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Why Are African Honeybees Here?

Posted On Apr 15, 2014

African honeybees, apis mellifera scutellata, are a species of honeybee that was originally only in Africa. In 1956, Dr. Warwick Kerr, brought several dozen African queen bees from South Africa to Brazil. At that time the honey production in Brazil was failing and Dr. Kerr believed that the more prolific African honeybees would help improve the honey production. His dream was to seclude the African queen bees, taking their offspring and artificially inseminating their offspring with the more gentle European drone “male” bees, thereby retaining their characteristic of natural disease resistance.

While Dr. Kerr was away one weekend, a local hobbyist beekeeper, who was unaware of the research, intentionally removed the “queen excluders” that had previously confined the queen bees. When Dr. Kerr returned, he quickly noted that approximately 17 of the queen bees had escaped (swarmed) into the nearby tropical jungle. Little did he know of the disaster that would ensue as a result of this mishap. What was originally thought would not be a significant problem became a tragedy. Over the next several years, thousands of human and animal lives were lost due to severe stinging attacks by African honeybees.

For years it was believed that the African genetics of these few escaped queen bees and their offspring, would become diluted as the bees expanded northward through South and Central America. Normally, natural mating that would occur with the European honeybees already present would have very quickly diluted out the genetic aggressive characteristics. However, it became very evident that there were biological pressures that existed that somehow permitted the African genetics to remain relatively pure as that species vigorously expanded their territory and construed to travelnorthwards at an alarming rate.

Several U.S. agencies including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service, teamed up with Mexican and Panamanian agencies and beekeepers to flood the area just north of the Panama Canal with European breeder honeybee colonies in the hope that an inordinate number of breeder colonies would surely cause the aggressive African genetic strain to be diluted. That endeavor failed. Consequently, their species expanded further north across the Panama Canal, and continued to march through Mexico.

As these African bee colonies continued to multiply, they swarmed away from each other, naturally causing them to swarm into different forage areas that permits the daughter colonies from competing with their parent colonies. At that time it was not known that the certain, but critical, biological behaviors unique to African honeybees, created a barrier that would not allow their genetic purity to be diluted. Moreover, many, if not most, of the undesirable genetic traits turned out to be dominate traits. As a result, when European bees mate with African bees, the genetic dominance of the African bees prevail, creating even more of a problem. Once this undesirable strain of honeybee prevailed in Mexico, there was nothing left to do but prepare for its arrival in the United States.