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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.
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: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=bee-researchers-make-friends-africanized-killer]
Thank you to all the HoneyLovers who came out and showed their support @ Los Angeles City Council PLUM Committee!!
Please come out and show your support for urban beekeeping tomorrow: TUESDAY DEC 10TH, 2:30PM at the LA CITY COUNCIL PLUM COMMITTEE BEE VOTE!!
Los Angeles City Hall
200 North Spring Street, Los Angeles, 90012 (3rd Floor)
Meeting @ 2:30pm
Bring your ID for security – tell them you are there for a PLUM meeting with CD-14 (Huizar’s Office)
And if you haven’t done so already, please sign our petition and send a quick email of support!!
- This reply was modified 5 years, 7 months ago by Chelsea McFarland.
Had a question on HoneyLove’s facebook page today:
“HoneyLove, I need your advice on beekeeping in colder climates… what do the bees need when the mercury plummets?”
I pointed her to Michael Bush’s page on Wintering:
TOPICS INCLUDED ON THAT PAGE ARE:
Screened bottom boards (SBB)
Clustering hives together
Where the cluster is
Eight frame boxes
Wintering observation hives
If you have any other advice for her, let me know. Thanks!
LEGALIZE URBAN BEEKEEPING IN LOS ANGELES!!
The time has come for everyone to rally – LETS DO THIS!!
STEP 2: Email a letter of support to LA City Council!!
SUBJECT: Council File: 12-0785 Beekeeping / Single Family Residential (R1) Zones
I am writing to ask that you make the legalization of beekeeping and the establishment of a humane bee rescue policy one of your top priorities.
Bees are an essential part of our food system. According to the USDA, bees are responsible for the production of about a third of our diet. In addition, bees are a boon to local gardeners and urban farmers. As you may be aware, honeybees worldwide are in crisis, falling prey to the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder at an alarming rate, making beekeeping a serious food security issue.
Urban beekeeping has been gaining widespread attention especially since the President and First Lady of the United States began keeping two hives on the White House lawn and San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Portland, Denver, Chicago and most recently Santa Monica and Redondo Beach have all taken decisive action and legalized urban beekeeping.
With all that in mind, I strongly urge you to:
1. Support efforts to: develop a new ordinance which will legalize beekeeping within R1 districts in Los Angeles; improve Bee Rescue policy; create a legal bee yard within the city of Los Angeles that will operate as a secure, temporary holding area for feral honeybee colonies that are awaiting relocation to agricultural zones outside city limits.
2. Change Los Angeles’ current response to feral honeybee swarms (which is extermination), and to allow only live bee removal on city and public property within Los Angeles.
REFERENCE: LA City Council File 12-0785
Thank you for taking the time to consider this globally important issue.
We would love to help you become an urban beekeeper!
STEP 1: Find a local beekeeping community to join!
Hands-on experience and education before getting your own beehive is very important. If you live in Los Angeles we would love to have you join us:
Below are a few of our favorite books:
Practical-Beekeeper by Michael Bush
Plan-Bee by Susan Brackney
Complete Idiots Guide to Beekeeping by Dean Stiglitz
STEP 2: Get your gear!
Below is a list of the basic tools/gear we recommend to get started as an urban beekeeper. You can purchase these locally at a beekeeping store or online.
FEATURED ABOVE: 10 frame assembled medium hive body and medium super with a regular bottom board with foundationless frames.
Item numbers: 986Z, 990BZ, 751, 495, 775, 713, 673 (you will have an option to choose what sizes you would like) – these items can also most likely be purchased locally at your nearest beekeeping supply store.
Los Angeles Beekeeping Supply Stores (always a good idea to call ahead)
Los Angeles Honey Co – 1559 Fishburn Ave, Los Angeles 90063 | (323) 264-2383
Pierce-Mieras Manufacturing – 2536 Fender Avenue, Ste. A, Fullerton 92831 (714) 447-3855 (ask for “Ray’s Special” aka foundationless frames)
The following (or similar) items you can purchase anywhere:
The bee-friendly plants, as well as a water source you can pick up from your local nursery. The water source featured above is a terra cotta saucer (20? or so) and some red river rocks or Mexican beach pebbles. Simply fill the saucer with the rocks and some water – this will serve as your bees water source and must be set up before getting your bees.
*If you would like a honeylove patch for your beekeepers suit – you can become a MEMBER of HoneyLove or purchase one through our etsy shop!
STEP 3: Get your hands sticky!
The single best way to learn is to get some hands-on mentoring: before you get bees, while you have bees, and then pay it forward and become a mentor!
You can join us at the HoneyLove Sanctuary the 3rd Sunday of each month in Moorpark, CA—check the events page for full details on how to join us!
Keep us posted on your honey bee adventures—we would love to see photos from your apiary! Yay bees!!
- This reply was modified 6 years ago by Chelsea McFarland.