Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs) –  Historical Perspective

African Honey Bees (AHBs) have spread through most of the Americas partly because of their tendency to move more frequently than other honey bees. Their biggest move, nevertheless, crossing the Atlantic from Africa to Brazil, wasn’t done through their own initiative. Much controversy and a little mystery surrounds what exactly happened, but this much is clear –  there was a man that helped them on that one.

By the 20th century, many people  in the tropical zones of South America had created a taste for honey and they imported European Honey Bees (EHBs) to establish on their farms. But these South American beekeepers found that the production of the European Honey Bee (EHB) wasn’t entirely satisfactory.  The German, Spanish and Italian honey bees from colder and drier climates never adapted well to hot, wet and humid conditions of Brazil.  To compensate, the tropical American beekeepers started analyzing  how they might breed a bee better suited to their environment.

Some Brazilians thought the answer might  be found in the tropical zone of the continent located just across the Atlantic from Brazil Africa. They’d seen reports of beekeepers in South Africa getting remarkable production from native honey bees. Some African beekeepers had imported European bees but they hadn’t done well.  The Africans had more success with the indigenous honey bees of the region.

Africans had been obtaining honey from the wild honey bees for a lot of centuries, and while they knew how mad the insects could get, they’d also created ways to avoid attack. In Africa’s rural and wilderness areas, angry bees are one of the lesser dangers humans can face. So the fact that the African honey bee stings defensively is insignificant in a region where simple survival is often challenging.

In 1956 a prominent Brazilian geneticist, Warwick Kerr, was asked by the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry when he could obtain some African honey bee queens and bring them back for breeding experiments. Kerr had devoted himself to studying Brazil’s native stingless bees and was quite familiar with bee breeding and apiculture. In addition, he had just won his nation’s top prize for genetics and was planning to spend the money that had come with it on a research trip to Africa.

Warwick Kerr thought there was a good possibility that he might utilize African stock to produce a new breed of honey bees, which would be less defensive than the wild African bees but which would be more productive than European Honey Bees (EHBs) in Brazil’s tropical setting.

After some initial difficulty in packaging bees for transport and keeping them alive, he returned to Brazil with 63 live queens he’d acquired from South African beekeepers. These were later taken to a quarantine area at an agricultural research station near Rio Claro, where 48 queens were still alive and well as 1956 came to an end.

By interbreeding the queens through artificial insemination with European drones, Kerr and his associates had produced a number of first generation hybrids. After several months of this activity, natural attrition reduced their stock of Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs) to 29 and they were maintained in hive boxes equipped with queen excluders.

Don’t forget that the queens and drones are larger than the worker bees who go out to forage. By putting a device over the hive entrance with holes too small to allow the queen to escape but big enough for the workers to pass through, the normal activity of the hive was maintained while the danger of swarming was eliminated.

In October of 1957, however, according to the story that Warwick Kerr has told countless times, a local beekeeper wandered by, noticed the queen excluders and removed them. Such excluders are usually only used in the time before queens start laying eggs and it’s possible that the fellow was just attempting to be helpful.

In any case, as the story goes, the removal of the excluders accidentally released 26 Africanized Honey Bee (AHB) queens with small swarms into the lush forest nearby. By the time Kerr learned of the accident, there was no way of figuring out where the bees had gone. He continued his work with the remaining Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs) and hybrid queens thinking that perhaps the escaped bees would either perish in the wild or mate with European Honey Bees (EHBs) and eventually lose their African characteristics.

Within a few years, nonetheless, the scientists at Rio Claro began getting reports from surrounding rural areas of feral bees furiously attacking farm animals and even humans. A lot of poor Brazilian farmers suffered livestock losses, and, eventually, there were human fatalities as well. By the early 1960s, it was clear that a rapid expansion had occurred among feral bee colonies and that the Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs) were moving rapidly into other parts of the country.

Whereas European Honey Bee (EHB) swarms might go only several miles and then look for an ideal place to establish themselves, African Honey Bees (AHBs) often move 60 miles at a hop and build their nests in any hollow log or rocky ridge they can find. By the 1980s, they’d reached Mexico.

In May of 1991, Jesus Diaz became the first individuals to be attacked by these new honey bees in the U.S.  He was mowing a lawn at a trailer court in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, when bees, apparently disturbed by the smell of gasoline and the vibration of the motor, began coming after him. When they began stinging his head and shoulders, he leapt from the rider -mower and ran, which is exactly what he should’ve done.

Diaz suffered only 18 stings and was treated at a local hospital. Authorities found the guilty colony, destroyed the bees and sent some of them to the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, where entomologists, using a number of tests, confirmed them as Africanized.

On July 15, 1993, 82-year-old Lino Lopez became the first individuals to die from African Honey Bee (AHB) stings on USA  soil. He was stung 40 times after he tried to remove a colony of bees from a wall in an abandoned building on his ranch near Harlingen, Texas. Samples of bees that stung Lopez were confirmed as Africanized both by Texas specialists and by the USDA in Maryland.

Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs) entered Southeastern Arizona in June 1993. an 88-year-old Apache Junction woman became Arizona’s first human fatality on October 10, 1995. She had disturbed a big Africanized Honey Bee (AHB) colony in an abandoned building on her property and was stung numerous times.

With the arrival of African Honey Bees (AHBs) in Arizona, we will need to be aware of some basic safety information. See information sheet 18 for additional details.

About John Payton

Bee control expert and founder of a bee control company
This entry was posted in Bee Control, Bee Removal and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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