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Killer bee myth

Dr. Warwick Kerr, Brazilian scientist and social activist, was much maligned by his native government because of his outspoken stance against the military dictatorship in power in Brazil.

Consequently, Kerr's work at improving the honey bee by importing Africanized stock was at first ridiculed and criticised within his country, and that tone was irresponsibly picked up by North American journalists and bureaucrats.

Journalists, because the thought of 'Killer Bees' invading America sold papers; Bureaucrats because the thought of 'Killer Bees' invading America meant research and regulation dollars.

We were told that thousands would die because of the 'Killer Bees'... even one death would be tragic, but the bald truth is, in fifteen years, few - if any - deaths have been definitively attributed to Africanized stock in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, honey production has exploded, taking Brazil from number 47 in world production when Kerr introduced his improved bee for the tropics, to number seven in world-wide honey output today!

Since the removal of Brazil's military dictatorship and its replacement with a democratic government, Dr. Kerr's work has finally been appreciated in his native land.

'Killer Bees,' known in scientific parlance as Apis mellifera scutellata, are a variety of honeybee first domesticated in the scrub desert of central South Africa.

Although their hives are small, they are said to be more productive than the Italian, German, and other strains of European honeybees to which they are related.

Proponents of Apis mellifera scutellata say the African bees set to work an hour earlier than their cousins, are more disease-resistant, and yield more and, by many accounts, better honey.

For those reasons, in 1956 the Brazilian government commissioned Warwick Kerr, to introduce the African bees to South America.

At the time Brazil ranked 47th among the world's honey-producing countries With the arrival of the new variety, that country's ranking quickly rose to seventh, and much of the honey we eat in this country now comes from Brazil.

Kerr lost favor in 1964, when he protested publicly against the then-military government's excesses, and he spent time in jail for exercising his conscience. In 1969 he was again arrested, this time for protesting an incident in which Brazilian soldiers raped and tortured a nun and went unpunished for their crime.

The Brazilian government was not pleased by Kerr's protests. To cast doubt on his credentials as a scientist, it portrayed him in court as a kind of Frankenstein doctor bent on mayhem and the eventual destruction of his adopted country.

The lurid newspaper stories that followed touched off a panic, proclaiming that Kerr had been training his imported Africans to be 'killer bees,' attacking humans on command.

Thanks to the diligence of the military police, the government went on to trumpet, this foreign madman was stopped before he could put his evil drones to work.

Thus the myth of the killer bee was born.

African bees are no more venomous than their European cousins. Neither do they go out of their way to look for targets, human or otherwise.

The difference lies in the African bees' defensiveness; resistant to most pests, they have natural enemies only in predators, and, survival of the fittest being what it is, the African bees have long since evolved to resist predation with extreme prejudice.

When their colonies are attacked or approached, they tend to swarm and sting with abandon.

Since their arrival in the Americas, the African purebreds have intermingled with European varieties of honeybee, giving birth to a hybrid, the 'Africanized bee.' It is these small, graceful creatures that have been crossing our border into the American Southwest of late, and giving so many people fits.

To call them 'killer bees' is clearly wrong; the once more common German bee is more aggressive. And because Western culture tends to equate anything African with savagery, 'Africanized bees' isn't much help.

In Latin America the creatures are called abejas bravas, 'brave bees,' a name unlikely to catch on with any but the savviest gringos.

Thanks to a successful lobbying effort by the Brazilian government, the formerly common name 'Brazilian bees' has been quashed.

Africanized bees, then, is what we'll have to make do with--with no connotations, positive or negative.

TUCSON WEEKLY

Posted:22-2-2008



Does the flower make the honeybee or the honeybee the flower?