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A happy ending for the “Africanized” bee

December 13, 2013
Africanized honeybee  USDA

Africanized honeybee USDA

Bees were imported from Africa to Latin America in the 1950s by Brazilian researchers.  They planned to breed them with European honeybees to improve honey production because the African bees were believed to be hardier than their European cousins.  When the bees escaped from the laboratory, researchers learned that the African bees were also more aggressive than European honeybees.

When African bees began to spread throughout Latin America, they became one of the first media-promoted panics about “invasive” species.  The media reported that the bees were capable of swarming and killing people and animals and they predicted that the bees would eventually spread throughout the United States.

Like most of the media-promoted panics about “invasive” species, predictions about Africanized bees were eventually discredited.  The “invasion” stopped in Texas because cold winters prevented their movement further north.  And the extreme aggressiveness of the bees also proved to be an exaggeration, partially because interbreeding with the European honeybee moderated the behavior of the African bees.

The benefits of new species

Scientific American reports that after 60 years of interbreeding, bee researchers say the original goal of an improved bee species for Latin America has been achieved.  Hybridized bees have benefited from some of the characteristics of their African cousins.

  • Africanized bees are more resistant to parasites because they groom themselves more often than European bees.
  • Africanized bees are more aggressive foragers and are capable of finding nectar and pollen sources where European bees would not.

This interbreeding was accomplished by the bees themselves“…it is not even accurate to call them Africanized bees anymore.  After decades of a massive and uncontrollable continent-wide wild breeding experiment, the African-Italian hybrid has morphed into a totally new bee unlike either parent species.” (1)

Now bee researchers are trying to breed new varieties of bees that are tailor made for specific conditions.  For example, where humans are stealing honey, a more aggressive bee with more of the characteristics of the African bees may be best suited.  In places where mites are a problem, bee keepers will want a “bee that obsessively cleans itself.”

Personally, we prefer the earlier scenario, in which the bees sorted it out amongst themselves.  We are deeply suspicious of the claims of humans that we are capable of producing better results than nature can accomplish on its own. More often than not, the results of human interference are unintended consequences, if not disastrous.

Does this sound familiar?

This story is a familiar refrain for the readers of Million Trees:

  • New species should not be assumed to be “bad” species.
  • Problems caused by new species are often resolved without our interference.
  • New species often make positive contributions to ecosystems.
  • Methods used to eradicate new species are often futile as well as more harmful than the mere existence of new species.
  • Hybridization should not be viewed as a problem.  Particularly at a time of a rapidly changing climate, hybridization often facilitates natural selection, resulting in a new species which is better adapted to current conditions than its predecessors.

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(1) Erik Vance, “Bee Researchers Make Friends with a Killer,” Scientific American, December 11, 2013

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