Honey bees are not native to the Americas. When European settlers arrived in the Americas they brought the European honey bee with them. The bee spread rapidly throughout the 1600s and 1700s (Kaplan 4). It quickly adapted to the temperate and desert climates of North America, but it always struggled in the tropical climates of South and Central America.
Upon observing the poor performance of the European honey bee in South America, a Brazilian scientist named Warwick Kerr had the idea to create a hybrid between the African honey bee and the European honey bee. The African honey bee was adapted to the tropical and subtropical environments of Africa so he assumed it would probably prosper in South America. The only problem was that African honey bees are much more aggressive in defending their nests. Kerr thought he could fix this problem by mixing it with the much more docile European honey bee.
Kerr never finished the experiment. The African bees escaped their quarantine. In the wild, they mixed with the European honey bee creating a hybrid from both of them. Kerr intended to create a hybrid under controlled conditions so he could breed gentleness into the species. However, because the hybrid was formed in the wild and the aggressive genes are dominant the species showed a very aggressive character. That hybrid species was the Africanized bee (Ellis). I will use the term “African bees” to refer to the bees native to Africa, and I will use the term “Africanized” to refer to this hybrid between the African and European honey bees. The Africanized bees spread at an unprecedented rate. The bees would spread 200 to 300 more miles a year. By the 1990’s, only 40 years after the Africanized bee was created, the Africanized honey bee had become by far the most dominant species of bee in South and Central America and was beginning to arrive in the Southern United States.
The Africanized bee’s territorial expansion ended here. The African bee was adapted to the tropical and subtropical climates of Subsaharan Africa, so as it began to be faced with increasingly bitter winters it could advance no further.
Why was the Africanized bee so successful?
The Africanized bee spread through South and Central America at a fantastic speed. Not only did it become a present population, but it became the dominant species of honey bee in those areas. The Africanized bee owes its success to a variety of factors.
The first being that Africanized bees swarm many more times a year than their European counterparts. Honey bees use swarming as their means of reproduction. When bees swarm, about half of the bees leave the hive and make a new hive. The European honey bee swarms about once or twice a year. Africanized honey bees have been known to occasionally swarm ten times in one year (Ellis). This has allowed them to quickly saturate an area with Africanized hives.
When honey bees need to produce a new queen, they never produce just one. They usually produce several new queens to maximize the probability of raising a successful queen. The first queen to hatch becomes the new queen. When a European hive mixes with both Africanized and European drones (male honey bees), the queens fathered by Africanized drones nearly almost always hatch first. This causes European hives to gradually become Africanized.
Finally, Africanized swarms have been known to invade European hives and to replace the European queen with an Africanized queen.
The Africanized Bee in California
The first report of Africanized honey bees in California came in 1994 (Lin 1). Since then the Africanized bee has spread as far north as Sacramento (Lin 1). The Africanized honey bee’s northernmost border seems to be close to San Francisco. The Africanized honey bee has been found in far fewer amounts the farther north in the state. The counties between Southern California and the Bay Area generally had less than 30% Africanized bees (Lin 4). In recent years the Africanized bee has made small progress in spreading further north. This was expected because African honeybees seldom are found in areas where average winter temperatures dip below 19° Celsius in Africa so it was assumed that the Africanized bee would also struggle in colder climates (Rabe 308).
The Africanized bee poses a threat to much of California’s agriculture. Much of California’s agriculture is dependant upon commercial pollination. The Africanized bee has hurt commercial beekeeping in recent years which will have a negative effect on the state’s agriculture (Lin 2).
The Africanized honey bee is far more aggressive than the European honey bee. While all hives attack potential hazards around them, the Africanized honey bee is known to attack animals without any provocation and with hundreds of bees compared to the handful of bees European honey bees use to ward off intruders. It has been noticed that areas that have large populations of Africanized bees are far more prone to having increased numbers of stinging incidents and even death (Tarpy).
It has been suggested that this startling contrast in behavior has been brought on by humans themselves. In Europe, there has been a long tradition of beekeeping. Beekeepers have used methods like selective breeding to make the European honey bee increasingly more friendly towards humans. The method of collecting honey from honey bees could not be more different in Africa. Typically the beehive is totally destroyed in attempts to collect honey from the hive. Over time the African honey bee evolved to become very aggressive to ward off these “honey hunters” (Ellis).
The Africanized bee is undeniably more aggressive than their cousins in Europe, but much of this fear is hyperbolized. Africanized bees’ nickname “killer bees” was invented in Hollywood (Kaplan 1) and to this day you are more likely to be killed by a lightning strike than by an attack from Africanized bees (Tarpy).
As discussed earlier, the Africanized bee does not pose an enormously large threat to the general public’s health, but Africanized bees do pose major threats to professional beekeepers. Africanized honey bees swarm far more often than European honey bees. This causes Africanized bees to often overpopulate an area because there is not enough food in an area to sustain the numbers of honey bees present. This becomes a major problem because it weakens hives that are managed by professional beekeepers (Ellis).
The Africanized bee over its 60 years of existence has become the classic example of a science experiment gone wrong. It has successfully terrorized of the populations of South America, Central America and the Southwestern United States, It has also managed to disrupt beekeepers throughout much of the Americas and claims the lives of several individuals each year. The Africanized honey bees’ strengths have been a strong nuisance to hundreds of people. Whether they are affected by their aggression towards humans or by their ability to crowd European honey bees out of an area, this pest has managed to become a major problem for nearly everyone that interacts with them in some way.
Ellis, Jamie, and Amanda Ellis. “Common Name: African Honey Bee, Africanized Honey Bee,
Killer Bee Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Scutellata Lepeletier (Insecta: Hymenoptera:
Apidae).” Africanized Honey Bee – Apis Mellifera Scutellata Lepeletier, University of
Florida, Nov. 2012, entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/ahb.htm#top. Gives
important background information about Africanized bees. The source goes into great
depth about public safety and economic effects of the Africanized bee. I will use this to
explain the health threats that Africanized bees pose and how they are affecting beekeepers.
The article is sponsored by a university and is written by someone in the Florida
department of Agriculture and Consumer Services which makes it reliable.
Kaplan, J. Kim. “What’s Buzzing with Africanized Honey Bees?.” Agricultural Research, vol.
52, no. 3, Mar. 2004, pp. 4-8. EBSCOhost,
&AN=12504715&site=ehost-live. This source goes into great detail about why the
Africanized bee has been able to displace the European honey bee. It also spends a great
deal of time explaining how the Africanized bee affects public safety. This source can be
very useful when I have to explain why the Africanized bee has been so successful in the
Americas and when I write about the safety concerns associated with them. The article was
published in a scholarly journal and was fairly recently published.
Lin, Wei, et al. “Africanized Bees Extend Their Distribution in California.” Plos ONE, vol. 13,
- 1, 18 Jan. 2018, pp. 1-8. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0190604. This source
shows how far the Africanized bee has settled in California. I will be able to use this source
when I am explaining the current distribution of the Africanized bee. It also explains some
of the risks that accompany Africanized bees. The source was written by several experts in
entomology and is a scholarly source which makes it reliable.
Rabe, Michael J., et al. “Feral Africanized Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera) in Sonoran Desert
Habitats of Southwestern Arizona.” The Southwestern Naturalist, vol. 50, no. 3, 2005, pp.
307–311. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3672473. This source explains
how the climate of an area can either encourage or discourage the presence of
Africanized bees. The source also gives more detail to the distribution of Africanized bees.
The source will be very helpful when I am explain why the Africanized bee is unable to
survive in most of the United States. The source was published in an academic journal
making it a scholarly source.
Tarpy, David R. “Africanized Honey Bees: Where Are They Now, and When Will They Arrive
in North Carolina?” Content-Ces-Ncsu-Edu.chaffey.idm.oclc.org, NC State Extension
Publications, 5 Feb. 2015,
nD-when-will-they-arrive-in-north-carolina. This source examines the potential risks that
Africanized bees pose to humans and gives background information. It also goes in depth
about how the Africanized bee came to be. It will be useful when I need to describe the
threats that Africanized bees pose and the history of the Africanized bee. The article was
written by a professor of entomology and is sponsored by a university making it reliable.
Image Works Cited
Carson. The spread of the AHB in the Americas from 1956 to 1998. 1999. NC State Extension, 8
Kern, W. H. African honey bee, Apis mellifera scutelatta Lepeletier, swarm on palm fronds.
Featured Creatures, 2 June 2018, http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/ahb.htm