First, to get the blood pumping, a few shots of hysteria:
A recent Los Angeles Times headline sums it up: "Killer bee season underway with a vengeance." Whoa, and not just because of the cliché. So far this year, the list of killer-bee victims in the U.S. begins with a confirmed fatality, 62-year-old Larry Goodwin, who got stung more than 1,000 times by a Texas swarm that was estimated to total more than 40,000 bees. A headline specifically about that attack: "Horror as huge swarm of Africanized bees chase down farmer stinging him to death."
In Arizona, "a massive black mass of bees" – whoa, and not just because of the massive repetition – attacked several people and horses in a Phoenix suburb. Other Arizona swarms killed four dogs in Tucson, and maybe (not confirmed) killed a mountain climber and his dog in the Santa Rita range. A woman who witnessed an attack on an Arizona landscaper who was using a Weedeater in her yard reported: "I saw (him) throw his equipment into the air, his sunglasses fell off and all I saw was black. He was screaming and there were just tons of bees attacking him ... I felt so helpless."
Also this year, another Texas swarm killed two miniature horses and five hens, and stung a woman "about 200 times, her boyfriend about 50 times ... The pain from the stings was like being stabbed with hundreds of knives and torched with a flamethrower at the same time, (the woman) said. ... (One of the horses) quickly became covered with bees and began thrashing wildly around the yard in pain ... She and the horse both jumped into the backyard swimming pool in an effort to escape (but) the bees hovered above the water and stung (her) face when she would come up for air ..." The headline about that attack warned: "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid."
On the other hand, more than 60 million people in the U.S. territory invaded by killer bees – largely the Southwestern states – did not get stung this year. Or anyway they didn't get newsworthy stung.
The background, as I reported in a 2002 HCN magazine story: "It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. ... When 26 bee colonies from Africa were brought to Brazil by a scientist in 1956, it was an attempt to boost that country's honey production ... But a year later, African queens escaped captivity and began spreading like crazy on their own, taking over regular honeybee colonies either by force or interbreeding and asserting dominant genes, and occupying many niches held by native bees. Soon, Hollywood was churning out cheap horror movies like The Swarm and Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare. ... The front shifted from country to country as the Africanized bees picked up speed and killed an estimated 1,000 people in Latin America. They invaded Texas in 1990, Arizona and New Mexico in 1993, California in 1994, Nevada in 1998."
Despite the hysteria, killer bees have only killed somewhere between a dozen and two dozen people in the U.S. (also from my previous story, "There is disagreement about how many deaths the killer bees can be blamed for: Do we count the bulldozer driver in Texas who jumped off to run from bees and got run over by his own machine?"). Each death is a terrible tragedy for the victims, their families and friends. Meanwhile the bees continue to spread, taking over southern Utah and southern Florida, creeping northward in California, and showing up in pockets of Georgia and Tennessee. Cold weather is thought to be a limiting factor, but states close to the front lines, like Oregon, are wondering if/when the invasion will cross their borders.
Like I've said for years, let's honor the victims but tone down the hysteria, recognizing that these invading wild bees have become part of our ecosystem, like tiny wolves. Yes, compared to other kinds of bees, they're more likely to damage you, but their "attacks" are really self-defense actions. They evolved in Africa, where lots of predators destroy bee colonies to gobble the honey, so they're high strung and super defensive. Be extra careful when you're near a swarm of them, and you should be OK, though there's always the risk that you won't KNOW you're near them so you might do something to trigger a defensive attack on you. (One more reason to never pick up a Weedeater – a machine they often perceive as a threat.)
The main reason I'm writing about killer bees now is because they might help solve the so-called "colony collapse disorder" in our commercial honeybees, which are descended from European bees. The most recent round of colony collapse – mysterious die-offs of honeybees and vacated hives – began in 2006, according to the federal Agricultural Research Service. Commercial beekeepers have reported losing an average of 30 percent of their hives each year since then, due to colony collapse, which is worrisome because losses above 14 percent a year mean their businesses are not economically viable. Researchers haven't nailed down the exact cause of collapse, but the general thinking is it's a combination of factors including Varroa mites that weaken the bees, and various pesticides applied to crops they pollinate, and other parasites and diseases, along with the stress of being hauled across the country to pollinate California's almond trees, a crop that's grown so huge that it requires more than a million colonies, in a bad time of year for bees (February).
Turns out, killer bees are not so prone to suffer colony collapse, but that fact is not being widely circulated. Kirk Visscher, an associate professor of entomology at the University of California-Riverside, tells me that he used to have 60 hives in the university's orange groves, but colony collapse took out about 40 hives, "and the ones that are still standing are Africanized (killer bees rather than European-strain commercial honeybees). I hear that from other beekeepers too."
Justin Schmidt, a 25-year veteran of the federal Carl Hayden Bee Research Lab in Tucson, now a lecturer in the University of Arizona Department of Entomology, sees the same survival ability in killer bees. "They can be useful, we can learn from them, and we should emphasize them more" in the efforts to solve colony collapse, Schmidt says. "But the media, economists and most scientists are ignoring it. At conferences on colony collapse, I don't see anything about Africanized bees. No one is asking, 'How come they don't have it (colony collapse) and domestic bees do?'"
Googling around, I found a few mentions of killer-bee resistance to colony collapse, but not many, and no strong arguments for using them in the research of the crisis. Most of the mentions had to do with the killer bees' resistance to Varroa mites, but Schmidt says they're also relatively resistant to other things that prey on commercial honeybees, including "foulbrood" bacteria, the "chalkbrood" fungal disease, a parasite called Nosema, and the Israeli acute paralysis virus. "Mites do kill (killer bee colonies), but it takes two to three years, and by then, they've put off 15 to 20 new swarms (high reproduction rates is another trait they developed to withstand African predators). So mites don't really affect the population dynamics of killer bees."
Both Schmidt and Visscher think that the colony-collapse research should concentrate on selective breeding and other genetic engineering to develop killer bees that are somewhat calmer and more suited for use as commercial honey producers and pollinators. "Whatever those bees are doing right (to resist colony collapse), it's probably not linked to their defensive behavior, so (hypothetically), breeding could produce manageable bees that are resistant to collapse," Visscher says.
"Brazilians have bred killer bees for honey production, and that's a great success story," Schmidt says. "Brazil was Number 17 in the world for honey production when they brought in killer bees, and now Brazil is Number 4. (Hypothetically) killer bees could also be genetically engineered to do commercial pollination."
Killer bees are already, through natural evolution, becoming more like commercial honeybees in the ability to withstand cold, Schmidt adds. He thinks the ultimate limiting factor on their territory is not cold weather, but rather the lack of their natural food (flowers generating pollen) in cold weather. They could be managed in cold seasons with the "artificial diet" that's given to commercial honeybees, he says.
Any good idea faces obstacles, of course. The hysteria around killer bees, and the fact that they are more difficult to manage in colonies, and the liability risk if they harm someone, have discouraged this potential line of research. "Most beekeepers (in the U.S.) don't like dealing with them," Visscher says. When honeybee hives are taken over by African queens, for instance, the beekeepers usually remove those queens and add a new queen descended from European bees.
"There are all kinds of roadblocks," Schmidt says, including "politics, funding and inertia" that support the European-strain honeybee industry. "But it needs to be done."
Ray Ring is an HCN senior editor based in Bozeman, Montana. He lived in Arizona when the killer bees invaded.