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africanized bees

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This topic contains 7 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Chelsea McFarland 4 years, 5 months ago.

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    Stephanie Merz

    Hi all,
    My husband just built a top bar hive and we are interested in attracting a feral colony. However, he’s extremely worried that we’ll attract africanized bees who will be aggressive with neighbors and neighborhood cats. I’ve done homework on them, and from what I can tell, it’s not really a concern. I’ve read about (and talked with others) about attracting a healthy feral colony (africanized or not). Any suggestions about feral bees vs. online bees? And what’s with all the hype about africanized bees? Are they really something to worry about or not?


    Rob McFarland

    Hi Stephanie,

    When using feral bees we can’t be certain of their genetics in the way that we can when we order bees from a breeder who has artificially inseminated their queens. In Los Angeles, it is likely that feral bees will have mixed genetics which are a combination of the many varieties of honey bees. I hesitate to use the word “Africanized” because it has been so stigmatized and sensationalized in our media, but it is likely that the feral bee genetic soup includes genes of the African honey bee. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they will therefore be overly aggressive and sting your neighbors and their cats, it just means that they are slightly more defensive of their hive than the dopily docile commercial bees (which, by the way, can have a bad day too and get just as riled up). All bees are capable of mounting a convincing defense of their colony, that’s how they’ve survived for 72+ million years. I’ve heard that Russian bees, bred for their hygienic behavior, are some of the grumpiest, most defensive bees around. And Italians, known to be relatively calm, can get just as pissed as any feral bees given the right circumstances. The best way to avoid problems is good technique including a management plan suitable for the urban environment.
    Most of the people here prefer to use feral bees because they seem to be hardier, easier to keep without chemical treatments, and not unmanageably defensive. And typically you can get them for free! Feral bees aren’t really something to be worried about, but it does pay to have the knowledge and skills to keep them with confidence – which is why we host regular learning opportunities with our monthly workshops and mentoring sessions. All that said, you should do what makes you the most comfortable. If you want to get your feet wet with a package of bees from a breeder, that is perfectly acceptable and you should go for it.

    Please feel free to ask more questions, Hopefully the group will weigh in with their thoughts.




    Stephanie Merz

    Hi Rob,
    Thanks so much for the thoughtful response. I completely agree with everything you say, and I’m still of the mindset that a hardy feral colony would be an easier hive to manage for the reasons you state above. I’d really like to attract a feral colony, although I don’t know how likely it will be now that it’s the end of November :). But like you said, this could give me plenty of time to attend your workshops and mentoring sessions (I did go to one on bee-friendly gardening! And it was really great.)

    Thanks again, Rob, and I would love to hear from others!


    susan rudnicki

    I only have feral bees and love them! Eleven hives, and just one is somewhat more sketchy than all the others. The bees in this hive—in a yard with 7 other hives—follow me around after I work with them (while I work in the other hives) and are more skittery when I move the frames in and out. Colonies seem to definitely have certain moods and characteristics, just as all of us do.


    ken miller

    In Arizona we have a lot of experience with Africanized bees for the past ~15 years. The typical behavior is that they are easy to manage when their population is small. When their population gets large, they get brave and behavior becomes unpredictable. Work them one day and they are fine. Work them the next week and they may sting everything in sight.

    While I was managing a 750 colony commercial operation, by brother got 2 feral swarms in empty equipment. Something set them off one day, we don’t know what it was, and they stung his three horses to death. One horse lived for a week and vet bills exceeded $5000.

    The liability of running Africanized bees must be considered. Getting yourself, neighbor, or pets stung does not have a good cost to benefit profile.


    Ruth Askren

    Here in Southern California our situation is different than that of Texas or Arizona where the Africanized population appears much less integrated than ours. We feral beekeepers have a pretty uniform experience of having hives that are slightly defensive, where you must wear protective clothing, but not the kind of defensive behavior that Ken Miller describes where they pose a lethal threat.

    Make no mistake, the issue of the Africanized bee is highly charged and sparks very emotional and passionate arguments in various sectors of the beekeeping community. Below I quote Peter Borst, of Cornell University:

    “The mechanism of ’Africanization’ is still discussed controversially (hybridization versus spread of a pure African gene pool) but the actual interpretation of mtDNA frequencies and the clear existence of hybridization areas in Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina strongly support the spread of hybrid populations which are formed by natural selection. The ecological consequences are quite clear: during the last 40 years this honey bee has occupied most of tropical and subtropical South America. Requeening of Africanized colonies with European queens occurs but beekeepers generally prefer Africanized bees…”

    …and one of the reasons they prefer Africanized bees is for their enhanced mite- and disease-resistance. It is up to the individual beekeeper to be responsible and maintain close oversight with her hives. If they start acting difficult, then you may have to make some hard choices about how or if you’re going to keep them. Feral keepers believe in the payoff in survivability.

    Otherwise, you can take your chances with commercial bees.


    Rob McFarland

    @Ken – Thanks for the input, I’m sorry to hear about your brother’s horses. I think your experience just underscores the need for all beekeepers to exercise exceptional caution when working with our bees, especially in urban environments and situations where people, pets, or livestock could be injured.


    Africanized Bees

    Interesting new article in Scientific American:

    Bee Researchers Make Friends with a Killer
    Latin America finds Africanized killer bees are better honey producers than expected
    By Erik Vance

    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.”

    [Read the full article here:]

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