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Bee Researchers Make Friends with a Killer

Latin America finds Africanized killer bees are better honey producers than expected



Wikimedia Commons/County of San Diego

In the Mexican highlands, nestled between towering cliffs blanketed with verdant temperate jungle, is the tiny mountain town of Tepotzlan. Home to an ancient Aztec outpost high in the mountains and inhabited with monkeylike creatures called coatis, it is the definition of quaint, picturesque Mexico.

It’s also a great place to buy honey. Most honey you buy on Mexican streets isn’t the genuine article—it is honey-flavored syrup. For the real stuff, you have to go down a small side street in Tepotzlan and wander around asking for the “mujer de miel”—the honey lady. Eventually you find her house, a bland wall facing the street, guarded by a massive angry dog. But inside, her courtyard is friendly, lined with bushy plants and flowers of every type. The honey lady is thin and elderly but sharp as a tack. Ten dollars buys you the best honey in town and a few minutes to talk beekeeping.

Bees in Mexico, she says, aren’t what they used to be. Her hives don’t produce like they once did and entire colonies often fly away before she can even harvest their honey. “The problem,” she says, “is the Africanized bees.”

It’s been almost 30 years since Africanized (often called “killer”) bees first landed in Mexico. It took them just seven years to take over the country and cause an extended media panic in the U.S. In the end, they invaded southern states such as Texas and Arizona but were halted by colder winters north of there.

For most of us, the story ends here. European honeybees, favored by most beekeepers in Latin American and the U.S., however, have pretty much disappeared from Mexico and points south—leading to steep declines in the collection of honey. Except that’s not the end of the story.

Although Mexico’s honey exports initially dropped by more than 50 percent when the Africanized bees arrived, production has since recovered to 75 percent of historical levels. During that time the Africanized bee has built a sort of fan club among many Latin American researchers. “In my experience these bees are better producers than European ones,” Javier Quezada-Euán, a bee expert at the Autonomous University of Yucatán, wrote in an e-mail. “[But] it is much easier to blame the bee than the bad management techniques.” Quezada-Euán and others believe the arrival of the Africanized bee in the Americas may turn out to have been blessing in disguise.

Accidental invasion

Apis mellifera, or the common honeybee, has dozens of subspecies originating in Africa, Europe and Asia. The most well known is the Italian honeybee (A. mellifera ligustica), which is found in most U.S. beehives. It’s a fat, docile bee that stores massive amounts of honey so as to wait out long winters. Groups of these bees tend to look for the big haul, using complex communication signals to descend on rich clusters of flowers all at once.

But just as many (if not more) honeybee types come from Africa. In the 1950s Brazilian researchers brought one of those—A. mellifera scutellata—to a laboratory to help breed a better, hardier New World bee. But the African bees escaped. These so-called “killer” bees were faster, more scrappy and far more resilient. They breed fast, are less picky about flowers, and move quickly—abandoning hives and splitting them like dividing cells whenever they have enough honey. And they defend their hives with a passion.

Far more at home in the tropics than the Italian bees, they swept through 20 countries, moving 300 to 500 kilometers north per year and arguably became the most successful invasive species of the 20th century. They hit Mexico in 1986 and by 1993 had pushed out the European bee. “The dream of working with European bees is part of the past, at least for Mexican beekeepers,” says Ernesto Guzman, head of the Honey Bee Research Center at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “If you want to make comparisons between then and now, beekeeping was more profitable, the cost of production was lower. It was more pleasant to work with European bees, there were less stinging incidents.”

And yet the Africanized bees had more to offer than most people realized at first. For one thing, they groom themselves more often than Italian bees, making them less likely to get sick from mites and other parasites. For another, they don’t mind the rougher conditions of a desert or rainforest. “The European bee will just starve to death, the Africanized bee is foraging, bringing things in, and getting by. It doesn’t give up, it’s not an all-or-nothing kind of bee,” says David Roubik, a veteran bee researcher who has worked throughout Latin America. In the 1980s he was alarmed at the appearance of the invaders at his sites in French Guiana and thought it might be the end of the native fauna. But after decades of work he says the bee may actually be improving the availability of a lot of flowers. He showed that coffee, for instance, has flourished under these new bees.

He and other African bee lovers say it is not even accurate to call them Africanized bees anymore. After decades of a massive and uncontrollable continent-wide wild breeding experiment, the African-Italian hybrid has morphed into a totally new bee unlike either parent species. “It does not look exactly like any other kind of honeybee that has ever been on Earth,” Roubik says. “The Brazilians know this very well. And they’re quite happy with the bee that it’s turned into. But it’s been a long and painful road and it was totally out of control.”

A new five-year project led by Mexico’s National Institute of Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research aims to test this. Rather than lamenting the loss of the fat and lazy European bee or fighting the scary African one, scientists are trying to breed new varieties of Mexican bees. “They think this is the best thing that ever happened to them in Brazil,” says Jose Luis Uribe Rubio, a lead researcher in the project who works out of the northern state of Querétaro. “In biological terms it is a superorganism. In terms of competition it’s better than the European bees.”

Uribe Rubio envisions Mexican bees that mix the best qualities of African and European bees, each specifically suited to a part of Mexico. For instance, in the south honey thievery (by humans) is rampant and many beekeepers prefer a more aggressive African bee that adeptly defends its hive. Places where mites are rampant, keepers like a bee that obsessively cleans itself. “Once we conclude this program, we want to have commercial fecund queens that we can send to the southeast or to the coast or the mountains or to the desert, etcetera,” he says.

Part of this will involve extensive breeding programs (which work better in desert regions than in jungles, where there are lots of wild bees messing up the gene pool) and part will involve educating beekeepers and fighting a stereotype that African bees are always bad and European ones good.

To avoid losing hives, beekeepers will have to watch the flowers and harvest the honey on nature’s schedule rather than theirs. They’ll have to move the hives apart and wear more protective gear. But in the end, it may result in a better bee—which, ironically, was the reason the African bees were brought to the New World in the first place.

“We need to come to the resolution and acceptance that this is the kind of bee we have now,” Guzman says. “That’s it. Period. Let’s work with it—let’s do the best we can do now.”

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