When this summer rolls around in Southern California, the season may bring more than hot weather and bougainvillea. Migrating steadily northward for years, swarms of Africanized “killer” bees have crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. Large colonies have already been spotted in Arizona and are expected to reach California this fall, perhaps sooner.
American authorities are waging war at the front, trying desperately to trap and kill the winged aliens. But here in Brazil, where the notorious migration began, beekeepers in prosperous farming communities are enjoying another fruitful season of honey production.
“Before the Africanized bees arrived, beekeeping was a hobby in Brazil,” said Lionel Goncalves, a geneticist at the University of Sao Paulo’s rural campus in Riberao Preto, Latin America’s leading research center for apiculture--the process of raising bees for honey.
“Now it is a thriving business,” said Goncalves. Honey production in Brazil has increased from about 6,500 tons a year, before the arrival of African bees, to 40,000 tons a year today.
The bees that are terrifying North Americans are the direct descendants of 26 queens from Africa that Brazilian entomologist Warwick Kerr imported for research purposes in 1956, then accidentally released. Until then, it was European bees, brought by Brazil’s Old World immigrants, that dominated the apiaries here. Then came a genetic coup d’etat, a case of what Alfred W. Crosby, an environmental historian from the University of Texas at Austin has called “ecological imperialism.”
The smaller, faster African bees out-flew their Italian and German rivals and mated with the European queens. So, in a few generations, Brazil’s bee population was almost entirely “Africanized.” These bees, known in entomological shorthand as Africanized Honey Bees, or AHBs, flourish in tropical climates, where they quickly dominate other bee colonies, but are not known to advance into colder regions.
The Africanized bees are far more agile and aggressive than their larger, lumbering European counterparts. Bee for bee, they are no more ornery or venomous than European bees, but they are renowned for attacking in strength, and occasionally stinging to death, any intruders on their turf. Pursuing their prey for up to half a mile, they have terrorized farmers, killed thousands of livestock and reportedly stung to death as many as a thousand people in the past three decades throughout the Americas.
It was this untoward behavior that became the stuff of horror movies and screaming tabloid articles and earned these insects their fearsome moniker.
But these killers do not faze Pedro de Assis Caetano. Dressed in padded white overalls and a nylon-netted hood, Caetano plucked a dusky honey bee off the back of a fellow worker and placed it on his own bare forearm. The angry bee lowered its abdomen, unsheathed its stinger and squeezed a yellowish venom into the exposed flesh.
“See how he pumps?” said Caetano, casually waving a gloved hand through a buzzing black cloud of bees. “He only stops when all the venom is gone.”
If this had been a Hollywood movie set, Caetano would be writhing on the ground, mugging for the camera in a fit of fatal anaphylactic shock. So it is in the 1978 horror film, “The Swarm,” in which killer bee attacks claim 37,000 lives, provoke the explosion of a nuclear power plant and set all of Houston ablaze.
But this was a thriving commercial apiary in bucolic Riberao Preto, Brazilian honey country and for more than three decades the home of the scutellata bee species--the Africanized honey bee. Caetano, who works eight hours a day collecting honey from the combs of these dreaded bugs, said he is stung so often--normally, 30 or 40 times a day--that he has developed an immunity to the venom. “I don’t even feel it anymore,” he shrugged.
Not all Brazilian beekeepers are so ready to offer up bare flesh to the bees. Yet after more than three decades of working with Africanized bees, Brazilian scientists and apiculturists say the Africanized bees are more feared than they are understood.
“I call these bees defensive not aggressive,” said geneticist Goncalves. “In the first years, we had a lot of trouble with these bees, but now beekeepers prefer the Africanized bees.”
In Brazil, as in other countries, the takeover by Africanized bees at first threw beekeepers into a state of confusion, if not panic, and as they learned to deal with the invasion their honey production tumbled. Here it fell from 6,500 tons in 1957 to 4,120 tons in 1974.
Slowly, however, man and bee came to terms, and honey output climbed steadily to about 40,000 tons last year, making Brazil the world’s seventh-largest producer and the third in Latin America behind Mexico and Argentina. There are some European bees surviving in the temperate latitudes of South America--in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay--but in subtropical and tropical countries like Brazil, the Africanized bees reign.
According to the apiculturists, the Africanized bees have the advantage of being faster and more efficient pollinators and collectors of nectar, and so produce far more honey than the European bees.
Manoel Tavares Ferreira, who has worked with Africanized bees for three decades, said that when he started in beekeeping as a boy in the 1960s, his Italian bee colonies produced about 44 pounds of honey per hive per year. Then came the more vigorous Africanized bees, and Tavares’ pastime became a cottage industry and then a going business. He calls it Apis Flora.
His home on the edge of Riberao Preto is something of a monument to his metier. Daily, his work teams haul in truckloads of combs to Apis Flora, a processing factory and wholesale store installed in the basement of his two-story house, which is made with honey-colored bricks and hexagonally shaped windows that look like cells of a beehive. With his downy brown beard and mustache, Tavares has even taken on a bee-like aspect himself.
“We got stung a lot at first, but now we know how to manage the Africanized bees,” he said fondly.
Tavares’ bees produce an average of 138 pounds of honey per hive per year, more than three times the average output of the European bees. Some of his African queens reign over super-colonies, which turn out better than 220 pounds a hive annually.
In 1993, Tavares’ 980 hives yielded 52.4 tons of honey and total sales of $1.2 million. Working with entomologists, Tavares said he hopes by 1995 to produce kinder bees and still maintain high productivity.
North Americans have known about the inevitable migration of the Africanized bee into the subtropical zones of the United States since the late 1960s. A 1972 report of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the Brazilian bee was “dangerous to people and animals and is difficult to manage,” and recommended exterminating the Africanized Honey Bees.
Since then, U.S. agriculture authorities have occasionally asked scientists in Brazil about the nature of the AHBs. “Many people take advantage of the sensationalism and fear to win research funding,” said David de Jong, an American entomologist at the university apiculture center in Riberao Preto. “But they never once came to us for management solutions.”
Rather than trying to trap and kill the bees, he said, American officials ought to be working with local beekeepers to teach them how to manage the Africanized bees and educate the public on how to stay out of harm’s way. “It’s no good to get dressed up in a moon suit and have your neighbors stung,” said De Jong.
Part of the answer may be, paradoxically, to encourage the keeping of Africanized bees. “The absence of apiaries will favor the spread of wild bee colonies, which will nest in trees, fields and homes,” said De Jong. “That could really cause some problems.”
Even if they wanted to, it is doubtful that authorities could stop the Africanized bee Anschluss. Everywhere they have gone in the tropics, these bees have toppled European colonies and established their own empires. But while Texans tremble, and Californians soon may, beekeepers in Central and South America have learned to live with, and even covet, their invaders.
Tavares’ Apis Flor has plans to create an African queen bank, to preserve and then sell the best-producing stock. At one apiculture fair in southern Brazil, an Africanized queen bee was auctioned off at the startling price of about $400. By contrast, a European queen sells on the commercial market for about $7 to $8.
Mexico took a cue from the Brazilians and recently placed orders for 100,000 African queens from Brazil.
“Historically, when Africanized bees arrive, societies suffer,” said De Jong. “Then they get used to them.”
Brazil’s Honey Production Estimates, in tons:
*Imported African bees are accidentally released in Rio Claro, Brazil.
Source: Brazilian Agriculture Confederation