killer_2Dbee

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.

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

An animated map of the spread of killer bees (uploaded to Wikipedia by uploaded by Huw Powell)

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!

Don't make her angry!

Don’t make her angry!

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.

(largely) satiric

(largely) satiric

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.

Africanized "friend" bees?

Africanized “friend” bee?