The African Advantage: In Which Immigrant Queen Bees Are Still Arguably Mean Bees
Weiss, Rick, Science News
The African Advantage
Suspended among the treetops from a blue balloon and disguised as a rain cloud, Pooh got pretty close to his honeycomb goal before reporting the bad news to Christopher Robin that "the bees are now definitely Suspicious."
Suspicious, for bees, means ready to sting. And nowadays, many beekeepers in South and Central America are finding their bees Suspicious with a capital S. Indeed, some beekeepers have concluded, like Pooh, that theirs are flat-out "the wrong sort of bees."
In many cases, they are right.
The problem is African honeybees. These easily agitated, aggressively stinging insects have gradually spread northward since their introduction into South America in 1956. Swarming roughshod over the countryside, they've been taking over hives inhabited by the more docile, local bees while stinging to death a few hundred people along the way.
With their killer reputations preceding them, the bees' imminent arrival in the United States has stirred considerable concern among entomologists, beekeepers and laypeople alike. But despite years of intensive study using sophisticated molecular tests, researchers have yet to agree on the degree of threat these bees pose to the U.S. beekeeping industry or to the general public.
Most important, insect geneticists have yet to determine the extent to which African honeybees are interbreeding with the more easily managed New World honeybees, most of which derive from European ancestors. Initially, entomologists reckoned that the African bee's irritable demeanor might get diluted after sufficient hybridization with its European cousins. Those hopes dwindled last year with the publication of two reports finding little genetic evidence of such interbreeding. New, unpublished research from U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists contradicts those findings, but not everyone agrees that the USDA data reflect a broader genetic reality.
Now, with the first swarms of African bees expected to cross from Mexico into Texas within the next few months, entomologists are becoming increasingly agitated themselves. Faced with conflicting data painting very different pictures of critical genetic trends, they cannot reach a consensus on how to deal with the influx of expatriate insects.
"The USDA is pretty defensive about this," says H. Glenn Hall, an entomologist with the University of Florida in Gainesville. The federal agency has introduced large numbers of European bees into Mexico, with hopes of enhancing hybridization rates. And in an effort to buy time while hybridization occurs, USDA researchers have deployed bee traps in the countryside and "hit squads" in some cities to capture and kill African swarms moving through Mexico. While agency officials say their strategy has slowed the insects' advance, Hall contends they have little to show for their efforts.
Still, he says, "I'm not sure any effort would have worked. This is a major biological phenomenon. You're talking about trying to stop the tide with a bailing bucket."
The tide began its rise in southern Brazil, where Italian honeybees, although appreciated for their good temperament, have proved poor honey producers. In 1956, Brazilian scientists imported 46 South African queen bees as part of a program to breed a better bee--a placid but prolific producer well adapted to South American conditions. The program backfired when 26 queens escaped from the lab into the jungle. The rest is entomological history.
Three decades and 7,000 miles later, the progeny of the escapees are camped just south of the U.S. border. The closest colonies spent this past winter about 150 miles south of Brownsville, Tex. And with African swarms capable of migrating up to 100 miles at a stretch, U.S. entomologists say they expect the first arrivals this year.
But what kind of bees, exactly, will the newcomers be?
"Originally, we anticipated there'd be a lot of interaction and the African bees would pick up European traits," says Orley R. …