Killer Bees

Killer Bees

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Several years ago, there was a great deal of publicity about so-called “killer bees,” especially as swarms of these aggressive bees continued their migrations northward through Central America and into the southern United States. As a result of hastily spread misconceptions, and some bad Hollywood productions, an overall climate of fear was generated; some people even began to see normal honey bees as possible agents of mayhem and destruction. However, as the anticipated catastrophe never materialized, stories about killer bees returned to the back pages of newspapers, and little is heard about them anymore.
Killer bees are still with us and they continue to migrate, but they have not significantly disrupted existing bee populations or caused other major hazards. A “killer bee” is an Africanized honey bee: a hybrid of African honey bees and various European bees. These bees were first introduced into the wild in the Americas in Brazil, in 1957, by accident. A beekeeper in Minas Gerais State, Brazil, was attempting to interbreed various strains of honey bees from Europe and southern Africa, to create a strain that would be suitable to tropical climates. Several Africanized queen and drone bees were accidentally released, however; they began to interbreed with local Brazilian bees, and have been spreading ever since.
Killer Bees
Killer Bee
Although the Africanized hybrids are more productive than bees native to the Americas, they also exhibit character traits from their African ancestors that are less beneficial. Bees in Africa have developed more aggressive traits, as they have had to defend themselves against a wider range of predatory insects, honey badgers, and humans, who in Africa have tended not to harvest honey from domestic hives but to steal honey from wild hives, destroying the colonies in the process. The colonies most likely to survive these threats have been the fiercest ones, and thus ferocity has been a naturally selected characteristic of African Honey bees.
Africanized bees are more defensive of their hives, and they are more likely to attack a perceived threat. They attack relentlessly in large numbers, pursuing victims up to a quarter mile away from their hive, and they remain agitated for longer periods of time. Because of their aggressive behavior, Africanized bees can indeed be dangerous, particularly to people who are allergic to bees. However, a sting from an Africanized bee is no more potent than a sting from any other honey bee; the danger is, you are more likely to be stung. A victim of an Africanized bee attack may receive ten times as many stings as he or she would from an attack by European bees, and at least 1,000 people have been killed by Africanized bees in the Americas since they were first introduced here.

The biggest danger of Africanized bees is to existing colonies of Western honey bees. Migrating Africanized bees tend to take over existing bee colonies, invading hives and killing the existing queen. This creates hazards for beekeepers, who depend on the reliability and stability of their colonies to produce honey and other bee byproducts. Some beekeepers in Mexico have learned to breed their European queens with wild African drones, producing generations of worker bees that are more manageable and “tame” than wild Africanized bees. In this way, it is possible to domesticate the Africanized bees.
Africanized bees continue to spread throughout the United States. In 2002, the bees had spread through much of Texas and into New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Five years later, they had begun to migrate east of Texas, into Arkansas and Louisiana. And in October 2010, a 73-year-old man was stung to death by a swarm of Africanized bees in southern Georgia, the first reports of these bees in that state. However, because Africanized bees were originally bred for tropical climates, they only compete effectively with European bees in warmer climates. As they migrate further north, they interbreed more often with European bees, and bee populations in some regions have begun to stabilize, either dominated by Africanized bees or European bees or hosting a mixture of the two strains.
Nevertheless, there is still uncertainty with regard to further migrations of the Africanized bees, or whether they will be able to adapt to colder climates.

What should you do if you are attacked by a swarm of Africanized bees? You may be able to outrun them; they are slower than European bees. Don’t run toward other people, as you will subject them to attack as well. And don’t try to escape the bees by plunging into a river or lake; they will swarm overhead and wait for you to surface. If you are allergic to bee stings and you are stung, get to a hospital quickly. Even if you are not allergic, repeated stings can be dangerous.