As the Africanized honey bee (AHB) becomes established in the United States, information on the complexities of managing this insect is becoming more available. In his November/December, 1993 issue of From the UC Apiaries, Dr. Eric Mussen reported how southern Texas beekeeper Bill Vanderput summarized his experiences, “…25 percent more stings, 25 percent more work and 25 percent more sweat.” Although 30 percent of supersedure queens appeared mated to AHBs, only 10 percent were “noticeably Africanized.” Empty equipment is colonized by AHB swarms. Most noticeable about AHB colonies: (1) nothing dramatic when cover removed; (2) lots of festooning on frames; (3) increased stinging, but not really bad. Honey must be removed or AHB swarms, but both Africanized and European seem to be adequate honey producers. In spite of this Mr. Vanderput said, he was forced to reconsider his management practices. Instead of including them as an integral part of his operation, Mr. Vanderput has gone to the other extreme, by excluding AHB totally. The way he accomplishes this is simple:
- Use only mated queens from European bee sources for requeening, not queen cells.
- Destroy any queens from colonies that exhibit AHB behavior.
The first step above was difficult because it meant purchasing queens. Mr. Vanderput said he labored under the idea that it was too costly and he would be dependent on others (queen producers). He found that instead of being too expensive, purchasing queens provided a huge bonus, peace of mind. Thus, each year he purchases some 2,000 queens with the idea that they pay for themselves because they allow him to continue to keep bees.
It is easy to detect AHB colonies Mr. Vanderput said because of their behavior. He characterized it as “shock and awe.” They are not calm on the comb when manipulated, but instead fly off and “in an instant they will be all over your bee suit and gloves.” That’s when he employs his counter weapon, an “improvised shaker box.” This consists of an empty super on top of a queen excluder. Shaking all the bees through the excluder exposes the queen “struggling” to get away. She can easily be caught a destroyed. In 24-hours, this now queenless colony can be united to a queen-right unit. It is notoriously difficult to requeen AHB colonies via direct introduction of queens using traditional technologies (cages).
As part of his message, Mr. Vanderput acknowledged and supported the idea of best management practices as being developed by Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry with the aid of its Honey Bee Technical Council. His advice in general. “Just say no to Africanized honey bees.”
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Dr. Mussen reported that Dr. Ernesto Guzman from that country said that 100,000 swarms per year were being trapped. In spite of this, not all beekeepers are equally affected. Some noticed little effect, while others went out of business. On the other hand, free bees provided an impetus to go into business for many. About 29 deaths per year are attributed to AHB in the country. Beekeeping practices have changed; in particular, colony number has been reduced to yards of 15-25. Beekeepers are able to move colonies, but AHBs abscond when nectar is in short supply. Management is generally costing about 30 percent to 50 percent more than before.
Enrique Estrada and Sue Cobey reported on his methods to maintain gentle bees in Mexico in the December 1993 American Bee Journal. Using technology he learned from Dr. Rich Hellmich, formerly at the USDA Baton Rouge Bee Laboratory, Mr. Estrada saturates his breeding area with drones. His queen breeding stock is based on instrumental insemination. Mr. Estrada says his expenses are more, but the breeding effort is paying off in keeping valuable customers.
Into the fray comes Dr. William Ramirez, University of Costa Rica. Writing in the January 1994 issue of American Bee Journal, Dr. Ramirez says many widely held views about AHB are not correct. “Swarming and absconding do not occur. They produce abundant honey…” Almost in the same breath, however, he says, “I have found that the size of the hive must be reduced to the brood chamber, and sugar feed must be provided during the wet season (dearth period) to prevent absconding.” He sees only two negative aspects of AHB: greater defensive behavior and increased collection of propolis. The competent beekeeper, Dr. Ramirez believes, can handle any so-called “problems” posed by the AHB.
“Africanized Bees in the United States,” Scientific American, December 1993, by Dr. Tom Rinderer and colleagues, Baton Rouge Bee Laboratory, suggest a pattern in the United States could develop like that in Argentina. A “transition zone” has established itself at about the latitude of Buenos Aires where a mixture of Africanized and European bees exist. Thus, in the U.S., European-like bees may be less competitive in the Deep South and African-like in the North. They conclude: “It is inevitable that the incursion of Africanized bees into the U.S. will increase the costs of managing commercial colonies, at least temporarily. It is also likely that some African genes will spread through feral and managed bee colonies. Yet vigilance and coordination by apiculturists have eveney chance of preserving the European behavior of commercial honeybee stocks…”
On thing is certain. It will not be business as usual in areas where AHB becomes established.