Ed Colby: Taming the killers
September 17, 2002
Frank says, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It can’t be done, and it only upsets the pig.”
Africanized “killer” bees probably first flew across the Rio Grande in 1990, 34 years after they began their northward migration from southern Brazil. They currently inhabit over half of Texas, southern New Mexico, Arizona, southern Nevada and California from the central San Joaquin Valley southwest to Los Angeles.
No one knows if these tropical honeybees will move into the cooler, mountainous terrain of the West. No one knows if they can survive subfreezing winters. No one understands why they have not yet expanded eastward across the hot, flat expanse of Dixie and down to the Everglades and the hollow trees in the back yards of Florida trailer parks.
The Bush administration responded to this alien invasion by cutting the federal budget for bee research.
Whenever I call these honeybees “aggressive,” my Brazilian friend Walter corrects me. “Defensive,” he insists. “They only defend the hive.” Fine. But if they build that hive under the eaves of your roof, they will defend it, even if it’s over your front porch.
Acting in concert, these insects can comprise a mass weapon of destruction. If you stumbled onto a hive, you might survive 100 stings. Walter survived 127 on his face and neck. You might not survive 500. They could kill you as dead as any victim of al-Qaida terror.
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You could declare war on Mexico, napalm the Mexican forests, dust the Mexican hills and plains with insecticides, and you could not wipe out these bees. You could level Las Vegas and Tucson and Houston, and when you went there to check the damage, these bees would sting when you came too close to their hives. They absolutely insist that you not invade their space.
You could fight a war against Africanized bees, but you would never win.
These bees behave most aggressively on the frontier of their expanding geographical range. Walter said, “When these bees moved through Brazil, it was horrendous. They killed people and animals alike.”
Yet deep in the killer-bee heartland, beekeepers learned to coexist with killer bees. These beekeepers did not fight. They adapted, with astonishing success.
At first, Africanized bees overwhelmed the Brazilians. Keeping them out of commercial bee yards proved impossible. Whenever a virgin domestic, or “European” queen went on a mating flight, she came back carrying semen from Africanized drones. Africanized drones consistently out-competed European drones in queen mating.
But beekeepers discovered that the Africanized bees’ aggression diminished with crossbreeding. A “hot” Africanized queen might head a colony that habitually chased intruders nearly a mile, but after repeated crosses with European bees, her genetically watered-down progeny might be inclined to pursue you, say, only a couple of hundred yards.
Meanwhile, beekeepers discovered that Africanized hybrids made very good honey producers. The European bees’ propensity for honey making, combined with the Africanized queens’ natural disposition to lay very large numbers of eggs, made for populous hives that really brought home the nectar. Further, beekeepers found these bees to be virtually disease- and parasite-free. Ultimately, they discovered that Africanized hybrids weren’t monsters. They were just honeybees. You could manage the little darlings ? if you treated them with deference. If you smoked them heavily, wore light-colored clothes, avoided wearing perfume and wool, didn’t make loud noises or quick movements, didn’t shake the hive, you could deal with them much like other bees.
Even here in Colorado, we may have to learn to live with Africanized honeybees. That means accepting that they are not in all ways what we might wish them to be. It means being ever cautious and on guard. We may over time find ways to influence their behavior. But we can’t eliminate them or even teach them a lesson. We could try, and we would certainly get their attention, but we would never succeed. It would be like trying to teach a pig to sing.
[Beekeeper and ski patroller Ed Colby’s column runs on Tuesdays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
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