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The Latest Research on Africanized Honey BeesBy Kim Kaplan
March 2, 2004
While Hollywood has made Africanized honey bees a frightening villain of mythic proportions since the 1950s, the Agricultural Research Service has been helping people learn the best ways to live with them in the real world.
Africanized honey bees (AHBs)--also melodramatically labeled "killer bees"--are the result of honey bees brought from Africa to Brazil in 1956 in hopes of breeding a bee better adapted to the South American tropical climate. They reached the Brazilian wilds in 1957 and then spread south and north until they arrived in this country in 1990.
One of the most asked questions about AHBs has been how far they will spread into the United States. In 14 years, they have reached five states--Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, southern California and Nevada--as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
ARS entomologist José D. Villa at the ARS Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Research Unit in Baton Rouge, La., has found a correlation between rainfall of more than 55 inches, distributed evenly throughout the year, and an almost complete barrier to AHB spread. He is far from ready to confirm a cause-and-effect relationship, but the connection is strong and he is planning research to look for the behavior or physiological mechanism that may explain the relationship.
AHBs are more defensive, stinging more with less provocation than other honey bees and thus making beekeeping more difficult. Honey bees and beekeeping are essential to the country's agriculture, with pollination from bees estimated to be worth $14 billion annually.
ARS entomologist Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Ariz., and her colleagues have found six biological and behavioral factors that may be responsible for making AHBs such a successful invader in areas to which they have spread. Armed with this information, they are working on ways for beekeepers to maintain the more manageable European-descended honey bees in AHB areas.
Read more about this research in the March issue of Agricultural Research magazine.
ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.