The Africanized Bee Myth

Beekeeping is on the way to being legalized in Los Angeles. But there’s one issue that keeps coming up: Africanized bees.

African honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) were introduced to the Americas in Brazil in 1957. Over the years, on their journey north, they have hybridized with European honeybees (Apis mellifera). African and hybrid “Africanized” honeybees can’t tolerate cold temperatures so there is a northern boundary to their territory.

Visually, Africanized honeybees are indistinguishable from purebred European varieties. The only way you can tell the difference is through DNA testing. They are just a hybridized subspecies of honeybee.

The hysteria over African honeybees is just that, hysteria. I have helped move many hives here from walls, trees and kitchen vents to people who have wanted to have bees. Most likely, all of the hives I have moved have been Africanized. I have yet to encounter a feral hive that I would consider aggressive. Africanized bees should not be used as an excuse to ban beekeeping in Los Angeles or anywhere else that has Africanized bee populations.

The people fanning the Africanized bee hysteria all have agendas (and, I’ll point out, they have never actually worked with Africanized bees–only killed them). Exterminators want your money. Government bureaucrats need an enemy to justify their jobs and pensions (government vector control “experts” the TSA, NSA and DEA have a lot in common including a bumbling incompetence). Conventional beekeepers are so blinded by honey production and pollination service income that they fail to see the long term evolutionary advantages of African bee genetics, specifically disease resistance. And I can’t help but think there’s a subconscious racism here of the sort that you find at the extreme end of the anti-invasive species movement (see Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn for more on that subject).

Africanized colonies have been living for years in walls, trees and utility boxes of the warmer parts of North America without any human intervention. They have, through the process of natural selection, survived all the problems that have decimated the hives of commercial beekeepers: varroa mite, American Foul Brood, nosema, etc. and I have no doubt they will figure out how to deal with the small hive beetle. Instead of demonizing Africanized colonies, we should see a possible answer to colony collapse disorder. As permaculturalists like to say, in the problem is a solution.

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17 Comments

  1. I agree with you about the hysteria; it’s everywhere. Africanized bees, bird flu from backyard chickens and on and on.

    Nonetheless, to borrow my dad’s microbiology lab researcher hat, I know that there is usually something real behind fears like this. There are confirmed incidents of death related to AHB and there are cases of disease jumping from animals to humans – no matter how rare, they do happen. Being terrified does no one any good, neither does dismissing any risk. Cooler heads really need to assess the available evidence for what is actually true, the only reliable antidote.

    Speaking of mass hysteria, yesterday’s broadcast of “Radiolab” on NPR delved into the 1938 broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”. Everybody knows what happened, but the back story – the real life events that primed the audience to believe the broadcast was a news report – is absolutely fascinating. You can listen here:
    http://www.radiolab.org/story/91622-war-of-the-worlds/

  2. While I agree that the hysteria is overblown, look around at videos of Africanized bees attacking. Talk to beekeepers who have worked with hives that are confirmed Africanized. Speculating that hives in houses and trees must be Africanized is really not very useful. Overblowing the problem is not sound but neither is denying it. Trained beekeepers can manage the situation but suggesting that it’s a non-issue is foolish

  3. Okay, so I have a case of hysteria even thinking about Africanized bees attacking. If being hybridized is not the problem, why do the bees attack? Has there ever been a case of proven domestic honeybees attacking? Why have so many people been killed by bee attacks?

  4. As someone who has worked with Africanized bees in a research context in Arizona, I have to partially disagree with you. The hives we worked with there were so aggressive that we had to wear full bee suits with arms and ankles duct-taped so no bees could get in, and even then we’d occasionally be stung through the fabric of the bee suit (thick cotton). Those ladies were persistent. Perhaps continued hybridization into California has reduced overall aggressiveness, but in any case it’s prudent to exercise caution around hives of unknown origin.

    That said, I still think hobbyist beekeeping should be fine, and as with other domesticated animals, having outbred populations is useful.

    And I also wish more people realized WHY Africanized bees tend to be more dangerous. It isn’t because they’re especially toxic, it’s because they are quicker to initiate defense of their hive, and recruit more bees for defense (and note that SWARMS don’t have anything to defend, as they’re a group of bees looking for a new nest). That translates into more bee stings, which can be fatal if a (non-allergic) person is stung in the realm of 100-200 times. Many of the Africanized bee-associated deaths also happen because people panic and trip and fall while trying to flee.

    On top of all this, here’s why Africanized bees don’t overwinter as well as European: they tend to store less honey. While selecting for honey production should be balanced with other factors (like disease resistance), it’s still an important consideration when selecting hives for beekeeping.

    • Yes the secret with Scuts is the way you work with them, harvesting honey is not a problem, but follow the rules, not on a hot day, always smoke well and work fast yet no fast movements. Yes i have had some hairy cross bees. The strange thing about scuts is you learn to be a good beekeeper, to read the bees, you can not allow them to get aggressive, you must smoke with strategy, ie keeping the majority of the bees in the brood chamber during honey harvests. Simple rule bees that fly will sting, but bees that walk on and around the hive or brood box dont sting. Quite simple. and they are honeys…if you know how to wrok with them…and just take the time to learn how to handle them.

      In africa we need to place our hives very close to each other to protect them form thieves and animals. Often we would place 20 or more hives in a small area. this can lead to serious chaos. But if you smoke them right, and use the smoke as a tool not a weapon of mass destruction. so dont smoke the bees in the the bees so much that they need to fly to breath. bees like sheep need to herded… once you learn how to heard and work with them its quite easy to harvest honey etc or even find the queen in a large hive with out them going crazy

  5. WHY do Africanized bees (or any bees) attack? I have noticed, in many of the reports of this happening, a common thread: the hive has been disrupted in some way. A tree with a hive has fallen; an animal or human has approached a hive too closely in a way that is seen as threatening to the bees; s beekeeper has treated a managed hive “aggressively” in some way; and, most notably, a person or animal may be stung once or twice and then react by screaming, swatting, racing around, acting hysterically, which only agitates the bees even more. I have never personally heard of a bee hive just spontaneously rising up and attacking anything that isn’t obviously threatening them. A cut-out, of course, is a different story, because you can’t expect a bee colony to sit back and watch quietly while you cut up their home, take their food stores, threaten their queen, etc. Some colonies are just plain “mean,” and are best left alone. And yes, sometimes extermination is the only solution, but I think we should all educate ourselves about the other options.

    • Yes there are those with a mean streak…but with careful experience and a good smoker, at the risk of sounding wierd, bees like most wild animals will never be completely domesticated, but they can be trained and and subdued, like a dragon, I would say If you show them who is boss they will surrender, but the trick is the skill full use of smoke. I wish I could Invite you guys to South Africa and demonstrate the techniques we use here..

  6. Even though a hive may not spontaneously rise up and attack, having a hive respond to a threat so aggressively does represent a threat to innocent people or people who accidentally disturb the hive. I know bees are not capable of discerning the innocent person who accidentally causes them to become agitated and the person who does want to steal from them or destroy their hive.

    Young hens always have to try to eat my little toe. When I stomp to make them go away, they do not rally the help of the rest of the flock, usually no more than three other hens, now just one other hen. Patsy Cline will peck me if I try to see if she is sitting on an egg. Thelma never joins her as she squawks and pecks my hand. I am sure there are more aggressive chickens somewhere. If I fell down, they would wait awhile to peck me, probably when I looked like dead meat and I was not feeding them because I was dead in their pen.

    Standing still is not the way most people respond to several bee stings. Even experienced bee keepers have been killed trying to escape bees. I am not even sure if standing still is recommended. Standing still might work with some bears and some dogs, but I have never heard it recommended for bees. I have never heard anyone blame the victim of a dog attack for trying to escape, as it seems the victims of bee attacks are being blamed.

  7. This is silly. I guess they COULD be more aggressive, but maybe WE have not learned to work with them harmoniously like the Europeonized (ha!) bees. I watched a YouTube video some time ago about a gentleman that went to Kenya to learn more about there top bar system. These Kenyans kept several hives, harvested honey regularly, and used NO bees suits. Pretty sure Kenya is in Africa, so…. Not to mention I’ve noted several documentaries in which nomadic and/or tribal African groups collect entire combs from hives in trees-if that won’t upset a hive I don’t know what will. But these people are all alive and well, munching on their honey combs, not suffering from “hundreds” of stings. IMHO, maybe we should observe the bee stewards in Africa and try to emulate them.

  8. Too many people have a single non-incident with an Africanized swarm and start assuming that it’s just a “scare”. I loved my girls and knew the character of each of my eighty seven colonies. Some were pretty nasty come harvest but I’ll still take them over any truly Africanized colony (and no, I’m not talking about any that have interbred with European varieties).

    When they’re swarming they’ve nothing to defend nor the usual numbers they depend upon so they’re not going to attack if they don’t truly have to. However not only are they quicker to defend what is theirs but their larva develop much quicker. Africanized, as we know them, develop in eighteen days whereas European larva take twenty four days. For them it’s just a numbers game and the numbers are on their side. By the time they get well and truly settled they’re not going to leave without a fight.

    I’m in New Mexico (just north of Santa Fe) and I’ve had a few run-ins with Africanize colonies and they’ve been nothing to shake a stick at. The particular colony I’m going to refer to here overwintered one down just south of Albuquerque and once just north of Santa Fe. While summers can be pretty hot the winters here can be fierce with ice, snow, and cold.

    Early on in my beekeeping business we were given a colony from the south end of the state. We were not aware that they were Africanized. The gentleman who gave them to us hadn’t harvested from them in the year he’d had them as he was in the process of closing down his business and didn’t have the time. The bloom had been low that year anyway. They worked well and we never had a problem once we got them settled into their new yard. Until it came time to harvest. That particular colony was one of the few I had in my backyard. That turned out to be a big mistake.

    Those girls were persistent to the point of hitting our windows after dark, chasing neighbors, the pets, and the behavior continued for days on end. While these particular girls produced an abundance of honey (and, oh my, it tasted wonderful!) it was not worth the fallout that came with that single harvest. Sadly, so as not to be the cause of a problem in the north end of the state, we did a midnight transfer to a far off property and drown them. We took some of the bodies to our friends at the labs and they confirmed that, yes, they were Apis mellifera scutellata.

    And a quick note about what Afrizanized bees really are. These are NOT simply bees that are from Africa. These bees were interbred with more hostile bee varieties (non-polinating types) that were native to South America. They did this to create what they hoped to be a stronger bee that could reproduce quickly and pull in a good harvest. The varieties that are currently found in Africa are a mix of the native species, European species, and various hybrids. This is why their not as vicious as the bees we know as being “Africanized”. I wish there was a way to change the name as it does that whole continent quite a disservice.

  9. I am a bee keeper in South Africa, have had more than 600 hives, and found the Scut to be a great bee. yes on occasion they can be aggressive but mostly when provoked. I remove almost 2000 swarms a year, and most of the time i dont wear a veil or protective clothing. Working with Scuts is simple you must be calm, know how to motivate bees with a smoker and they will do what is expected of them namely “to be bees”, to pollinate and produce honey. As you say they dont understand snow…but its a great bee to work with..use them for their abilities to withstand many pests and diseases.

  10. My mother is Brazilian. In our family visits, I watched my uncle, a doctor, pass jars of honey from the countryside to his urban patients. Along with the standard mainstream medicine, he always encouraged his patients to consume natural honey. It was treated as the preventative medicine. Most of the honey came from near his ranch, where Beekeepers worked with Africanized bees. It’s standard operating procedure there but with a few twists from what we’re used to. Beekeepers do tend to keep their hives in more isolated locations and don’t usually beekeep alone. They have a gentle way about them. I have seen US beekeepers handle their hives roughly, with no concern for racket or plopping down hive boxes with no concern for squashing a few. This is not a behavior Brazilian keepers can condone. As a beekeeper now myself (thanks to visits to the Beekeepers with my uncle), I model my behavior after those Brazilians. I usually don’t need a suit. If they are in an especially foul mood, I give them room and come another day. Even when wearing my suit, I tread lightly and quietly with understanding that my mammal self is a natural offense to them. I think keepers who work with Africanized bees have better learned the manners of the bees. Even our gentle Euro only breeds would benefit from that treatment.

  11. Africanized bees are more defensive than traditional honeybees… Their perimeter of defense is much greater… Hence when they aggressively defend against perceived threats… They are perceived as threats.

    If half the human population had been wiped out in a matter of a few years… Wouldn’t you become more defensive?

  12. Thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking argument about the importance of Africanized honeybees to the future of honeybees and beekeeping.

    There are at least two ideas in your piece with which I strongly agree. One of your ideas I strongly disagree with.

    First, you are absolutely correct that Africanized honeybees are a “problem” that is actually “the solution” to this problem. Second, I think that you are correct that Africanized honeybees should not be used as an excuse to ban beekeeping in places like Los Angeles or elsewhere.

    Nevertheless, the sometimes extreme defensiveness of Africanized bees IS a real issue for urban beekeeping in the Southwest. We cannot deal with that reality by believing that such defensiveness does not exist. I agree with you that this defensiveness (imagined or real) has been greatly exaggerated and sensationalized. I also think that we cannot deal with the issue of defensiveness by banning beekeeping in urban areas of the Southwest.

    The problem that Africanized bees can help solve is that the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been over-domesticated, creating a species with a shallow gene pool that is rapidly losing its ability to survive the industrial agricultural system and all of its destructive practices and inputs, like monocultures and systemic pesticides.

    The honeybee is neither domesticated nor wild. It is both. Domesticated species like plants and bees need their wild relatives in order to stay healthy.

    The so-called Africanized honeybee is closer to the wild side of the continuum. Here in the Southwest (northern Arizona) the Africanized honeybee is living among us. I prefer to call these bees “feral.”

    Because of their closer connection to the wild and undomesticated, the feral bees have “all of the long-term evolutionary advantages of African bee genetics,” as you wrote.

    From what I can tell from my own experiences with feral bees here in the Verde River Valley of Arizona, these are very strong and resilient bees. They are disease and varroa mite resistant. They can survive and thrive in difficult arid conditions. They do not suffer from CCD. Africanized bees aren’t supposed to store much honey, but many of these bees create excellent (large) honey surpluses. In essence, they seem to be extremely well-adapted to local environmental conditions.

    Many of these feral, locally adapted colonies are also highly defensive. They are not aggressive, but they are substantially more defensive than the more domesticated, European honeybees. Unlike you, I have encountered feral colonies that were especially defensive. (Feral swarms, like domesticated swarms, are docile).

    When they feel threatened, some of these locally adapted, feral (“Africanized”) honeybees remind me of wildfire. They can kill people and other mammals like horses, chickens, and birds, and have done so on a few occasions. (These stinging incidents are sensationalized in the media, creating the “hysteria” that you mentioned).

    But wildfire is a necessary part of nature, especially in some arid ecosystems, like ponderosa pine forests here in the Southwest. Wildfire (but not catastrophic wildfire) is essential for maintaining ecological health.

    Being both wild and domesticated, honeybees belong to the sacred feminine divine. That part of the sacred brings both life and death into the world, the two being inseparable. That bees bring both life (through pollination, etc.) and death to us (stinging, suffocation, etc.) is part of their sacred mystery. Thus bees should be respected, revered, and celebrated, rather than feared, exploited, killed, or banned.

    Given the severe decline of the health of the domesticated honeybee, especially the industrial agricultural honeybee, whose demise seems near, we need the “wildfire” that comes from the Africanized honeybee, whose strong and resilient genetic roots are coming northward to us from the rest of Latin America (from Mexico southward), going back down to Brazil and across the Atlantic Ocean to mother Africa, where Western science says that the honeybee originated. Our feral, locally adapted, oftentimes more defensive honeybees can survive and thrive here on the northern edge of Latin America (U.S. border notwithstanding).

    I have found that domesticated honeybees “imported” into this part of Arizona from other places (even other Africanized places, like south Texas) just don’t thrive here. Many non-locally adapted honeybees don’t seem to be able to gather enough food to survive, much less to thrive. However, the imported bees are far less defensive and are usually far easier to work with, especially for inexperienced beekeepers.

    It is the sometimes “extreme” and unpredictable defensiveness of the feral honeybee that is “the rub.” How are we going to keep the more highly defensive but locally adapted honeybees in more urban areas here in the Southwest? There are a fair number of novice beekeepers around here who want to keep bees in backyard urban/suburban situations but don’t yet have the experience and training to work with more highly defensive bees successfully. The defensiveness of the feral bees is less of an issue in more rural areas, even at lower elevations, where the Africanized bees “rule.”

    I have two top bar hives in my small semi-urban backyard. The hives are located about ten feet from my kitchen window, and less than one hundred feet from the homes of at least three of our neighbors. If these two colonies were as highly defensive as some of the feral colonies that I am keeping in more rural places, it would be socially problematic, even though I know how best to work with the more defensive bees. So, for now, I making sure that the queens in my two backyard hives are of the imported, more domesticated, non-locally adapted stock. They do well enough. Because I’m not a commercial beekeeper, it’s not important to me that they don’t make a lot of surplus honey.

    In the meantime, I am beginning to work with the more defensive, more locally-adapted “feral” colonies in more rural situations to see if we can do queen breeding/rearing/selection to select for those queens that combine the “wildfire” resilience of the Africanized genes with the less defensive temperament that seems to come from the more domesticated, European genes. We can still find resilient and robust feral colonies that seem less defensive living at higher elevations (above 6,500 ft.) only 30 miles away, on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.

    A synthesis of these two traits would seem to be close to perfect. We would have a robust, resilient, locally adapted honeybee that would also be gentle enough to keep in urban and teaching situations. These urban situations are often good for the bees, because so much more forage is available for them, especially in times of extreme aridity, when adjacent wildlands are parched and the land yields little if any nectar and pollen.

    Besides working to create a more locally adapted and less defensive bee, we also need to continue learning “best practices” for how to work successfully with more defensive bees, especially in urban situations. We also need to continue learning how to teach others about bees and others about how they can go about being organic/holistic beekeepers themselves, as part of a larger community. (I teach top bar beekeeping).

    …Thanks again for your thoughts about the Africanized honeybee in the context of legalizing/banning beekeeping in Los Angeles, y viva las abejas!

    Wado,
    Patrick

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