Giant Killer Bees
Science Experiment Gone Wrong

Giant Killer Bees
Science Experiment Gone Wrong

About fifty years ago, scientists brought African and European bees to Brazil, in South America, to see if they could mate them. They wanted to do this to make a bee that would make more honey in a hotter place.

Scientists called these new bees Africanized honeybees. These bees, however, were very different from regular honeybees.

They would suddenly leave the colony and build a hive somewhere else. Scientists found out that the queen would decide to leave after a few months, usually taking half the colony with her.

They could even take over European hives by killing the European queen bee and making their own queen bee the "queen".

More than 50 years ago, South American scientists attempted to cross-breed bees that would produce more honey than ever before possible.

But instead, they created a monster. Today, these giant bees are on the loose, spreading northward and invading US cities.

MonsterQuest examines how these killer bees attack with an unseen ferocity and discovers that the bees may be adapting to colder temperatures, making them an even greater threat.

Africanized honey bees, known colloquially as "killer bees," are hybrids of the African honey bee. These bees are far more aggressive than the European subspecies.

Small swarms of Africanized bees are capable of taking over European honey beehives by invading the hive and establishing their own queen after killing the European queen.

The sting of the Africanized Honey Bee is no more potent than a garden variety honey bee, and they have a similar appearance.

What makes Africanized bees more dangerous is that they are more easily provoked, quick to swarm, attack in greater numbers, and pursue their victims for greater distances.

An Africanized bee colony can remain agitated longer and may attack up to a quarter of a mile away from the hive or more.

The Africanized honey bee in the Western Hemisphere is directly descended from 26 Tanzanian queen bees accidentally released by a replacement bee-keeper in 1957 near Uberlândia, Minas Gerais State in the southeast of Brazil from hives operated by biologist Warwick E. Kerr, who had interbred honey bees from Europe and southern Africa.

Hives containing these particular queens were noted to be especially defensive. Kerr was attempting to breed a strain of bees that would produce more honey and be better adapted to tropical conditions (i.e., more productive) than the European bees used in South America and southern North America.

The hives the bees were released from had special excluder grates to prevent the larger queen bees and drones from getting out and mating with local (non-African) queens and drones.

However, following the accidental release, the African queens and drones mated with local queens and drones, and their descendants have since spread throughout the Americas.

As of 2002, the Africanized honeybees had spread from Brazil south to northern Argentina and north to Central America, Trinidad (West Indies), Mexico, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and southern California. Their expansion stopped for a time at eastern Texas, possibly due to the large number of European-bee beekeepers in the area.

However, discoveries of the bees in southern Louisiana indicate this species of bee has penetrated this barrier, or has come as a swarm aboard a ship. In June 2005, it was discovered that the bees had penetrated the border of Texas and had spread into southwest Arkansas.

African bees are characterized by greater defensiveness in established hives than European honey bees. They are more likely to attack a perceived threat and, when they do so, attack relentlessly in larger numbers.

This aggressively protective behavior has been termed by scientists as hyper-defensive behavior.

On September 11, 2007, Commissioner Bob Odom of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry said that Africanized honey bees established themselves in the New Orleans area. In February 2009, Africanized honeybees were found in southern Utah.

In October 2010, a 73-year-old man was killed by a swarm of Africanized honey bees while clearing brush on his south Georgia property, as determined by Georgia's Department of Agriculture. It is the first time state officials have recorded that such bees exist in Georgia.

In tropical climates they compete effectively against European bees and, at their peak rate of expansion, they spread north at a rate of almost two kilometers (about one mile) a day.

There were discussions about slowing the spread by placing large numbers of docile European-strain hives in strategic locations, particularly at the Isthmus of Panama, but various national and international agricultural departments were unable to prevent the bees' expansion.

Current knowledge of the genetics of these bees suggests that such a strategy, had it been attempted, would not have been successful. As the Africanized honeybee migrates further north, colonies are interbreeding with European honeybees.

There are now relatively stable geographic zones in which either African bees dominate, a mix of African and European bees is present, or only non-African bees are found (as in southern South America or northern North America). African honeybees abscond (abandon the hive and any food store to start over in a new location) more readily than European honeybees.

This is not necessarily a severe loss in tropical climates where plants bloom all year but in more temperate climates it can leave the colony with insufficient stores to survive the winter. Thus Africanized bees are expected to be a hazard mostly in the Southern States of the United States, reaching as far north as the Chesapeake Bay in the east.

When Killer Bees Attack

The cold-weather limits of the African bee have driven some professional bee breeders from Southern California into the harsher wintering locales of the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Range.

This is a more difficult area to prepare bees for early pollination placement in, such as is required for the production of almonds.

The reduced available winter forage in northern California means that bees must be fed for early spring buildup.

The arrival of African honeybees in Central America is a threat to the ancient art of keeping stingless bees in log gums even though they do not interbreed or directly compete with the stingless bees.

The honey productivity of the African bees so far exceeds the productivity of the native stingless bees that economic pressures force beekeepers to switch. African honeybees are considered an invasive species in many regions.

The African bee is widely feared by the public, a reaction that has been amplified by sensationalist movies and some of the media reports. Stings from African bees kill 1–2 people per year in the United States. As the bee spreads through Florida, a densely populated state, officials worry that public fear may force misguided efforts to combat them.