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One of the ongoing horror stories from when I was in middle school was the invasion of the Africanized killer bees. In retrospect, it all sounds like a xenophobic horror movie from the 1950s, but people were truly alarmed back in the 80s. There were sensationalist news stories featuring the death of children and animated maps of the killer bees spreading unstoppably across America. The narrative was that mad scientists in South America had hybridized super-aggressive African bees with European bees in an attempt to create superbees (better able to survive in the tropics and produce more honey). These “Africanized” bees then escaped and started heading north, killing innocent humans and devastating local hives as they invaded.
The amazing thing about this story is that it is all true. In the 1950s a biologist named Warwick E. Kerr imported 26 queen bees (of subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata) from the Great Lakes area of Africa to Brazil. A replacement beekeeper allowed the queens to escape in 1957 and they began to interbreed with local bees (of the European subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Apis mellifera iberiensis). The resulting hybridized bees were indeed better able to survive the tropics and quicker to reproduce, but they were also more defensive of their hives, more inclined to sting, and more likely to swarm (i.e. get together in a big angry cloud and fly off somewhere else when they felt unhappy). The killer bees (for want of a better term) could more readily live like wild bees in ground cavities and hollow trees. The hybrid bees out-competed local honeybees and spread across the continent. Sometimes aggressive queens would enter domestic hives and kill the old queen and take over!
Although Ancient Egypt may have been an early adapter of apiculture, Sub Saharan African societies did not practice beekeeping but hewed to the ancient tradition of bee-robbing. The African subspecies of honeybees came from a more challenging environment than the European subspecies. Forced to contend with deep droughts and fiendish predators (like the infamously stubborn honey badger), the bees are more defensive and more mobile than their northern counterparts. Apis mellifera scutellata is famous for not backing down from raiders but instead stinging them with dogged determination until the intruder flees far from their hive. This has led to unfortunate instances of children, infirm adults, and people with bee allergies falling down and being stung to death (which sounds like a really bad end) by the American hybrid. The sting of an Africanized bee is no more puissant than that of a European honeybee (and it also results in the death of the bee) but dozens—or hundreds—of stings can add up to kill a healthy adult.
The entire Africanized bee event was really a case of anti-domestication. Imagine if everyone’s dogs were suddenly replaced by wolves or if placid white-and-black cows were supplanted by ravening aurochs. If you follow that bizarre thought to its logical conclusion, you will anticipate what actually happened. Although initially dismayed, Brazilian beekeepers began to discover more placid strains of Africanized bees and started to redomesticate them. The hybrid bees do indeed produce more honey, survive droughts better, and it is believed they have a greater resistance to the dreaded colony collapse sweeping through honey bee population. Perhaps in the fullness of time we will learn to love the infamous killer bees.
Velvet ants (Mutillidae) are not actually ants at all—the insects are classified as wasps even though female velvet ants do not have wings and appear to be tiny furry colorful ants. The Mutillidae family of wasps—which is made up of more than 3000 species– illustrates how closely wasps, bees, and ants are actually related. Male velvet ants look nothing like the females but are much larger winged creatures resembling other wasps. So great is the sexual dimorphism between the genders that it took entomologists a tremendously long time to pair the females with the males, and in many species the connection has still not been made by science. The genders do however both share a ridged structure called a stridulitrum, which can be rubbed or struck to produce chirps and squeaks for communication.
Female velvet ants are notable not just for their colorful fur but for their tremendously powerful sting which is so painful that they are nicknamed “cow killers.” Male velvet ants look like wasps but do not sting. The exoskeletons of velvet ants are tremendously hard to such an extent that some entomologists have reportedly found it difficult to drive pins through specimens. The dense hard coating helps the females invade the underground burrows of larger bees and wasps which the velvet ants sting and lay eggs on. When the velvet ant larvae hatch they feed on the paralyzed victims before metamorphosing into adult form and venturing into the world.
Velvet ants are found in warmer parts of the world particularly deserts. The majority of species are red and black but a variety of other colors are known including blue, gold, orange, and white. Unlike the social ants and termites, velvet ants are generally solitary, coming together only to reproduce with their strangely alien mates.