THE BLOG

'Killer' Bees May Do More Saving Than Killing!

08/19/2014 06:09 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2014
  • Chevy Humphrey President & CEO, Arizona Science Center; Board Chair, Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC)
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Yes, it's true. Bees can sometimes be scary, especially the more defensive species like the Africanized honey bee, or "killer" bee, that many of us in Arizona have heard about. And after coming across a hive of over a thousand of them in my attic, I personally understand that fear. But since that encounter, I've been spending some time really thinking about this hybrid species and what implications they have in my life and in my surrounding environment. How has the introduction of this species shaped our relationship with bees, our perceptions of the honey bee, and our ecology? What might future bee populations look like, and how might that affect agriculture? But why, really, are we so afraid of them? Are these bees really all that bad?

Before we dig deeper into these issues, let's go over what exactly the Africanized honey bee is. This is a hybrid species that first emerged in 1956 when a Brazilian geneticist, Dr. Warwick Kerr, was asked to genetically engineer a honey bee that could survive the tropical climate of Brazil by breeding African honey bees with various species of the European honey bee. His hopes were to combine positive genetic traits from each honey bee: the gentleness of the European honey bee and the ability to withstand tropical climates like that of the African honey bee. Sounds like a great idea, but what went wrong? In 1957, 26 swarms of the hybrid bees escaped. Breeding led to bees with a higher degree of defensive behavior than was anticipated, and spreading north through Central America and into Texas, Arizona, and California was underway.

Africanized honey bees are difficult to distinguish based on physical attributes alone. They inject the same type of venom as the European honey bee, and they pollinate crops the same way, yet their overly protective behavior has instilled fear inmany as the sheer number of bee stings that a swarm may inflict can turn deadly. I've purposely steered clear of labeling them as "aggressive," because I do not wish to perpetuate the misconception that appears to exist: These Africanized bees do not seek out people to attack; they are more easily provoked and respond to a perceived threat to their hive. Yes, this often ends up in a much more dangerous swarm than the more docile European honey bees, but perhaps there are things we can do to be more mindful and cautious so as not to appear threatening? This is where awareness, proper management, and a shift in how we live with these bees is needed.

I don't want to diminish the very real threat that Africanized honey bees can pose in the event that an attack does occur, as Africanized honey bees tend to respond very strongly when threatened and have resulted in deaths, but I also feel that it is necessary to shed light on the importance that they may play in the future of agriculture. Since 2006 we have been faced with a decline in honey bee populations, and researchers have been focused on finding a reason behind what we now refer to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Even the White House is concerned with the future of honey bee populations; in fact, on June 26 President Obama announced the Pollinator Health Task Force to help with declines in bee populations. So here's the problem: If honey bees in fact were to disappear, more than 70 of 100 food crops that feed Americans would have a much more difficult -- if not impossible -- time achieving pollination. Often honey bees are the primary pollinator. And in case you were curious, coffee yields can increase by 50 percent with the aid from honey bee pollinators. More coffee is reason enough to protect our buzzing friends, right?

So, clearly, we do face some problems in the agricultural industry if we decide to ignore the problem. But how might Africanized bees play a part in this issue? After all, it seems Africanized bees are here to stay, and we might as well take the time to understand some of the positives we could be faced with. And, at the very least, we need to learn how to adapt management methods to utilize these bees in the right ways.

There has been growing research suggesting that Africanized honey bees may be superior to European honey bees in terms of sustaining the colonies that are faced with threats from pathogens, pests like Varroa mites, and pesticides. Stephen Martin and Luis Medina found in 2004 that Africanized honey bees do indeed have a unique resistance to Varroa mites. You can view the study here. The Varroa mite is an external parasite that feeds off the blood of adults and developing brood, weakening and killing the ones that they feed from. Weakening the bees could make them more susceptible to pathogens and harmful effects from pesticide use. And in Kenya, researchers have also found this innate resistance to Varroa mites, along with resistance to various pathogens and pesticides in their native African species.

There is a lot of information out there steering us in the direction of the idea that Africanized honey bees might just be the superior pollinator to the European honey bee. In Africanized colonies, more energy is spent on rearing brood and colony growth, while honey production tends to take somewhat of a backseat. But Africanized honey bees still produce honey, and it's important to keep that in mind when we consider potential economic impacts of this invasive species. Although this has not yet occurred in the U.S., beekeepers in South and Central America have embraced the Africanized honey bee through modifications to their management practices, and some South American countries are among top honey producers in the world. This seems like the route we need to take to ensure that pollination of important crops can continue while safely maintaining hives to reduce the threats they pose.

Overall, yes, I do worry about the displacement of docile European honey bees by Africanized honey bees and how that might affect biodiversity and the local ecology. But I also feel that this is something currently beyond our control, and it is in our best interest to understand fully how we can work together to create a positive experience out of this. With Colony Collapse Disorder in full swing, having a species of bee that can survive what our European friends can't may be an important solution -- or it may at least direct us toward an important solution. What are your thoughts? Most importantly, never stop wondering.

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