The Africanized honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellate) is a hybrid of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera Linnaeus). In 1956, colonies of African honey bee queens were imported to Brazil with the hopes of breeding them with European honey bees to create a species of honey bee that would be better suited to a tropical climate, thereby increasing honey production. European honey bees are better adapted to a cooler climate, which caused honey production in Brazil to be very low. The objective was to produce hybrids that would readily forage while maintaining the calm demeanor of their European relations. In 1957, twenty-six African queens and swarms of European bees escaped from an apiary south of Sao Paulo, establishing an invasive population of Africanized hybrids that did not keep the placidity of their European forefathers. In the decades since, they have spread northward, progressing about 200 miles per year, through South America, Central America, finally reaching southern Texas in 1990, Arizona in 1993, and southern California in 1995. This rate of expansion has significantly slowed in the years since, largely due to climatic limitations, as Africanized honey bees cannot survive in temperate climates. Thus, they are found only in areas below 34° latitude in the northern hemisphere and above 32° latitude in the southern hemisphere.
Cosmetically, Africanized honey bees and Western honey bees cannot be easily distinguished, although Africanized honey bees are slightly smaller than their Western honey bee counterparts. Primary differences between the two species manifest themselves behaviorally. Africanized honey bees are significantly more defensive than Western honey bees are. A study published by the University of Florida states that,
“Selection pressures induced by man may be, in part, responsible for this increased defensiveness. 'Beekeeping' (management of honey bee colonies by humans) is more common in Europe, where the native honey bees have been bred for gentleness and ease of management. In contrast, 'honey hunting' (near-complete destruction of hive to harvest contents) is more common in Africa, resulting in a bee that is more defensive of its nest.”
Avoid Agitating or Attracting the Bees
All honey bees will defend their nest, just like you would defend your home. Western honey bees will typically attack an intruder with a handful of bees, while Africanized honey bees will swarm intruders with hundreds of bees. In addition, Africanized honey bees are easily provoked and will aggressively follow a potential threat a third of a mile to attack them. This has led to victims receiving ten times as many stings from Africanized honey bees than from Western honey bees, and approximately 1,000 people getting killed by them since their initial escape in Brazil. This aggressive behavior has earned them the moniker “killer bees”. It’s important to note that an Africanized honey bee’s venom is not more potent than a Western honey bee’s venom. Because Africanized honey bee’s are smaller, they likely deliver a smaller dose of venom. Deaths derived from Africanized honey bee stings are due to the sheer number of stings received, as this equates to more venom injected. Africanized honey bees are prone to fickle behavior, as they have been known to leave the nest when the colony has been disturbed, and even abandon the nest entirely in times of dearth or repeated nest disturbance. Their colonies have a higher amount of reproduction than Western honey bee colonies, and Africanized colonies tend to be smaller, as they split their colonies upwards of 10 times per year. This ensures survival of the species as it prevents a shortage of food, since Africanized colonies don’t keep a large reservoir of food on hand, likely a behavioral trait from when resources for food were readily available throughout the year.
African honey bees and Western honey bees share the same mating biology and life cycle, the only key difference between the two is developmental time. When a newly emerged queen mates, she does so outside of the colony. Mating occurs in flight, with the fastest drones (male bees) having the greatest amount of success in breeding with the queen. Queens will mate numerous times over the course of a week, mating with around 20 drones. Since African colonies produce more drones than Western colonies, a Western queen is more likely to mate with an African drone than with a Western drone. African(ized) honey bees develop faster than Western honey bees, thus a queen with an African genotype is going to emerge faster than a queen with purely Western pedigree. When the new queen emerges, she immediately kills her sister queens who have yet to emerge. Thus ensuring African-Western hybridization of the colony.
The economic impact on Western honey bee beekeepers is important to note. If there are Africanized honey bees in the area, then Western honey bee beekeepers will notice a decrease in their bee’s honey production. This is due to a lack of resources available due to large amounts of Africanized honey bees consuming all available resources in the area.
It is important not to demonized Africanized honey bees. They have adapted to survive on continents they are not native to, and in climes they were not used to. They still pollinate flowers and crops, as well as produce honey that is packaged and sold for human consumption, thus bolstering our agricultural economy.