Africanized Honey Bees: Historical Perspective

Africanized honey bees have spread through most of the Americas partly because of their tendency to move more frequently than other honey bees. Their biggest move, however, crossing the Atlantic from Africa to Brazil, was not done through their own initiative. Much controversy and a little mystery surrounds what exactly happened, but this much is clear: there was a man that helped them on that one.

By the 20th century, many people in the tropical zones of South America had developed a taste for honey and they imported European honey bees to establish on their farms. But these South American beekeepers found that the production of the European honey bee was not entirely satisfactory. The German, Spanish and Italian honey bees from colder and drier climates never adapted well to hot, wet and humid conditions of Brazil. To compensate, the tropical American beekeepers began investigating how they might breed a bee better suited to their environment.

Some Brazilians thought the answer might be found in the tropical zone of the continent located just across the Atlantic from Brazil Africa. They had seen reports of beekeepers in South Africa getting remarkable production from native honey bees. Some African beekeepers had imported European bees but they had not done well. The Africans had more success with the indigenous honey bees of the region.

African peoples had been obtaining honey from the wild honey bees for many centuries, and while they knew how furious the insects could get, they had also developed ways to avoid attack. In Africa's rural and wilderness areas, angry bees are among the lesser dangers humans can face. So the fact that the African honey bee stings defensively is insignificant in a region where simple survival is often difficult.

In 1956 a prominent Brazilian geneticist, Warwick Kerr, was asked by the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry if he could obtain some African honey bee queens and bring them back for breeding experiments. Kerr had devoted himself to studying Brazil's native stingless bees and was quite familiar with bee breeding and apiculture. In addition, he had just won his nation's top prize for genetics and was planning to spend the money that had come with it on a research trip to Africa.

Warwick Kerr thought there was a good possibility that he could utilize African stock to produce a new breed of honey bees, which would be less defensive than the wild African bees but which would be more productive than European honey bees in Brazil's tropical setting.

After some initial difficulty in packaging bees for transport and keeping them alive, he returned to Brazil with 63 live queens he had obtained from South African beekeepers. These were later taken to a quarantine area at an agricultural research station near Rio Claro, where 48 queens were still alive and well as 1956 came to an end.

By interbreeding the queens through artificial insemination with European drones, Kerr and his associates had produced a number of first generation hybrids. After several months of this activity, natural attrition reduced their stock of Africanized honey bees to 29 and they were maintained in hive boxes equipped with queen excluders.

Remember that the queens and drones are larger than the worker bees who go out to forage. By putting a device over the hive entrance with holes too small to allow the queen to escape but large enough for the workers to pass through, the normal activity of the hive was maintained while the danger of swarming was eliminated.

In October of 1957, however, according to the story that Warwick Kerr has told countless times, a local beekeeper wandered by, noticed the queen excluders and removed them. Such excluders are normally only used in the time before queens begin laying eggs and it is possible that the fellow was just trying to be helpful.

In any case, as the story goes, the removal of the excluders accidentally released 26 Africanized honey bee queens with small swarms into the lush forest nearby. By the time Kerr learned of the accident, there was no way of figuring out where the bees had gone. He continued his work with the remaining Africanized honey bees and hybrid queens thinking that perhaps the escaped bees would either perish in the wild or mate with European honey bees and eventually lose their African characteristics.

Within a few years, however, the researchers at Rio Claro began getting reports from surrounding rural areas of feral bees furiously attacking farm animals and even humans. Many poor Brazilian farmers suffered livestock losses, and, eventually, there were human fatalities as well. By the early 1960s, it was clear that a rapid expansion had occurred among feral bee colonies and that the Africanized honey bees were moving quickly into other parts of the country.

Whereas European honey bee swarms might go only a few miles and then look for an ideal place to establish themselves, Africanized honey bees often move 60 miles at a hop and build their nests in any hollow log or rocky ridge they can find. By the 1980s, they had reached Mexico.

In May of 1991, Jesus Diaz became the first person to be attacked by these new honey bees in the U.S. He was mowing a lawn at a trailer court in the border city of Brownsville, Texas, when bees, apparently disturbed by the smell of gasoline and the vibration of the motor, began coming after him. When they started stinging his head and shoulders, he leapt from the rider -mower and ran, which is exactly what he should have done.

Diaz suffered only 18 stings and was treated at a local hospital. Authorities found the guilty colony, destroyed the bees and sent some of them to the USDA Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, where entomologists, using a number of tests, confirmed them as Africanized.

On July 15, 1993, 82-year-old Lino Lopez became the first person to die from Africanized honey bee stings on U.S. soil. He was stung 40 times after he tried to remove a colony of bees from a wall in an abandoned building on his ranch near Harlingen, Texas. Samples of bees that stung Lopez were confirmed as Africanized both by Texas experts and by the USDA in Maryland.

Africanized honey bees entered Southeastern Arizona in June 1993. An 88-year-old Apache Junction woman became Arizona's first human fatality on October 10, 1995. She had disturbed a large Africanized honey bee colony in an abandoned building on her property and was stung numerous times.

With the arrival of Africanized honey bees in Arizona, we will need to be aware of some basic safety information. See information sheet 18 for more details.

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