representatives of the honey bee industry, user groups, regulators and researchers participated in the meeting, and a consensus was reached, recognizing the diminishing state resources available for apiary inspection and certification.  A philosophy based upon self-help and management practices rather than strict regulations was deemed the only workable approach in addressing Africanized bee problems.  Specific management recommendations were:


1. Colony management for the purpose of stock certification should be consistent with the recommendations developed at the USDA/NASDA workshop.


2. Queens should be purchased or produced from certified stock.


3. Locate colonies of bees away from roads so the bees do not interfere with vehicular or pedestrian traffic.


4. Avoid placing colonies near or on utility (power lines, underground cables, pipelines) right of ways unless permission is granted.


5. Avoid placing colonies near schools, municipal recreation areas (especially swimming facilities), parks, picnic grounds or other locations which may encourage adverse honey bee/public interactions. Areas with water sources or a sugar source from trash cans, soft drink vendors, etc., aren't conducive to positive public reactions.


6. Open air feeding of honey and sugar syrup is not recommended as it promotes defensive behavior by the bees and the spread of diseases or pests.


7. Provide clean water sources in apiaries that do not have natural supplies of water or in areas with residential swimming pools.


8. Locate staging yards away from populated areas even if only a few houses are nearby. Staging yards tend to have defensive



9. Park trucks loaded with full supers away from areas frequented by people, especially when stopping at a store for a drink, etc.

Many bees remain in the supers during honey removal. The best approach is to net honey laden supers.


10. All loads of bees should be netted or screened even when moving at night.


11. Requeen colonies that exhibit consistent defensive behavior.


12. Try to manipulate colonies during optimal weather conditions and advise landowners, especially those with livestock, when major manipulations such as honey harvest are to be performed64.


Although based on current "best" information at the time, there also continued to be questions about the plan's specifics. Dr. Eric Mussen presented some editorial remarks about these in his newsletter:


1. Virgin European queens mating in areas where there are Africanized colonies only need mate with 20-30% Africanized drones before becoming defensive.


2. There is no need to restrict identification of Africanization to any specific method.


3. Sixty European drone source colonies per 1,000 mating nuclei are not enough and no mention is made of using drone foundation.


4. Semen certification does not seem to concern itself enough with the question of drift.


Nevertheless, in spite of several reservations, Dr. Mussen concluded: “...much of the plan will make sense and state programs will become similar to it." 65


The conclusion from the workshop and subsequent deliberations was that developing a model beekeeping management plan will require input from beekeepers, growers, researchers, extension educators and others.  Apiary management routines vary according to geographic region and climate and pest management strategies must reflect these differences.


All this brings to mind the writing of Dr. Elbert Jaycox, quoted in the Apis newsletter from the (January, 1990 issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture).


"There is no lack of candidates for leadership or of ideas about how we will deal with the African bees when they cross our southern border, perhaps this year. We will poison them, exclude them, outbreed them, and trap them, if you believe the proposals that have been presented. Yet how can you have faith that we will exert any effect on the invasion when you look at the two previous debacles in handling the advent of two other serious pests (tracheal and Varroa mites) in the United States?  The biggest effects fell on beekeepers, putting many out of business and still damaging others by regulations and enforcement established on a false base-that you can detect mites and save money by taking small samples of bees for diagnosis.


"We have equally fallacious ideas about how we will deal with African bees. They are fallacious because they are based on the idea that we will be able to spend large sums of money on control measures and regulatory action designed to maintain European honey bee stock in areas suitable for African bees.  These include certifying and inspecting for European queens and destroying hundreds of thousands of colonies.  I can only offer a simple prediction: we will not find the sums needed and we will not prevent the widespread distribution of African bees and their hybrids in the U.S.  It is also easy to predict that these things will come true in spite of many controversial and damaging programs (to beekeepers) instituted by state and federal organizations.  They will be so busy trying to put the clamps on bees and beekeepers that we will get little help in a breeding program to give us productive strains with African blood and resistance to Varroa mites yet docile enough to keep beekeepers in the pollinating business.  All of us are greatly concerned about the actions that may be taken when the Africans arrive.  Also it is easy to put blame on regulatory agencies for programs that do not work.  Yet, in most cases, it is the beekeepers' reactions, especially those of non- commercial operators, that are responsible for the laws and regulations put into force and then, later, withdrawn as unworkable.  Before you decide to support some of the schemes being proposed to keep your area, or all of the United States, free of African bees in the 90s, consider whether they are based on reality, including the heavy expenditure of funds for many years."66


The Florida Africanized Honey Bee Plan


In anticipation of its arrival, several states have developed contingency plans to deal with Africanized honey bees based on other experiences.  Florida has always been considered a prime invasion site.  A proposal for the Florida plan was presented to the Africanized Honey Bee Task Force, an advisory body to the Commissioner of Agriculture in December 1989.  It consisted of four parts (thrusts), listed major goals and persons in charge and suggested a yearly budget. The time of the plan was for five years; its breakdown was as follows:


1. Public awareness with a budget of $50,000 per year. Major directions are to let the public know directly and through other state agencies about the bee. Specific audiences are governmental offices (cities andcounties), tourist bureaus, civic groups and schools.


2. Research with a budget of $134,000 per year. Major emphases are to study methods of identification and stock certification and the process of genetic interactions. This program is also expected to establish baseline information and study the bees' dispersal patterns. Finally, it will consult and collaborate with the USDA laboratories concerning managing both feral and domesticated bee populations.


3. Training with a budget of $50,000 per year. Major emphases are training beekeepers, other agriculturalists, pest control operators, bee inspectors and the scientific community. Specific topics to be addressed include locating and eliminating feral colonies by pest control operators, fire departments and police agencies; educating employees of agricultural enterprises about potential problems of more bees in their work environment; and training beekeepers in stock management.


4. Regulation with a budget of $355,000 per year. This amount is over and above the current budget of the Apiary bureau, which is about $350,000 per year.


Major thrusts were to implement regulations on the beekeeping community that were reasonable and had support from the industry.  Specific areas were stock beekeeper registration, certification, movement regulation and providing information to other agencies which might aid in this effort, such as fire and forestry departments.  There is a training component here as well for bee inspectors, beekeepers, law enforcement agencies and others. Ironically, and to the detriment of the above program, an Africanized honey bee population has yet to be detected in Florida.  Thus, the plan has not been implemented except for the aforementioned emphasis on monitoring by trapping and some educational efforts by this author.67


In addition to this plan, the Division of Plant Industry’s Apiary Bureau published an innovative effort to teach school children and others about the Africanized honey bee in 1989.  Called “Plan B, ” this effort used 41 students in a University of Florida Public Relations class divided up into eight groups.  Each focused on developing a plant dedicated toward a specific audience: 1) state government, 2) media outlets, 3) school teachers and administrators, 4) tourist attractions (hotels, amusement parks), 5) agriculture, 6) city and county governments, 7) civic groups (Kiwanis, Rotarian), and 8) others (including higher education).  The grade-school portion of this has become a favorite for many classroom teachers who constitute part of an educational effort called Ag in the Classroom.68


Although Florida’s plan has yet to be implemented, this is not so out west, where Africanized honey bee populations exist.  A national program called NAPIS, the National Agricultural Pest Information System, publishes current information about the bee, including latest maps and attacks as recorded in the media.69  Although officially found in five states, Africanized honey bees are mostly concentrated in extreme southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and increasingly, California.


Plans For Public Safety in Other States:


The University of Arizona Africanized Honey Bee Education Project has published lesson plans and other resources, which teachers are using in their classrooms.  These include 29 information sheets and 31 proposed activities.70  The City of Phoenix also has published information on Africanized honey bee.  One of the most logical organizations to deal with Africanized honey bees is the local fire department.  However, the City of Phoenix, Arizona cautions: 


“Call the fire department only when emergency medical services are needed.  If someone has been stung by many bees at once or has an allergic reaction to a bee sting, call 9-1-1.  Call the fire department if someone has become trapped in a building or car with lots of bees. Fire trucks are equipped with a foam that can be sprayed on the bees to drown them.  DO NOT call the fire department to remove bee colonies or hives.  If you want bees removed, look in the yellow pages under ‘bee removal’ or ‘beekeepers’.” 71


New Mexico’s effort is more modest.72  Texas A & M University publishes most recent maps on quarantined counties73 and also produces educational materials, including a resource kit.74


In California, the city of San Diego has published a World Wide Web site that includes general information on Africanized honey bees and suggestions on their removal from a premises.75  The University of California at Riverside provides information on many aspects of Africanized honey bees.76  Perhaps most significant is that related to stings.  It emphasizes that how one gets the stinger out is not as important as speed, and that rapid removal is the best first aid to prevent delayed reactions.77  The information also includes a 900-entry bibliography.78  Another area is firefighter safety.  Those attempting to manage California forest fires now have another safety factor to consider, the presence of  Africanized honey bees.79


There are a significant number of World Wide Web sites that focus on the Africanized honey bee .  Some are oriented to public safety, such as the one by the San Bernardino, California Safety Committee.80  Several other municipalities in California, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have also developed Web sites.81  The major beekeeping indexing site Bee Hoo also has a topical index on the subject.82  Another topical index is found at the Apis newsletter site.83  At least two companies are advertising protection devices against honey bee attacks.  These products are the “bee protection bag”84 and “emergency-use insect veil”.85


Pest Control Companies are also marketing their services in Africanized honey bee areas, including Arizona86, Nevada87 and Texas.88  California also has an innovative licensing procedure for pest control operators.  “More than 1600 licensees and government officials have completed Africanized Honey Bee Certification Training for Structural and Agricultural Pest Control Operators which was first offered in January 1994. Lists of the licensees who have completed the program are being made available to county agricultural commissioners and other interested government bodies.  Each licensee is classified by the type of bee control that they offer, and the licensees that they have.”89


Besides individual states, other institutions have developed information on the Africanized honey bee.  Of particular interest is the United States Armed forces.90  This publication uses the more neutral term AHB extensively: 


AHBs are a real and significant threat for those who must live with them.  But they can be dealt with as long as the appropriate precautions and control measures are taken.  This Technical Information Memorandum has been developed with the assistance of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service to provide Department of Defense pest management and public health officials with an understanding of honey bee biology, the potential impact of AHBs, and the measures we must undertake to assure the well being of our personnel.  An informative video overview covering general AHB biology and personal safety from stings has been produced by the U.S. Army Academy of Health Sciences.  Africanized Honey Bees, A 1701-92-0121 (TVT 8-223) runs 11:07 minutes and is available for loan from local training centers/video libraries and DPMIAC.”


Updated Safety and Medical Procedures:


The Africanized bee's increased defensive behavior has meant that different strategies must be in place not only in beekeeping operations, but also in Africanized honey bee areas with reference to personal safety and medical procedures.  Advice concerning European honey bees has traditionally been conservative.  Those undergoing attack were advised to move slowly away from the source, usually a disturbed colony.  This is no longer true in Africanized honey bee areas.  Now those attacked are directed to move as fast and as far as possible (run!) to escape being stung.  This is because these bees tend to attack in greater numbers and will follow much longer distances than European bees.


Deaths due to honey bee stings have also traditionally been because of allergy and subsequent anaphylactic shock with European honey bees.  Stories of those dying because of this tended not to be sensationalized; most were never covered by television or print media.  However, because Africanized honey bees may attack en masse, a condition called toxic envenomation can occur.91  This means that the body has received so much venom, it may affect the circulatory and excretory systems. 


Treatment of multiple sting victims represents a serious challenge because of limited medical information and experience, and specialty consultation is indicated.  Physicians need to be particularly aware of the potential for AHB patients to experience severe allergic and toxic reactions, and for complications developing up to several days after the stinging incident.  Patients should be monitored closely for up to two weeks, or until all laboratory work normalizes, following apparent clinical recovery.  The most aggressive management for severe cases is plasmapheresis (or exchange transfusion) which helps to remove circulating venom and/or mediators of inflammation, especially if done within 48 hours of stinging. 


Haemodialysis, although less effective, is an alternative modality (within first 48 hours) if plasmapheresis is not available. Other treatment options include aggressive intravenous fluids (e.g., 0.9 normal saline as a 20 ml/kg bolus followed by mannitol 25 gm IV (0.5 gm/kg child)), epinephrine (IV push 0.1-1.0 ml of 1:10,000 over 5 minutes), and urine alkalinization (in case of myoglobinuria). Diuretics may be considered in cases of pulmonary or cerebral edema.  Dialysis has been recommended early in the treatment of ARF.  For serum sickness, treatment includes systemic corticosteroids with antihistamines and analgesics.”92


Another area of concern is risk to pets from Africanized honey bees, especially when animals are confined and cannot escape.  According to J. Schmidt and L. B.Hassen, reporting on the death of a dog, 


“Death is the ultimate result of toxic envenomation.  An untreated animal should be able to survive up to 13 stings/kg and will very likely die if it receives 25 or more stings/kg.  We suggest using the following rule of thumb:



 less than 14 stings/kg = survival

14-24 stings/kg = critical condition

 more than 24 stings/kg = death



“Using this guideline, the dog described could have survived up to 481 stings but could not have survived more than 888.  In this case, the dog received four times the number of stings required for almost certain death.”93


Again, logical first response teams for stinging incidents are firefighters.94  The use of soapy water instead of pesticides to control Africanized bee colonies is one of the newest technologies available to pest control operators and home owners.95


Other “at risk” populations may also be defined in the future.  One example is that associated with those practicing the sport of mountain biking.96


Sensationalism and Africanized Honey Bees


The root cause of much of the general public's preoccupation with Africanized honey bees is the sensationalism that is associated with the use of “killer bees.” in popular magazines, articles, movies and television programs.  Many objective observers, including educators, have been caught in this semantic-name trap.  One example of this is the Insecta Inspecta World Wide Web site that, in general, portrays insects in a favorable, realistic light but still gives the “killer bee” a special status, such that it appears to separate this insect from honey bees altogether.97  Even so prestigious an organization as the Smithsonian has taken this approach in its Web encyclopedia:  “The general appearance of Killer Bees (= Africanized Bees) is the same as common Honey Bees, but there are some distinctive physical differences between the two.”98


Perhaps the most expensive endeavor to purposefully enhance the killer bee image was Irwin Allen’s Movie, The Swarm, a production costing twelve million dollars in the years 1977 and 1978.99  According to original publicity in the Warner Brothers, Inc. press kit:,


“It was a prodigious motion picture full of high drama, dangerously frightening and awesomely suspenseful, brought to life by a cast of highly respected stars.  The bees are the villains and “fill the screen with the horrifying whir of wing and their fuzzy black and gold presence.  Audiences will experience the menacing sight and sound that only killer bees on the rampage can evoke.” 


As if the bees weren’t enough, Mr. Irwin also provided supplementary sensations.  “There is a terrifying train wreck, an atomic plant blast, the burning of the city of Houston and a blazing Gulf of Mexico.”


In response to the publicity from the movie, as well as the spin off in popular magazine articles and television programs ("The Savage Bees"), the United States Department of Agriculture produced two films purportedly to refute the sensationalism.  In 1978, “Killer Bees: Fact or Fantasy” was released.  Several years later a sequel, “Killer Bee Countdown,” was produced.  Both were controversial in a number of ways and fell into the trap of re-enforcing the term “killer” in their title, further aggravating the situation in some people’s view.


At least one journalist appears to have solidified his reputation in writing about these insects.  In “My Life With Killer Bees,”100 Ed Zuckerman details his efforts to get the real story and also his experiment with selling “killer bee honey.”  Some of his exploits were also detailed in “The Big Buzz”101:  The article’s subtitle says it all: “The killer bees are ripping through Mexico and heading for Texas.  Arrival time?  Next spring.  Solution?  See your tailor.”  Another Zuckerman effort was: “The Killer Bees,” subtitled “Savaged and Stung, I put my life on the line to learn the truth about The Killer Bees.” 102  Mr. Zuckerman has gone on to a writing career in television, where he is now Executive Producer of the series “The Players.”103


The killer name, as stated above, has drawn journalists into its sensational trap on numerous occasions.  For example, one article says “Who Can Stop the Killer Bees” proclaims, “The feds have given up. The Aggies (Texas A & M University) say it is not their job.  State officials are running for cover.  Please won’t somebody save Texas honey?”104  International Wildlife, among other details, describes the fate of Inn-Siang Ooi, a Malaysian student in Costa Rica, who accidently disturbed a nest of Africanized honey bees.  Ooi became disoriented and fell, and when he recovered, he tried to back down into a crevice.  His fellow students, hearing his screams, attempted to rescue him.  But there was no escape.  Ooi, stung more than 8,000 times, died in agony.  For once the horror movies seemed to have it right: the African immigrants that were said to be heading toward the United States via Latin America were bona fide bad news bees.”105


Perhaps the most distributed publicity about Africanized honey bees may have come from comedy shows like “Saturday Night Live,”  As Dr. Winston says “Who can forget John Belushi and his Mexican bandits, dressed up like ‘Keeeler Beeees,” demanding ‘Your pollen or your wife!’ “106


The fearsome, deserved or not, reputation of the Africanized honey bee continues today in the new World Wide Web medium.  Witness “Killer Bee Honey from Arizona made from Arizona orange blossoms.” 107  Yes, the Africanized honey bee is in Arizona, but whether it is responsible for producing Killer Bee Honey is questionable.  Another site offers “The Bee-Haven protection bag”108   Alternatively, there is the sting shield, “made of durable and long-lasting high quality fabric, a compact, pocket size emergency-use insect veil, designed to reduce debilitating facial attacks by winged stinging insects, including Africanized bees.”109 


Over four decades of misinformation and sensationalism have made killer bees part of the human collective psyche like no other insect.  Whether time will be able to provide some realistic appraisal of the Africanized honey bee, so that the general public will be able to see it in its true biological or cultural significance, remains to be seen. 


Managing the Africanized Honey Bee:  Current Status




It has bee reported elsewhere in the publication how Brazilians now see and manage Africanized honey bees.  In general, these insects are now considered a positive force in the modern development of Brazilian apiculture.  This author remembers the comments of Helmuth Wiese, legendary Brazilian beekeeping expert, who came to the United States for a visit in the 1980s.  He remarked at the time that the coming of the Africanized honey bee to North America would, as it did for Brazil, create a new generation of better beekeepers.”  Mr. Wiese has recently published a updated book on Brazilian apicultural methods110




Efforts to manage the Africanized honey bee in Mexico are also being reported to be making a positive impact.


“Sinaloa beekeepers have adopted the new management practices recommended for managing Africanized bees, as follows:


"Use of bee suits and gloves when managing colonies. 

Moving hives at night when relocation is necessary. 

Relocating any apiaries previously close to buildings or roads.  A minimum distance of 200 meters is recommended by the Mexican department of agriculture (SARH) and greater distances are preferred. 

Feeding syrup to colonies when forage conditions are poor to discourage absconding. 


“Queen rearing enables beekeepers to use colonies headed by a pure European queen, mated to local drones.  As a result, the worker bees, who are the offspring of the queen and her mates, are a mixture of pure European bees and hybrids. Because honey bee queens mate with 10-20 males, each colony probably contains a mixture of both types of workers.  Approximately two thirds of the colonies headed by these queens are reasonably ‘gentle’ (though not as gentle as most pure European colonies).  One third are manageable but exhibit undesirable Africanized bee qualities (excessive defensiveness, excessive brood rearing at the expense of honey storage).” 111


Queen rearing is also an important activity in other areas of Mexico.  For example in Cuernavaca production of queen bees has played an important factor in controlling the Africanized honey bee.  This along with activity elsewhere in the country has resulted in the national production of queens increasing four or five times in the last eight years.  This is also due to the Mexican government´s support and the increasing demand on the part of the honey producers.112


Perhaps the biggest lesson from Mexican beekeeping is that if beekeepers are allowed to continue their trade and are assisted in adapting to the new bees, then they will be able to supply the bees needed for pollination.  This will go a long way to refute the notion that Africanized honey bees are poor pollinators in general.


Other Latin American Countries:


As information trickles out of tropical American countries where the Africanized honey bee has taken up residence, there is more and more reason to take the Brazilian and Mexican information to heart as a hopeful sign that beekeeping with this insect can be a profitable enterprise.  One reason is that active invasion is now over for these countries; the situation has moved from a rapidly-changing one to being more orderly.  These countries now have a resident stock of feral honey bees that will be relatively stable in number as the ecological niche becomes saturated.  Thus, there is now a time of maturation as both the recently-arrived honey bees and human residents of these countries become acquainted and used to the presence of each other.


As an example, consider the situation in Bolivia in the early 1980s as described by A. Stearman: “The Bolivian Apicultural Association once boasted of 300 members who actively participated in this marketing cooperative.  Today, the Co-op no longer exists and there are no more than 4 producers with over 100 hives in the entire lowland region.  Migrating westward, the Africanized bees moved into the area within a matter of weeks: taking over apiaries, killing livestock and a few hapless people, and severely stinging countless others.  Most beekeepers burned their hives and found another occupation.”113  A recent treatment by D. Caron is more hopeful and concludes with a discussion of the first Bolivian National Beekeeping Congress in 1995.  He also discusses similarly-optimistic scenarios in Panama, Costa Rica, Belize and Trindad.114


This author wrote in the Apis newsletter,


“The apicultural bottom line in Ecuador is that American foulbrood is not present, Varroa mites are not treated, pesticides are not a problem, and bees do not usually have to be fed.  If colonies die out, they are soon replaced by naturally occurring swarms.  Market conditions are such that honey here fetches a better price than on the world export market.  Because there is no treatment using either antibiotics or pesticides, the opportunity exists to produce certified organic honey for both the domestic and export market.”115


To be fair, it is often difficult to adequately compare regions and, as any experienced beekeeper knows, differences in local climates and conditions can make a world of difference.  In spite of advances in knowledge allowing Africanized honey bees to be routinely and effectively managed, problems associated with these bees continue in most Latin American countries.  However, many of these areas, once preoccupied with honey bee defensive behavior and management, are now concerned with more fundamental issues such as transportation and other infrastructure issues.


North America:  The Last Frontier


North America is truly the last frontier for the Africanized honey bee.  This is analogous to the westward expansion of the human pioneers in the United States who crossed the mid-western prairies and the Rocky Mountains and were only stopped when they reached the Pacific Ocean.  It will not be an ocean, but in all probability a temperate climate that will put an end to the Africanized honey bee migration.  It will also be affected by human cultural activity, especially that of beekeepers, rising to the continued challenge of breeding more productive honey bees.  


Certainly, North American apiculture will change with the coming of the Africanized honey bee.  It already has in some places, but in much less area so far than first predicted.  There are significant efforts in states, where the bee exists, to educate the population and provide some public services (emergency training) and private enterprise solutions (pest control companies) to deal with this insect.116


In general, the number of deaths due to stinging attacks by Africanized bees have been relatively fewer than might be expected, even in Latin America.  Dr. T. Rinderer, for example, states "Venezuela reported 400 honey bee sting related fatalities in the first four years of having Africanized bees, while Mexico reported 71 deaths in a similar period.  Due in part to better beekeeping and medical management, only one person has died in the U.S. since the AHB first entered south Texas.in 1990."117  That observation was published over four years after the bees crossed the border.  A more recent estimate is that a total of eight people have been killed by Africanized honey bees in the U.S.118  Published figures are not necessarily reliable, as many so-called "bee" incidents are really caused by other stinging insects (wasps and hornets).  Nevertheless, if one contrasts the number of deaths of persons due to other causes with those reported for Africanized honey bees in the U.S., it is clearly evident that they present no statistically significant health threat to the human population as a whole. 


Fortunately, the initial furor over these insects has ameliorated.  Since 1999, there have been relatively few sensationalized stinging episodes related to these bees in the United States.  Thus, as stated on one World Wide Web site:


“United States’stinging incidents resulting in serious injury to man or domestic animals are still widely reported in the press, as are also minor events in newly colonized areas.  However, minor casualties do not always make local news in those communities where Africanized bees are well established.  The Los Angeles Times (3/13/94) reported that The Tucson Citizen ‘ ... all but stopped reporting routine bee incidents’ as early as 1994.”119. 


History shows, however, that with any publicized stinging incident, the latent sensationalism built up over decades tends to reassert itself.  Thus, beekeepers, governmental officials and emergency response teams will need to keep themselves informed about these insects as they become more established.  A most important activity will be to ensure that new employees are adequately trained.


There no longer is any national plan by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) 120 to deal with Africanized honey bees in the United States.  The one proposed as far back as 1984 was never fully implemented.121  APHIS generally does not get involved in regulatory activity once an insect has been sufficiently introduced.  Nevertheless, individual states may impose quarantines or other restrictions on beekeeping when and/or if a population of these bees is found in certain areas.  In addition, some queen producing outfits have seen fit to only use instrumental insemination (II) in areas that have Africanized bee populations.122


Controversy concerning the insect will no doubt continue.  It is suggested by some that the Canadian border remains closed to United States honey bees because of still unknown factors surrounding the Africanized honey bee migration. 


Purposeful Introduction Risk


Despite its sensational reputation for defensive behavior, the Africanized honey bee also has the reputation for an increased tolerance to diseases and pests.  Of special significance are reports from Brazil and elsewhere in the American tropics that Africanized honey bees survive Varroa mite infestation without chemical treatment.  There appear to be some valid reasons for this.  Perhaps the most extensive research is that of R. Vandame, who says it is remarkable that both AHB in Brazil and Apis cerana have the same Varroa tolerance level of two mites/100 bees (two percent) and suggests that the Mexican Africanized honey bee may also finally reach this equilibrium point in the future.  “He concludes this could happen as it did in South America through the hybridization process and awaits the outcome with anticipation.”123  A more provocative explanation may lie in the kind of Varroa mite.  Research by Dr. Denis Anderson in Australia has shown that not all Varroa mites can reproduce on all honey bees.  It appears that the Japan/Thailand haplotype, found in Brazil, apparently introduced via Paraguay from Japan is not as virulent at the Korean haplotype found in Europe, North Africa and North America. 124


Until such time as a more robust and definitive hypothesis is developed the reputation that the Africanized honey bee is more Varroa tolerant stands nevertheless.  This increases the risk that some enterprising beekeeper might on his own introduce Africanized bees via queen introduction from elsewhere in the Americas, or even Africa itself.  This is certainly not advisable for innumerable reasons, but the history of beekeeping worldwide is fraught with the consequences of purposeful introduction of honey bee stock from one part of the world to another.  Indeed it is the reason the Africanized honey bee “problem” and this publication exist at all.  Perhaps no better testament, which might give anyone contemplating such an introduction pause, would be the response by Dr. Kerr to Mr. Wallace White’s question of whether he would do anything differently in his life.  He responded, “I would leave those African bees where I found them.”125




There is little question that the Africanized honey bee is here to stay in the Americas.  The biological revolution fostered by release of queens in Brazil from African honey bee stock, most probably Apis mellifera scutellata, has resulted in a new kind of honey bee.  Although still a honey bee, morphologically Apis mellifera, the Africanized honey bee is radically different in behavior than its European cousins that were first introduced to the American continents.  This introduction of a migratory, tropical honey bee has wrought enormous biological change.  Honey bees now exist, indeed flourish, in the wild in the American tropics where they did not before.  From a relatively few colonies has emerged a biological revolution of almost mythic proportions, resulting in an insect migration of thousands of miles in a few short decades, almost saturating tropical America with honey bees. 


The true significance of the Africanized honey bee biological revolution, however, has often been lost in the cultural changes that have accompanied it.  For the majority of the human population in the Americas, the new bee has come to be viewed as a public health threat due to its defensive behavior.  Though strictly defensive in nature, the ferocity and massiveness of stinging attacks on both animals and humans cannot be denied.  These defensive stinging incidents have resulted in relatively few deaths when compared to other causes, but their often-spectacular nature has resulted in a sensationalized reputation that now is embedded deep in the cultural psyche.  Thus, most people know these insects only as aggressive bees.  And with each new detection or stinging incident, another cadre of uniformed reporters emerges to carry on this sensationalized mythology.


There continues to be a lack of information about what exactly is occurring in the biological sphere with reference to the Africanized honey bee.  The insect's name, for example, has segued from “Brazilian” to “Africanized” to “African” and finally, the more neutral AHB, all to the confusion of the human lay population.  Sophisticated tests have only established that the organism is indeed a honey bee (Apis mellifera) and appears to have all of the characteristics of its species, but with enormous variation.  Most of the differences between this insect and its European cousins is in behavior, something insect taxonomy does not differentiate.  Relatively new DNA analysis has also yielded few clues and is clouded by the fact that the Africanized honey bee interbreeds readily with its European cousins producing genetic hybrids, yet also retains the ability to maintain its own special characteristics (especially and most importantly its relatively greater defensive behavior).  The lack of good scientific data on these honey bees has caused a good deal of confusion in scientific circles as well as the general public.  The result has often been the pitting of one camp against another.  Because culturing the honey bee is also a business, official and scientific uncertainty have also been incorporated into the beekeeper’s consciousness.


Scientific study has provided some idea as to how and why the Africanized honey bee appears to retain its “African” characteristics.  DNA studies have shown, for example, that the Africanization process appears to be an asymmetric, one primarily of expanding African mother lines and secondarily through African paternal introgression (drone contribution) into European apiaries.  In addition, physiological study reveals that, energetically speaking, hybrids between Africanized and European honey bees have trouble persisting in the wild, perhaps due to some genetic deficiency.  In general, it is the metabolically enhanced (“souped up”) ability of the Africanized honey bee over its European cousins that may be responsible for much of its reputation from defensive behavior to swarming and absconding. 


The story is also complicated by the fact that the Africanized honey bee often displays erratic or unpredictable behavior.  This compromises its manageability, the basis for modern beekeeping systems.  Examples are widespread, especially the very different reports of defensive behavior that has emerged from a large number of observers in the field.  The insect has also defied experts’ analysis, especially in North America, where a decade after its arrival, the insect has not migrated east of the Mississippi River. 


Historically, this extremely variable behavior has been the source of many stinging incidents.  It is the reason beekeepers tend to abandon apiculture when the Africanized honey bee first arrives, although many take it up again as information on how to manage these bees becomes available.  Wholesale abandonment of beekeeping in areas undergoing Africanization also contributes to the reputation of these bees as poor honey producers and inadequate pollinators.  In many areas, honey production per colony does decline, principally because of increased swarming and absconding rates.  Although production per colony may suffer, there are many more colonies doing the producing and so gross yield may actually increase.  The bees are just as efficient pollinators as their European cousins, however, because they are often difficult to manipulate, managed pollination on any kind of scale can suffer.


The sensationalized reputation of the Africanized honey bee is quickly established as it invades an area, but it all too often does not recede as the insect-human interaction matures.  Both the general and beekeeping public historically quickly adapt to the fact that Africanized honey bees are in their environment to stay.  This is certainly the case in Brazil.  Not only has there been an accommodation in that country, however, but also the situation spawned a large effort to train beekeepers and to study the behavior of honey bees in general.  Thus, in Brazil there is now a consensus that the Africanized honey bee has actually been responsible for invigorating the beekeeping industry.  This is shown by numerous highly-attended congresses dedicated to apicultural activity.  In addition, the abundant feral or wild colonies of Africanized honey bees have become a source of income that previously was not available.   And their tolerance to diseases and pests, such that they require few if any chemical treatments, have opened up the possibility of marketing environmentally friendly, “organic” beekeeping products.  At the same time, decades of scientific research have provided many answers not only in managing this insect, but also keeping human-honey bee interactions to a minimum.  There is little denying that the Africanized honey has helped Brazil become a world powerhouse in insect scientific investigation. 


The Brazilian situation has parallels in most of the American tropics.  Where once, the Africanized honey bee was a pariah, it has now become somewhat of a savior of the beekeeping industry in many countries.  This has so far, however, not happened in North America nor in temperate South America.  In colder climates, the European honey bee continues to effectively compete with its tropical cousin. 


The saga of the Africanized honey bee in the Americas has yet to be played out.  It must be considered, therefore, a genetic work in progress.  It appears that in most of tropical America an era of stability is now in place, where before extreme instability was the rule.  Thus, a mature human-honey bee relationship is now being forged, which consists of an informed public and beekeeping community on one side and an established feral population of tropically-adapted honey bees on the other.  In temperate North America, this is not yet the case.  How far these insects might penetrate into the temperate zone remains a guess at best.  The Canadian-United States border remains closed to honey bee importation due to this uncertainty.


Except for a few enclaves where Africanized honey bees have become established, the rest of the North American continent continues to remain unaware of  and unaffected by their existence.  Inevitably, however, some stinging incident or report of their detection will provoke press coverage in the future.  This will no doubt bring again into the human consciousness the idea that these valuable and interesting insects exist for one reason, to attack and threaten the human population.  And there will be no better proof of this for most people than headlines loudly proclaiming their undeserved name, “killer bees.”


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