sustainable backyard beekeeping

Thoughts About “Africanized” Honeybees

In October 2013, I came across a really interesting and thought-provoking opinion essay about Africanized honeybees that was published on-line as a blog. Entitled “The Africanized Bee Myth,” the essay was published at this web address:

I wrote a response to this essay that was also published at Root Simple.  Below is the original essay, followed by my own written response to it.

“The Africanized Bee Myth” by Root Simple.

Beekeeping is on the way to being legalized in Los Angeles. But there’s one issue that keeps coming up: Africanized bees.

African honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) were introduced to the Americas in Brazil in 1957. Over the years, on their journey north, they have hybridized with European honeybees (Apis mellifera). African and hybrid “Africanized” honeybees can’t tolerate cold temperatures so there is a northern boundary to their territory.

Visually, Africanized honeybees are indistinguishable from purebred European varieties. The only way you can tell the difference is through DNA testing. They are just a hybridized subspecies of honeybee.

The hysteria over African honeybees is just that, hysteria. I have helped move many hives here from walls, trees and kitchen vents to people who have wanted to have bees. Most likely, all of the hives I have moved have been Africanized. I have yet to encounter a feral hive that I would consider aggressive. Africanized bees should not be used as an excuse to ban beekeeping in Los Angeles or anywhere else that has Africanized bee populations.

The people fanning the Africanized bee hysteria all have agendas (and, I’ll point out, they have never actually worked with Africanized bees–only killed them). Exterminators want your money. Government bureaucrats need an enemy to justify their jobs and pensions (government vector control “experts” the TSA, NSA and DEA have a lot in common including a bumbling incompetence). Conventional beekeepers are so blinded by honey production and pollination service income that they fail to see the long term evolutionary advantages of African bee genetics, specifically disease resistance. And I can’t help but think there’s a subconscious racism here of the sort that you find at the extreme end of the anti-invasive species movement (see Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn for more on that subject).

Africanized colonies have been living for years in walls, trees and utility boxes of the warmer parts of North America without any human intervention. They have, through the process of natural selection, survived all the problems that have decimated the hives of commercial beekeepers: varroa mite, American Foul Brood, nosema, etc. and I have no doubt they will figure out how to deal with the small hive beetle. Instead of demonizing Africanized colonies, we should see a possible answer to colony collapse disorder. As permaculturalists like to say, in the problem is a solution.

Below is my response to “The Africanized Bee Myth.”

Dear RootSimple,

Thanks for your interesting and thought-provoking argument about the importance of Africanized honeybees to the future of honeybees and beekeeping.
  There are at least two ideas in your piece with which I strongly agree. One of your ideas I strongly disagree with.

First, you are absolutely correct that Africanized honeybees are a “problem” that is actually “the solution” to this problem. Second, I think that you are correct that Africanized honeybees should not be used as an excuse to ban beekeeping in places like Los Angeles or elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the sometimes extreme defensiveness of Africanized bees IS a real issue for urban beekeeping in the Southwest. We cannot deal with that reality by believing that such defensiveness does not exist. I agree with you that this defensiveness (imagined or real) has been greatly exaggerated and sensationalized. I also think that we cannot deal with the issue of defensiveness by banning beekeeping in urban areas of the Southwest.

The problem that Africanized bees can help solve is that the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) has been over-domesticated, creating a species with a shallow gene pool that is rapidly losing its ability to survive the industrial agricultural system and all of its destructive practices and inputs, like monocultures and systemic pesticides.
The honeybee is neither domesticated nor wild. It is both. Domesticated species like plants and bees need their wild relatives in order to stay healthy.

The so-called Africanized honeybee is closer to the wild side of the continuum. Here in the Southwest (northern Arizona) the Africanized honeybee is living among us. I prefer to call these bees “feral.”
Because of their closer connection to the wild and undomesticated, the feral bees have “all of the long-term evolutionary advantages of African bee genetics,” as you wrote.

From what I can tell from my own experiences with feral bees here in the Verde River Valley of Arizona, these are very strong and resilient bees. They are disease and varroa mite resistant. They can survive and thrive in difficult arid conditions. They do not suffer from CCD. Africanized bees aren’t supposed to store much honey, but many of these bees create excellent (large) honey surpluses. In essence, they seem to be extremely well-adapted to local environmental conditions.

Many of these feral, locally adapted colonies are also highly defensive. They are not aggressive, but they are substantially more defensive than the more domesticated, European honeybees. Unlike you, I have encountered feral colonies that were especially defensive. (Feral swarms, like domesticated swarms, are docile).
  When they feel threatened, some of these locally adapted, feral (“Africanized”) honeybees remind me of wildfire. They can kill people and other mammals like horses, chickens, and birds, and have done so on a few occasions. (These stinging incidents are sensationalized in the media, creating the “hysteria” that you mentioned).
  But wildfire is a necessary part of nature, especially in some arid ecosystems, like ponderosa pine forests here in the Southwest. Wildfire (but not catastrophic wildfire) is essential for maintaining ecological health.

Being both wild and domesticated, honeybees belong to the sacred feminine divine. That part of the sacred brings both life and death into the world, the two being inseparable. That bees bring both life (through pollination, etc.) and death to us (stinging, suffocation, etc.) is part of their sacred mystery. Thus bees should be respected, revered, and celebrated, rather than feared, exploited, killed, or banned.

Given the severe decline of the health of the domesticated honeybee, especially the industrial agricultural honeybee, whose demise seems near, we need the “wildfire” that comes from the Africanized honeybee, whose strong and resilient genetic roots are coming northward to us from the rest of Latin America (from Mexico southward), going back down to Brazil and across the Atlantic Ocean to mother Africa, where Western science says that the honeybee originated. Our feral, locally adapted, oftentimes more defensive honeybees can survive and thrive here on the northern edge of Latin America (U.S. border notwithstanding).

I have found that domesticated honeybees “imported” into this part of Arizona from other places (even other Africanized places, like south Texas) just don’t thrive here. Many non-locally adapted honeybees don’t seem to be able to gather enough food to survive, much less to thrive. However, the imported bees are far less defensive and are usually far easier to work with, especially for inexperienced beekeepers.

It is the sometimes “extreme” and unpredictable defensiveness of the feral honeybee that is “the rub.” How are we going to keep the more highly defensive but locally adapted honeybees in more urban areas here in the Southwest? There are a fair number of novice beekeepers around here who want to keep bees in backyard urban/suburban situations but don’t yet have the experience and training to work with more highly defensive bees successfully. The defensiveness of the feral bees is less of an issue in more rural areas, even at lower elevations, where the Africanized bees “rule.”

I have two top bar hives in my small semi-urban backyard. The hives are located about ten feet from my kitchen window, and less than one hundred feet from the homes of at least three of our neighbors. If these two colonies were as highly defensive as some of the feral colonies that I am keeping in more rural places, it would be socially problematic, even though I know how best to work with the more defensive bees. So, for now, I am making sure that the queens in my two backyard hives are of the imported, more domesticated, non-locally adapted stock. They do well enough. Because I’m not a commercial beekeeper, it’s not important to me that they don’t make a lot of surplus honey. 
In the meantime, I am beginning to work with the more defensive, more locally-adapted “feral” colonies in more rural situations to see if we can do queen breeding/rearing/selection to select for those queens that combine the “wildfire” resilience of the Africanized genes with the less defensive temperament that seems to come from the more domesticated, European genes.

We can still find resilient and robust feral colonies that seem less defensive living at higher elevations (above 6,500 ft.) only thirty miles away, on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.
  A synthesis of these two traits would seem to be close to perfect. We would have a robust, resilient, locally adapted honeybee that would also be gentle enough to keep in urban and teaching situations. These urban situations are often good for the bees, because so much more forage is available for them, especially in times of extreme aridity, when adjacent wildlands are parched and the land yields little if any nectar and pollen.

Besides working to create a more locally adapted and less defensive bee, we also need to continue learning “best practices” for how to work successfully with more defensive bees, especially in urban situations. We also need to continue learning how to teach others about bees and others about how they can go about being organic/holistic beekeepers themselves, as part of a larger community. (I teach top bar beekeeping).

Thanks again for your thoughts about the Africanized honeybee in the context of legalizing/banning beekeeping in Los Angeles, y viva las abejas!
 Patrick Pynes