Saturday, October 24, 2020
News + Politics The myth of the killer bees

The myth of the killer bees

After decades of teaching people the importance of honeybees, one media frenzy could wipe all the progress out

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The media played it like a sci-fi horror movie: “Aggressive killer bees swarm Concord neighborhood” CBS warned. “How bee rampage terrorized neighborhood, killed two dogs,” the Chronicle screeched. It didn’t help that the bees attacked on a street named Hitchcock Road.

But it turns out that these insects weren’t actually the hybrids known as “killer bees.” And in the process of turning this into a horror show, the media may have whipped up a frenzy that could lead to the destruction of critical, already threatened, honeybee populations.

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Most of the time, backyard beekeepers can make sure their bees are harmless

In fact, it could turn out that the much-maligned “killers” are not entirely bad.

The domestic honeybee population is being decimated by mites and something called colony-collapse disorder, threatening much of the West Coast and southern agricultural industry, which depends on the little buzzing pollinators.

These newcomers are tougher, and seem immune to the plagues that are killing their gentler cousins – and in all but a few rare cases, they aren’t really “killers.”

The terms “killer bee” and “Africanized bee” are used to describe bees that are a hybrid of Western and African honeybees. Breeders introduced these hybrids to Brazil in the 1950s, but some swarms escaped and made their way through South and Central America. They arrived in North America in 1985, have been travelling slowly northward, and were first documented in California in 1994.

[We are not entirely happy with the term “Africanized,” for obvious reasons, so from here on out we will refer to these insects by their scientific name, Apis mellifera scutellata.]

Here in the Bay Area, beekeepers acknowledge that scutellata honeybees are more aggressive around their nests and defend a wider territory around their hives than European honeybees. But they worry that the stories suggesting killer bees are among us, thereby triggering mass panic and the possible needless destruction of colonies of harmless bees.

At this point, I should add that I don’t keep honeybees myself but I am a fan of these tiny, hard-working little creatures. I prefer to observe them in the wild, as they buzz among the lavender, crawl across the light-blue rosemary flowers and land on the chocolaty green inner disks of giant yellow sunflowers. There’s a calculated reason for my caution: you have very little chance (unless you accidentally step on, or squeeze them) of being stung by any sort of honeybees when they are out looking for food. The worker bees are focused on finding nectar and pollen; they don’t care about you. The chances of getting stung increase as you near their hive. That’s because the hive is where the next generation of bees is raised and protected.

I learned most everything I know about honeybees from a beekeeper named Jack Mingo. He lives a couple of blocks from my place on Alameda Island, but I never saw any sign of his bees until I bought a jar of local honey and discovered it came from his backyard hives. I introduced myself to him as a writer interested in learning more about bees, and a few weeks later, Mingo invited me to help catch an errant swarm. The bees, Mingo said, had exited one of his hives about 30 minutes earlier, while he was in his back yard. They whirled past his washing line in a loose tornado, then landed on a tree outside his yard, where they were clustered on one of its lower branches in a big pulsating black and amber clump to protect their traveling queen.

I didn’t get stung while we were rounding up the swarm. As Mingo explained, a swarm is like a bunch of kids on a field trip: they are revved up and excited, but in happy and carefree ways.

But the minute we transferred the swarm into one of Mingo’s hives, their territorial instincts kicked in and a few of them began to buzz me, at which point I committed the three cardinal sins, if you are trying to maintain calm in a hive: I panicked, I made weird jerky movements, and I began running. I got stung several times on my ankle, a location Mingo suspected was influenced by my unwise decision to wear dark brown socks, a color bees associate with bears and other furry enemies. He also explained that when a honeybee stings, it releases a pheromone that makes its comrades go into attack mode, leading to more than one sting, often in the same location.

But I only got stung three times and when I fled Mingo’s yard, the bees did not pursue me any further.

So, when I read about the Concord attacks, in which an experienced beekeeper moved one hive without incident, then moved a second hive and triggered a highly aggressive attack that led to people being stung and the death of two dogs, I contacted Mingo to see what the beekeeping community made of the incident.

“We’re all as mystified as you,” said Mingo, who is a member of the Alameda County Beekeepers Association. “It’s possible, I suppose, that a colony of very aggressive bees hitched a ride on a truck. It’s possible that this was a normal colony that responded abnormally to something unusual, but we have not observed any evidence of change in our local colonies.”

Some strains of Western honeybees can be more aggressive than others, Mingo noted. “But aggressive bees ban be handled and gentled,” he added. “For example, changing the queen to a non-aggressive purebred solves the problem in just over a month.”

Mingo felt there were several takeaways from the Concord attacks: Even if scutellata bees have arrived in the Bay Area, they are no more aggressive in the field, where most people would see them; they only become aggressive if their hives are disturbed; and they seem to need a higher temperature than much of the Bay Area provides.

“So, it’s possible that these bees could survive in Contra Costa, maybe, but most of Northern California, including Oakland and San Francisco, no,” he said.

As for some of the more inflammatory reports about the Concord situation, Mingo expressed sadness and concern.  “Talk about spreading panic and misinformation,” he said. “Panic gets people to do stupid things. After a couple of decades teaching how important bees are to humanity, it looks like a frightened backlash could wipe it all out.”

Bees pollinate most of the fruit and vegetables that humans, and other animals, eat. Their services help make apples, almonds, cherries, strawberries, tomatoes and watermelon, just to mention a few from a very long list of yummy and healthy foods. And then there’s their honey, wax and pollen. In other words, losing them to disease would be a monumental disaster.

Meanwhile, Mingo noted that fatalities from bees are very rare. He referred me to the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, which states that, “Unless a person has a bee sting allergy, the average person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight. The average adult can withstand more than 1,000 stings, although 500 stings could kill a child.”

These two factoids help explain why two dogs, but no people died in the Concord attacks. They also suggest that some of the coverage of the incident was a more than a tad sensationalized.

Norman Lott, a volunteer with the Mt. Diablo Beekeeper’s Association, who himself was stung by the Concord bees, said some reports were “overblown, at first.”

“But the bees were still stinging people for a couple of days, which is not normal, “he added. “I’ve been around plenty of nasty hives, some crankier than others, but this was beyond that. This was very unusual. It was not your normal cranky hive.”

Western honeybee hives have guard bees that monitor a 10 ft. perimeter, Lott explained. “But scutellata bees might have a 100-yard perimeter, and once they sting they release a pheromone that attracts more bees, so you are in trouble.”

He said one of the best ways to deal with a grumpy hive is to requeen it with a gentler queen. “Say you have 50,000 bees in the hive, and even one drone mated with that queen, then 10 percent of your hive could bee cranky. That’s 5,000 cranky bees. It escalates really quickly.

Lott said he hopes the East Bay Regional Parks District will set up traps to monitor bees in its parks, after a university researcher found some scutellata bee specimens in Briones Regional Park in spring 2014.

But EBRPD spokesperson Carolyn Jones says the park district doesn’t monitor for bees and doesn’t plan to.

“We are mostly an open space district, and bees and yellow jackets and wasps are part of the natural landscape,” Jones said. If someone reports a problem, we’d turn it over to the local vector control district, and if people are worried they can carry an Epipen and Benadryl.”

Deborah Bass, the public affairs manager for the Contra Costa Mosquito and Vector Control District, said she had received some calls in the wake of the attacks from people wanting her organization to come and remove some bees.

“I’ve also had calls from people saying they want to go to a park and asking if it’s safe,” Bass said.

She added that part of her organization’s role is to educate the public. “We tell them, these bees are in California, and people are learning to live with them.”

Bass stressed that the venom from scutellata bees is no more toxic than that of Western honeybees. “It’s just the amount of bee stings that can be hazardous,” she said.

If you encounter aggressive bees, you should run and get into a structure, Bass said. ‘That way you won’t get stung as much as if you kept running,” she said. “And don’t try to squat or kill them, because then they will release pheromones that will make things worse.”

Beekeepers, starting with Lott, point out that there could have been some “possible mishandling of the hive.”

‘The owner of the hive was shocked by the reaction, the hyper-defensiveness of the bees,” Lott said, “but his biggest mistake was not replacing the disturbed hive in its original location.”

That would have allowed the colony to find their way back to their home, Lott explained, at which point the beekeeper could have dealt with them, once they became less active at night. “Instead they were left homeless and upset—and continued to attack people for several days.”

Even so, the response of the hiveless bees was abnormal, said Lott, who specializes in raising queens to requeen what he calls “nasty hives.”

‘They did not calm down and go away,” he said noting that regular honeybees tend to act “almost melancholy, but not aggressive,” if their hives are removed.

Lott does not buy the theory that the Bay Area will be spared because of colder weather. ‘It’s nice to hope for that, but it hasn’t proved to be true,” he said. ‘The scutellata adapt. They are a hybrid of a tropical bee, but they have been mixing with regular bees on their trip here from Brazil. Their progress north has slowed down to 150 miles in the last 10 years, but they have been found in Lafayette. We’re just on the cusp of where they are.”

Lott suspects that part of the problem with their spread may lie in the fact that demand for bees in California’s almond orchards is so great that people truck bees in from Arizona and Texas. “All it takes is a few scutellata drones in the mix that manage to mate with a California honey bee queen,” he said.  “It’s something we have to live with, and we might have to take out some different protocols in future, like, when you catch a swarm, you need to requeen it. So, we need more beekeepers to manage the bees and help keep the DNA watered down.”

But the newly arrived bees do have one thing going in their favor — they seem to have better resistance to mites and other diseases that have wrecked havoc with Western honey bees, which have succumbed in staggering numbers to Colony Collapse Disorder in recent years.

“They are the survivor bees,” Lott says.

Catherine Edwards, a beekeeper who belongs to several beekeeping associations in the Bay Area, said beekeepers sometimes encounter hives of European honeybees that are very strong and there are ways to deal with that that don’t endanger the community.

“It’s like when you deal with people, you find very placid people and you find people who are fast to anger,” she said. “So, people have personalities, animals have personalities and insects, or in the case of bees, the colony itself has a personality, but mostly the European bees are placid, when treated well and present no danger to the community.”

As for the prospect that the more aggressive bees are heading our way, Edwards said the beekeeping community would be informed, if that were the case. “Beekeeping Associations stay updated about all kinds of beekeeping issues, and this is one of them,” she said.

So, what should beekeepers do if their bees are behaving badly? “In that moment, you close the hives and let the bees settle,” Edwards said. “You stop working with them and you let them settle. Then, if you don’t know what to do or you are not really experienced, you consult with other beekeepers. You don’t panic and try to do something in the moment.”

Edwards reiterated that there are many ways to deal with an aggressive hive, depending on how and why it’s aggressive. “These options are things you want to think about, but closing the hive and walking way is the most effective way of settling the bees down. Then you might want to look to the future, like asking, is this hive something I wan to deal with on a regular basis, or is it something I want to change somehow, or is it so bad that I want to destroy it. But it’s a very rare situation when they are that bad.”

The most effective way to learn to become a good beekeeper is to join a beekeeping association and connect with other beekeepers, Edwards added. ‘That way you have a network to fall back on,” she explained. “If you are trying to do it yourself, it’s a lot harder.”

As for the current atmosphere, in which the public are freaking out that so-called “killer” bees are coming our way, Edwards suggested that people ask themselves when was the last time they heard of something like this happening in their area. “This is a very rare occurrence,” she said, “People get killed in cars much more often on a regular basis and we haven’t stopped driving cars. There needs to be some perspective on this.”

44 COMMENTS

  1. What a pleasure to read such a well-reported, nuanced and fascinating story. Thanks for untangling all of the many threads of this complex issue. Great read!

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