What is the truth about killer bees?

wiseGEEK Writing Contest

If you heard somebody talking about Africanized honey bees you’d probably raise an eyebrow and say ‘what’ but if somebody else said ‘killer bees’, you’d probably have a dozen or so stories to say about something you read, saw on T.V or even experienced. Needless to say, the story of killer bees have spun the globe ever since the late 1950’s when these swarms of highly aggressive bees made their debut in the Americas but what is the story behind the killer bees and how did they find their way to the Americas where they gained so much fame. Killer bees are cross breeds between European and the aggressive African honey bees. It all started when the traps covering the African beehives in a Brazilian laboratory were accidentally removed by a visitor. In no time, twenty six swarms of pure African bees had escaped and they quickly infiltrated wild bee colonies and mated with the European honeybees. The African queen bees had been brought to the lab from South Africa and Tanzania in an attempt by a geneticist, Warwick E. Kerr to produce a strain of hybrid bees that would be able to withstand the hot humid weather of South America.

Unfortunately, the hybrid the hybrid produced in the wild in a way exceeded expectations. The wildly aggressive Africanized honey bee was born. To make matters worse, save for a minor differences in size and mass, the hybrid was practically identical to the European bees and they could only be distinguished in a laboratory. This made it even harder to control their spread. Soon cases like those of Inn-Siang Ooi became quite widespread. In July 1986 Inn-Siang who was on a trip offered by the Organisation for Tropical studies was stung to death by killer bees after he lost his footing and fell into a crevice in an attempt to run away from the bees. Attempts by the others to rescue their friends proved futile as the bees turned on them forcing them to retreat. By the time Inn-Siangs lifeless body was lifte from the fissure, he’d been stung at least 8000 times. Some of the behavioral differences between the ‘killer bee’ and it’s European counterpart are that the Africanized bees defend their hive more fiercely and will respond much quicker to a threat and will chase their victims even further thus inflicting many more stings bringing quick and painful death. Their hives are five times more guarded and they’ve been known to kill animal as big as horses. Incase of a disturbance, twice as many Africanized bees respond and they inflict 8 to 10 times more stings. This aggressive nature earned this bee the title ‘honey bee with a personality problem’ from an entomologist. Very often, the Africanized bees will invade European hives and install one of their own as queen. The existing queen (if any) is killed.

The hybrid bee has also impacted negatively on agriculture. Many beekeepers have shut down due to fear of lawsuits by bee-sting victims and those that stay open are forced to cope with the expenses of extra equipment and personnel to cope with the aggressive bees. These costs will be past onto farmers who rent the bees to pollinate their crops. The bees have also been found to produce less honey than their European counterparts when nectar is in plenty. They also carry less nectar and forage farther from their hive making them less efficient honey producers. Their advantage is that they are good pollinators as they disperse the pollen further due to their quick movements but even this is offset by a few negative traits. They swarm as many as ten times more frequently than the European bees due to their high rate of reproducing. This makes them less dependable as pollinators. They are also prone to absconding, a type of swarming due to disturbance of any sort such as a passing animal. This results in losses to farmers.

Despite all this, the threat of the killer bees has been reduced by technological developments by scientists that have enabled the to not only keep track of the swarms of killer bees but also to trap and kill them. For example, radar is used is used to monitor the bees and methods are being developed to identify the Africanized bees faster enabling quicker action to be taken against them.

submitted by Charles A. Odada