BY JAMES E. TEW, Ph.D.
(reprinted with permission from the AMA Meadmaker, Summer 1987)
In 1957, a project was undertaken to establish a more productive honey bee in Brazil. Queens from various parts of Africa were imported to San Paulo, Brazil and introduced into colonies in experimental apiaries. For reasons not totally understood, 26 colonies were freed from restricting devices and queens, drones and workers were allowed free flight.
What followed was, and is, a biological phenomenon. Subesquent generations of bees showed characteristics of the African stock more than the characteristics of the docile European strains that had been in Brazil prior to the introduction of the African stock. In fact, feral colonies became infamous for agressively defending their hives.
Mass stinging attacks, some resulting in human deaths were reported. While deaths were rare, the publicity of the stinging episodes and the increased management problems made beekeeping very difficult in Brazil.
Although the commercial beekeeping industry declined, the aggressive activities of the feral colonies increased. Reports of stinging attacks persisted in areas where bees had become "hybridized" and the populations of these bees began to move in northward and southward directions. In each new area where they became established, the scenario has been the same. Docile colonies become aggressive and difficult to manage, stinging reports are more common and the national beekeeping industry is disrupted.
The bees are currently in Central America and southern Mexico. No one knows how far north the Africanized bees may survive in the United States. It is anticipated, however, that migratory beekeepers will reintroduce them every year in the northern states. In general, there is agreement that the bees will arrive in the US. in some form and will present a problem in those areas of establishment. No one knows how great a problem this will be.
Estimates are that they will survive as far north as North Carolina and possibly as far north as Ohio and Michigan.
As bad as publicity has been in South and Central America, it will be worse in North America. "Killer Bee" movies were, for a while, a popular movie theme in the US. Much of the negative attitude currently exhibited by the public could well be a result of those early accounts of stinging attacks. The discovery of isolated colonies of hybridized bees in California in 1985 was a major news item for several months.
Africanized bees are a problem in areas where they are established. But, if scientists are given time to develop solutions, these problems are not insurmountable research assignments. Because of the negative publicity, however, some researchers and beekeepers are concerned that the time needed for research to develop new management techniques will not be available.
Dr. Tew is Coordinator of the Commercial Beekeeping program at Ohio State University's Agricultural Technical Institute and Cooperative Extension Specialist in Apiculture
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