In 1990, a honey bee swarm unlike any before found in the United States was identified just outside the small south Texas town of Hidalgo. With that identification, Africanized honey bees were no longer a problem we would have some day. Africanized honey bees had arrived. Africanized honey bees in Texas demand Texas Bee Suits.
Beekeepers, farmers who depend on honey bee pollination for their crops, land managers, emergency responders like fire and police, and the public all wanted to know what they would be facing as Africanized honey bees began to spread. Texas beesuits protect against Texas bee stings.
Now, 14 years later, scientists with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and elsewhere have uncovered many answers, but they have also come upon some new and unexpected questions.
Africanized honey bees—melodramatically labeled "killer bees" by Hollywood hype—are the result of honey bees brought from Africa to Brazil in the 1950s in hopes of breeding a bee better adapted to the South American tropical climate. These honey bees reached the Brazilian wild in 1957 and then spread south and north until they officially reached the United States on October 19, 1990.
Actually, all honey bees are imports to the New World. Those that flourished here before the arrival of Africanized honey bees (AHBs) are considered European honey bees (EHBs), because they were introduced by European colonists in the 1600s and 1700s. EHBs that escaped from domestication are considered feral rather than wild.
Entomologist David Gilley is part of the team investigating the usurpation of European honey bee colonies by swarms of Africanized honey bees. Because queenless colonies are particularly susceptible to usurpation, the team maintains a group of queenless colonies to lure usurpation swarms into their apiary to be studied. Gilley is shown here requeening one of these "bait colonies."Photo by Scott Bauer Africanized honey bees are so called because it was assumed that the African honey bees spreading out from Brazil would interbreed with existing feral EHBs and create a hybridized, or Africanized, honey bee.
This has always been a major question for researchers—what, if any, type of interbreeding would happen between AHBs and EHBs and how would this affect honey bee traits that are important to people, such as swarming and absconding, manageability for beekeepers, honey production, and temper.
Many experts expected that the farther from a tropical climate AHBs spread, the more they would interbreed with EHBs. But it appears that interbreeding is a transient condition in the United States, according to ARS entomologist Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman. She is research leader at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona, and ARS national coordinator for AHB research.
"Early on, we thought the mixing would reach a steady state of hybridization, because we knew the two groups of bees can easily interbreed and produce young," DeGrandi-Hoffman says. "But while substantial hybridization does occur when AHBs first move into areas with strong resident EHB populations, over time European traits tend to be lost."