The whole scenario sounded like a made-to-order Hollywood horror movie, beginning with a well-intentioned Brazilian scientist, Warwick Kerr, who dreamed of developing a more productive strain of honey bee in his country. So he imported some African bees, noted for their more productive work ethic, and began to breed what he hoped would be a superior worker bee. Apparently, he succeeded, for under the right climate, his hybridized bees outperformed the non-hybridized bees.
Things were going smoothly until a hired beekeeper, who knew nothing about Kerr’s special traps to keep the Brazilian queen bees apart from the Africans, removed the safety guards, allowing the bees to escape and intermingle. By the time the bungling had been discovered, the harm was irreparable and irreversible.
From that bad stumble in 1957, African bees, hybridized with far milder Italian and other European bees, began their trek northward, arriving in Texas in 1985. To the chagrin of regular beekeepers, the hybrids maintained their ferocious defensive temperament that surfaced whenever their hive came under threat or assault. All South and Central America, as well as the United States, immediately began to hear and fear the worst. Cheap killer bee movies only fanned the flames.
Reportedly, because they have so many natural enemies in Africa, African bees and hybrids as well are extremely defensive and combative about safeguarding their hive. Though their venom is no stronger, much more of it is injected into a victim because so innumerably many more bees attack and sting at once. The fury of the attacking bees urges them to excrete pheromones that trigger a united reaction of mass and sustained bursts of fury accounting for total deaths estimated at 1000; that is, the estimated total of all the deaths caused by killer bees in their history.
Not content with attacking and stinging near their hive, they pursue the luckless person or animal for up to ¼ mile before giving up the chase. Jumping into a body of water is said to be of little good, for the furious bees will wait for the person to surface. I must admit that I think I know enough about swimming to make a large body of water work, although I definitely do not want to be put to the test.
But a strange thing or two happened along the way as the African killer bees pressed their power move, Africanizing the European bee colonies along their route and changing the complexion and behavior of all the bees they hybridized. At one end of the spectrum, the Africans made it to the island Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1994 and, oddly, began to lose their aggressiveness. They killed four persons in the first four years, but none in the last ten years. Isolated from other land masses and populated by fewer predators, the environment caused the Africanized bees to relax, lose their aggression and become milder, almost like the European bees.
As Malcolm T. Sanford writes in ‘Beekeeping in Brazil: A Slumbering Giant Awakens,’ “Brazilians have come to prefer this bee due to its capacity to adapt to many of the ecosystems found in the country and its inherent tolerance to parasites and diseases. It continues to confound many elsewhere and delight Brazilians that the Varroa mite (Varroa destructor), although universally present, does not result in wholesale deaths of colonies. As a result, there is no need to chemically treat colonies.” This is already THE justification for bee Africanization in Brazil, and it is good news against mites killing our home bees at a frightful, extinction-destined rate, crippling farmers’ production of crops dependent on bee pollination. Herein lies the most important part of the story of which the media seems oblivious.
Between the curious cases of Africanized bees in Puerto Rico and the other end of the spectrum, the advance of the killer bees caused every reaction from fear and terror to Ho-hum. In short, the hysteria experienced shortly after the accidental release of the African Bees in Brazil in 1957 hit a crescendo of dire expectations in the 1960s and 1970s, but quietly petered out to a whimper that made no news at all.
Have you noticed that we hardly hear of African/Africanized killer bees anymore? Human sacrificial lambs along the way are barely footnotes, except for the bereaved.
True, at some points along the way, there were terrifying accounts of killer bee attacks on unsuspecting folks who accidentally disturbed a hive of Africanized bees. But these events are now too isolated to be newsworthy. But newsworthy indeed is the sweet fact that bee business in Brazil is humming and thriving. “All’s well that ends well in the world of bees!” if we may parody Shakespeare.
Rev. Jerome LeDoux, SVD
“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)