To understand how the Africanized (AHB) might affect U.S. beekeepers, it is instructive to look at the Brazilian experience. There are three distinct periods: 1) Meliponiculture, culture of stingless bees, the only beekeeping activity until introduction of the honey bee (Apis mellifera) in 1839. 2) A European honey bee culture predominated until 1957, and 3) the current beekeeping climate dominated by the Africanized honey bee (AHB).
The official story surrounding the introduction of the AHB was that some 26 Apis scutellata queens brought from Africa to Brazil by a geneticist, Dr. Warwick Kerr, escaped. This was the nucleus population of hybrid Africanized honey bees that in less than four decades migrated from Brazil to the U.S. Some variants of the official story exist. One is that original queens selected for gentleness of their progeny died during shipment, and others less rigorously selected (their progeny more defensive) were substituted. Another is that many more than 26 queens were involved and daughters were reared and distributed across the country to many Brazilians. Contributing to the nucleus population may also have been stock that was brought to Brazil from Africa over many years by beekeepers.
Initially, the AHB brought disaster to Brazilian apiculture. In 1970, the First Brazilian Beekeeping Congress was held to address the bee’s major drawback, aggressive defensive behavior. Perhaps the biggest issue with reference to this honey bee is a lack of predictability, especially its often remarkable defensive behavior (stinging) radically different from that well understood for its European cousin.
In 1972, U.S. concerns about reports from Brazil prompted publication of a report written by a committee of U.S. scientists on 3 week tour of the country. The document was criticized by Brazilians for relying on translated second- and third-hand information and concentrating on problems, not solutions. Use of the term “Brazilian bee” was especially objected to. The report recommended (1) delaying or modifying the bee as it spreads north; (2) implementing counter measures was most appropriate in Central America; (3) studying the bee in both tropical and temperate areas should be a priority; and (4) placing major emphasis on strain improvement, not eradication, as the best policy.
Since that time, Brazilians have launched an effort to teach beekeepers how to manage these bees in series of “encontros.” In 1977 a milestone was passed; the country reached the 10,000-ton-honey-production mark for the first time in history. Some 2,500 participants attended the 1980 Brazilian Beekeeping Congress, and finally in 1989, Brazilian beekeeping came of age by hosting Apimondia’s World Apicultural Congress.
Brazilian beekeeping has now transformed itself into a modern apicultural industry. The AHB continues to be a good honey producer and is resistant to a variety of diseases. Ironically, the results of the many problems brought by the bee have been better beekeepers and improved beekeeping in the country. This has also occurred everywhere the bee has been introduced.
The AHB has now migrated over most of South and Central America. In the 1970s, extensive research was conducted in the Guyanas and later at a USDA research facility in Venezuela. Several things were documented as a result of these investigations that were to be mirrored in other countries the bee invaded. Initially, beekeeping drastically declined in Venezuela; honey production dropped from 530 metric tons in 1976 to 78 metric tons in 1981. This was primarily because of the bee’s defensive behavior, up to ten times as great as Europeans then found in the U.S. In addition, AHB foraging behavior was also shown to be different and the bee was documented to compete more vigorously than Europeans for nectar, as well as nest sites, in tropical conditions. The AHB developmental period was found to be more rapid and they also swarmed and absconded far more readily than European honey bees. This was studied to a great degree by Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor in the early 1990s as the bee invaded the northern Mexico – Texas border.
The author found vibrant beekeeping activity in Ecuador,South America in the year 2000. This seemed to be occurring in the face of active Africanization of the honey bee population.
There were and continue to be many controversial conclusions about the AHB in the tropics. Serious large-scale selection by beekeepers has not been very successful, because resources are limited. The bees have retained their African-like behavior and rapidly “Africanize” existent European bees. Two theories for this are: (1) that AHB drones are prevalent and accepted into all colonies resulting in them being mated with practically all Europen queens (drone parasitism), and (2) that European colonies are physically taken over by AHB swarms. Later research has shown that AHBs have retained their genetic material, in some cases completely overwhelming extant European bee populations in the tropics.
In 1982, the Panama Canal Zone area put into force an AHB control program which was very successful for urban areas. Fire and police departments were trained to eliminate swarms and this has become a model program. However, beekeepers’ experiences mirrored those of Venezuela. From 1982 to 1985, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and finally Southern Mexico were invaded by the bee.
In 1985, there was an AHB introduction in a load of pipe near Lost Hills, California in the San Joaquin valley. This prompted the first large scale eradication effort by the USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a bureaucracy responsible for keeping exotic diseases and pests from entering the U.S. The bees (some 12 colonies were found) were exterminated at great cost. That experience is still the basis for an action plan, developed by to control spot introductions. Since then, APHIS has also aided in eradicating some 15 isolated incidents over a period of years, but this has now been abandoned.
In 1986, a Student of Organization of Tropical Studies was stung to death in Costa Rica by AHBs. This caused press coverage on the insect to increase. It was an important case because it was so well documented. Another significant event occurred in 1987. The Varroa bee mite was introduced into the U.S. This removed one major reason for quarantine actions against the AHB, heretofore considered a major way the parasite might be introduced into the U.S. However, concerns about its defensiveness were still in place and remain so even today as far north as Canada.
In 1987, a cooperative project by Mexico and the U.S. to control the AHB resulted in a Bee Regulated Zone (BRZ) in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The problems addressed by the project were (1) to keep people from moving the bees any faster than they might under natural circumstances; (2) to capture swarms to prevent spread of bees; (3) to monitor hive takeovers by AHBs; (4) to study if AHB drones have distinct mating advantages and whether they were nest parasites; and (5) to monitor absconding of captured swarms. In addition, the cooperative project was designed to train beekeepers in management of the bees and to mount a public information campaign about the potential hazards of the insect.
The project was declared a “success” by APHIS, but was eliminated in 1990. In October of that year, the first detection of a migrating wild swarm of AHBs in United States occurred on the Texas border in the town of Hidalgo.
Several major issues remain which must be addressed in any plan to deal with the AHB. Of primary importance is how to differentiate it from the extant European bee. At first AHBs were called Apis mellifera adansoni , a major subspecies found in central Africa; later they were classified as Apis mellifera scutellata . Once called “Brazilian” bees, they are now referred to by many as Africanized over much of their range because they are generally a hybrid of Europe and African varieties. Some prefer to name them “African-derived,” because they retain so much of their African behavior. The shifting of the name to a somewhat more benign acronym, AHB, is a response to hyper sensationalism of the name “African.”
The primary technology to demonstrate differences between AHB and European races has been morphometrics (body measurements). This is the classic way insects have been categorized over the centuries, and has been declared the “official” method for AHB by APHIS. An outgrowth of this is FABIS (Fast Africanized Bee Identification System) now being implemented around the country.
The following is a post describing the official way AHB is identified in the U.S. at the moment:
Date: Mon, 31 Aug 2015 09:15:29 -0500
From: Jose Villa <jsvilla@COX.NET>
“There are only two labs in the US that perform the 25? measurements multivariate morphometric analysis for Africanization: USDA, ARS, Tucson and Florida Dept. of Agriculture, Gainesville. Some states do a preliminary FABIS (Fast Africanized Bee Identification System): measure the length of fore wings which is one of the strongest components of the more involved multivariate system. If something is dubious based on fore wing measurements, then it typically gets sent to the multivariate morphometric system. Proficient (and patient) operators can pull and mount on slides the fore and hind wing, the posterior leg and a sternite from the abdomen of 10 workers in about an hour. Digitizing all the points may take another half hour.
“The ‘output’ of the multivariate system is a discriminant score, with
a probability value of matching one of the two reference populations. Very clearly African(ized) bees and European bees sort out well with high probabilities. Colonies with intermediate scores are also matched to a probability by the program. The interpretation that these probabilities indicate the degree of Africanization or Europeanization is not correct. They are simply suggestive of
admixture at some level, and failure of the program to assign them to
one or the other population.”
The age of biotechnology has ushered in other identification possibilities such as enzyme, hydrocarbon and DNA analysis. These biochemical identification techniques are more expensive, but more focused than morphometrics. It is known that many environmental factors will affect body size. Unfortunately, no current identification procedure can be correlated with behavior, which is the reason the AHB is a “problem” to begin with.
Most authorities agree that some degree of hybridization will occur in the subtropical and southern temperate U.S, confounding identification procedures even more. Unfortunately, at the same time, the identification of bees will need much more clarification in the future so the beekeeping industry can make the necessary changes to adapt. Use of DNA technology is expected to increase in the future, promising to revolutionize the identification process.
It is also agreed the major problem associated with AHBs will probably not be management in apiaries. It will be sensationalized press coverage coupled with an uninformed public, which might become sensitized to wild or feral populations, usually through accidental contact. Many state governments and pest control operators, who previously have left extermination of honey bees to beekeepers, will have also have to reorder their priorities.
Because the problems may be more apparent in the southern and western U.S., northern areas may simply wash their hands of the issue, letting their southern neighbors cope with the insect. It is not yet known how far north problems will occur with the bee; there may be swarm incursions into the U.S. heartland each summer. Unfortunately, the Canadians have already decided they want little part of this insect and this is a major reason importation of queens from the U.S. is still highly regulated.
The Argentinian experience is relevant here. A robust hybrid zone in the north of the country fades toward the more European population in the temperate south. “Our results confirmed the homogeneous genetic profile of the Argentinian honey bee population from the province of Buenos Aires and that the Africanization process could have reached their limit as more extreme climatic conditions seem to act as natural barriers against the expansion of Africanized bees. The saturation of Italian queens performed by the beekeepers through selection and trade off may also act as an artificial barrier to this process.” At least one study shows that AHB in that country may be a superior pollinator to the European honey bee.
Beekeepers living in areas where the AHB occurs are being counseled to avoid actively keeping this kind of honey bee. The state of Florida specifically has developed best management practices to guide this effort. One stipulation that beekeepers queen with certified European stock is thought to increase drone populations in the state, effectively limiting the number of wild Africanized drones.
Although there are many unknowns, one thing is sure. The coming of the AHB is sure to change bee management procedures in most of its range. There are no shortages of ideas about the effects of this bee in the U.S. However, it will the observant and informed beekeeper who will necessarily be the one to finally develop a strategy to cope with this insect within the confines of his/her own operation. For a more robust history of the AHB and analysis see a five-part series published in American Bee Journal.
An interesting wrinkle in the AHB story is that the parent insect, Apis mellifera scutellata, is also under threat in its own territory. This situation is little known elsewhere in the world, but is a worrying one among those familiar with it.