It sounds like something right out of a horror movie – a new, aggressive and often dangerous species of bee that escapes from a lab and quickly spreads through its surroundings. Scary as that sounds, such a scenario actually occurred; today this new hybrid bee species is commonly known as the killer bee.
Out of Africa, Into the Americas
The history of Killer Bees begins in 1956, when twenty-six colonies of African Honey Bees arrived in the country of Brazil. The bees had been imported by Dr. Warwick Kerr, a geneticist who had been asked by the Brazilian government to develop a new species of bee. European honey bees, which had arrived with European settlers some four centuries prior, had proven to be ill-suited for the country’s hot and humid environment.
To solve this problem, Kerr began to breed the African bees with their European counterparts, hoping to create an insect that was hardly enough to survive its tropical surroundings without becoming overly aggressive. That second goal serves to highlight the character flaws of African honey bees; they are notorious for their bad tempers and willingness to sting perceived threats.
A Quick Spread
Kerr’s breeding experiments succeeded in creating a new type of bee; unfortunately, it failed to breed out the African bee’s nasty temperament and quick aggression. At this point, the story takes a disastrous turn; in 1957, just one year after the project began, twenty African queen bees escaped captivity. Following them into the wild were numerous European worker bees. The hybridized bees quickly went about establishing colonies in the Brazilian rain forest, in addition to overtaking established beehives.
By the early 1970s, the new bees were present in most of Brazil, along with the neighboring countries of Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. A decade later they had reached Central America, and by 1990 the bees had traversed across Mexico and had reached Texas.
Today, these “killer” bees can be found throughout the southwestern United States, as well as the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Florida.
Beating Back the Bees
While the spread of killer bees might appear unstoppable, public officials are considering options to halt, or at least impede, their progress. One option calls for restricting entry to the mating regions of queen bees grown in commercial hives, allowing access only to large colonies of European honey bees, which would be stationed nearby. If successful, African drone bees would find it difficult to get near and mate with European queen bees.
A second option would involve beekeepers replacing colony queens on a regular basis. This strategy would theoretically be effective at removing any African queen bees in a timely fashion, replacing these invaders with European bees.