A great deal of contradictory information has been published about introduction of the Africanized or African honey bee (AHB) over the last two decades. This controversial insect was introduced into Brazil in the late 1950s and has now spread throughout Latin America. It was firmly established in the U.S. in the 1990s. The bee is known primarily for its defensive behavior, a reputation giving it the name “killer bee” in the U.S. and “assassin bee” in Latin America. Colonies may explode during inspection, inflicting many stings, yet are extremely gentle at other times. Thus, reports from many areas where the AHB occurs indicate the insect is not necessarily as dangerous as these names imply.
Techniques have been developed in tropical America to manage the AHB’s defensiveness, ranging from wearing two bee suits to using an over-sized smoker. Many beekeepers work at night when the bees do not fly, preferring to risk being stung by crawlers rather than free-flying workers that incite nearby colonies to become defensive. The beekeeper also quickly becomes educated to avoid other conditions that might provoke stinging incidents. Hives are located 10 feet apart and no nearer than 100 yards from human habitation. The size of the colony and ambient temperature also play a role. Large colonies, disturbed during hot days, are prone to produce a great many defensive bees.
Besides defensive behavior, arguments persist as to whether the AHB is a good honey producer and pollinator. The conflict appears to be rooted in whether one looks at the bees themselves or at the beekeeping environment they are in. It is now clear that individual AHBs are just as efficient pollinators and greater honey producers in the tropics than their European sisters. European bees appear to be more efficient in temperate areas. However, no bee can be a good commercial honey producer or pollinator if colonies cannot be moved to maximize foraging time throughout the active season.
To effectively manage an activity, first requires learning the details of the process. Principles developed from this knowledge are then incorporated into a model which can be used to predict outcomes. This was laboriously accomplished over a great many years with European bees. And for centuries, beekeepers have always had the knowledge of previous pioneers to guide them. Granted, the craft is still fraught with problems; honey bees continue to sting excessively, swarm, die in winter, abscond and produce marginal honey crops. In the main, however, the model has worked for generations.
There is a great deal of evidence that the AHB cannot be managed as effectively using the same procedures developed for European bees. Although some progress has been made in adapting alternative beekeeping strategies in South and Central America for the AHB, much needs to be learned. Confusing the process is the variability found in AHB populations and the fact that interbreeding with European bees is possible. Until many more pieces of the AHB puzzle are in place, therefore, beekeepers will continue to be faced with the prospect of a less-than-predictable population of honey bees that is all but unmanageable. Experience in tropical countries is revealing in bits and pieces how future management techniques are likely to change with the coming of the African honey bee. A number of reports from Africa and elsewhere suggest that working these bees in the dark is one effective management strategy, but never recommended for European honey bees.