Last updated on June 2nd, 2023 at 08:32 pm
Bee alert! Over the past six decades, a new kind of bee, commonly referred to as “killer bees”, has gradually been spreading northwards through the Americas. But what makes these bees truly unique is the bizarre backstory that involves a botched lab experiment, an ambitious scientist, and a surprising twist of fate.
The Creation of the Africanized Honeybee
The Africanized honeybee, the real name for the infamous killer bees, is a hybrid of two subspecies: the European honeybee and the African honeybee. They’re remarkably similar in appearance to European honeybees, so much so that bee scientists need to analyze their DNA to tell them apart. However, their behavior is anything but similar.
A Brazilian bee scientist, Warwick Kerr, is the one to “blame” for this bee creation. Contrary to the sinister image some might imagine, Kerr was far from a mad scientist scheming for world domination. His intent was entirely noble. He wanted to improve Brazil’s honey industry by creating a new breed of bee that was better suited for Brazil’s tropical climate.
A Hybrid With a Purpose
European honeybees are excellent honey producers, but they were struggling in Brazil’s climate, falling victim to tropical diseases and predators. African honeybees, while not producing as much honey, are more resilient in hot climates and show better resistance to diseases. Kerr aimed to create a new hybrid that would thrive in Brazil’s climate and also generate abundant honey.
But there was a hitch. African honeybees are notably more defensive about their nests than their European counterparts. While we don’t fully understand why this is the case, it’s speculated that it may be due to the evolution alongside vertebrate predators. Regardless, in Africa, beekeepers manage to work with African honeybees effectively, which gave Kerr hope that his hybrid idea could work.
Kerr’s hybrid, the Africanized honeybees, did thrive in Brazil’s climate, and they had the potential to boost the country’s honey production significantly. There was just one problem: they were still incredibly aggressive.
A Legendary Lab Accident
In 1957, a visiting scientist accidentally released 26 of the hybrid queen bees from Kerr’s experimental facility while Kerr was away. These bees established colonies in the wild, interbred with feral European honeybees, and began their journey through South America, eventually reaching Central America, Mexico, and the southwestern United States.
This wasn’t good news for the European honeybees. The Africanized bees competed for the same resources and outperformed their European counterparts. They also have a violent tendency to murder the European queens and take over their hives. Despite the increase in Brazil’s honey production due to the hybrid bees, the spread of these highly aggressive hives became a significant concern.
The Birth of the “Killer Bee”
Interestingly, the hysteria about these so-called “killer bees” didn’t take off until nearly a decade later, when Kerr publicly criticized the Brazilian government. The government and some press outlets responded by labeling the Africanized bees “abelhas assassinas”, or killer bees, and painting Kerr as a Dr. Frankenstein-like character who had engineered bees that would attack on command.
In truth, Africanized honeybees pose a threat only in certain circumstances. An individual Africanized honeybee is no more dangerous than a European honeybee. They only become more aggressive when defending their hive. Despite this, their reputation as “killer bees” stuck because of their highly defensive behavior.
A Possible Turnaround
Over the decades, Africanized bees have reportedly killed about a thousand people, which translates to roughly 16 a year. Despite this unsettling statistic, there’s a glimmer of hope that these bees might be becoming less aggressive. Observations from beekeepers and research on hives in Mexico and Puerto Rico suggest they’re exhibiting less extreme defensive behavior. This might be due to interbreeding with the more docile European honeybees, or due to humans destroying particularly defensive hives.
However, the message remains clear: don’t mess with any honeybee hive unless you’re equipped with proper knowledge and protective gear. While the story of the Africanized honeybees is indeed a peculiar one, it also provides a sobering reminder of the unforeseen consequences that can arise when we tamper with nature.