A Tucson Citizen special report / By Carla McClain – June, 1993
“Killer bees” are nothing more than a hyped-up scam foisted on the public to milk federal research dollars, a group of southern Arizona beekeepers charges.
The group insists the Africanized honeybee has been in this country for years and is really no different from the bees we already have.
Its members dispute the accepted scientific view that a different, more aggressive bee has been moving slowly north from South America for the past 35 years, and is now entering the United States.
They call the whole “killer bee” phenomenon “imaginary,” “baloney,” and “an international fraud.”
Their controversial point of view is strongly disputed by beekeepers in Texas who are now living with the Africanized bee, as well as bee scientists and researchers who have tracked this bee for decades.
Nevertheless, their beliefs about a “killer bee fraud” will have an impact in southern Arizona.
These beekeepers say they will not make any effort to keep the Africanized honeybees out of their domestic hives after they arrive here later this year. They will instead allow them to interbreed freely with their domestic European bees.
By contrast, Texas beekeepers are spending considerable money and manpower to keep their hives free of the aggressive Africanized bee. (see related story, 4A)
“There are so many distortions. This (Africanized) bee is nothing new in this country – it’s been here for decades. It’s what we already have,” said Dee Lusby, president of the Southern Arizona Beekeepers Association and the state beekeepers group.
Lusby claims she has federal documents proving that Africanized bees were brought to the U.S. in 1935, and again in 1959, and dispersed into the breeding programs of professional beekeepers all over the country.
“Our domestic (bee) stocks already have Africanized genes in them,” she said. “That’s why you can’t tell them (Africanized and European honeybees) apart. Despite all these scare tactics, you won’t notice any difference when the so-called ‘Africanized’ bee gets here.”
As the killer bee continues to interbreed with the European bee, its defensive-aggressive temper mellows out, becoming basically the same as the European bee’s over time, she said.
That scenario, however, conflicts directly with studies by bee scientists around the country, including those at Arizona State University, who say the aggressive nature of the Africanized bee increasingly dominates other honeybees as it breeds with them.
As for the 130 documented killer bee attacks on humans so far in Texas – this is “just normal” for honeybees, Lusby said. She said no formal bee sting records were kept before killer bees arrived there 2-1/2 years ago, so no one can say that is a higher attack record than before.
Why would bee scientists, bee experts and the government pull such a scam on the public?
“You’ve got the biggest pork barrel deal you ever saw in this bee,” Lusby answered.
In short, she and others believe bee scientists for the U.S. Department of Agriculture have exaggerated the killer bee threat to keep federal bee research dollars flowing.
“People are lying about this whole thing for the money. You can’t get big money unless you’ve got a big problem. Well, they now have a ‘big problem,’ and they also have a new bee research lab in Texas.
“I’m willing to make a case for international fraud here if I have to,” she declared.
Lusby said she represents the views of most of the southern Arizona beekeepers’ group – about 90 to 100 beekeepers in this area.
Backing her up, Arivaca beekeeper Edwin Stockwell said history has shown the killer bee is “no real problem in other areas (South and Central America and Mexico), and it won’t be here either.”
He said he is actually looking forward to having more Africanized genes in his domestic bee colonies.
“I think it will be a beneficial impact, rather than otherwise. They will bring new vigor to the gene pool. Only about 10 percent of these (Africanized) bees may be more aggressive than you like. It’s a bit more of a high-speed bee.
“So I’ll take what I like from it, and discourage what I don’t like. This is going to be an exciting thing, not a negative thing,” Stockwell said.
Despite her views, Lusby is a member of the state task force putting together Arizona’s plan to handle the Africanized honeybee after it gets here.
But she calls that plan a “facade” to appease an unnecessarily frightened public.
“The public is so terrified by all the media hype, we have to look like we’re doing something,” she said.
The idea that there is no real difference between the Africanized and the European honeybee is “unique to Arizona – to southern Arizona,” said Henry Graham, president of the Texas Beekeepers Association.
“It is unscientific and unprofessional for any bee expert to think that way,” he said. “People in this business should know by now, for a fact, that there is a difference.”
Beekeepers in southern Arizona tend to cling to old-fashioned beekeeping views and methods, he said. They believe modern breeding techniques have actually weakened the European honeybee in North America, making it vulnerable to domination by the Africanized bee, he explained.
He called such ideas “mostly mumbo-jumbo.”
“We are seeing the European bee in Mexico – where modern methods have not been used much – taken over completely by the Africanized bee,” he said.
He also challenged the claim that Africanized bees have already interbred with regular honeybees in the U.S.
“It’s not the same thing at all,” Graham said. “There were a couple of small introductions of bee semen from Brazil some years ago. It was never proved they were in fact African bees. But even so, only a small, controlled amount was brought in.
“Now, we are faced with a constant influx of natural, wild Africanized bees who are not controlled at all, and are coming in major numbers. That is totally different. I think the Africanized bee is going to invade throughout the U.S. and we are going to have to deal with that.”
Lusby’s general claim that the public will notice no difference after the killer bee arrives is simply false, researchers say.
“All you have to do is look at Mexico,” said Anita Collins, chief bee scientist at the USDA bee research center in Weslaco, Texas.
“Most certainly, the death figures from bee stings have changed dramatically there since the arrival of the Africanized bee.”
Killer bees have killed more than 150 people since their arrival in Mexico five years ago.
No one has died yet in the U.S. after the first two summers of killer bees.
“But I would sure like to have them come talk to some of the people down here who have been badly stung,” said Graham, of the Texas killer bee sting victims. “This bee is a problem to the general public.”
The idea that killer bees are a hoax for the sake of bee research dollars is ludicrous, said bee experts in Arizona and Texas.
Several suggested that beekeepers trying to discredit the killer bee phenomenon are simply worried that a frightened public will try to restrict their beekeeping activities, and will sue them for bee attack injuries and medical bills.
Collins did acknowledge that a new USDA bee lab is being built in Texas.
“It is replacing a 50-year-old building that was no longer functional, and that was located downtown where we could not keep any bees,” she said. “That building would have to be built whether we had Africanized bees or not.”
Federal dollars are not flowing to the USDA bee lab in Tucson as it readies for the Africanized bee, officials there said.
“It has not changed our budget by one dollar,” said director Eric Erickson.
Beekeepers are all abuzz about impact of invasion
With the apparent exception of southern Arizona, the last stand against the invasion of the Africanized honeybee into the southern United States will be made by the professional beekeepers.
They are the people who raise domestic bees in managed hives, for honey and for crop pollination.
But it’s going to be a tough and expensive fight and, in some places, it may threaten the very survival of the beekeeping industry.
The problem is that the Africanized bee gradually takes over and dominates the gentler, European honeybees – within about three years.
There is no way to stop that process among wild bees.
Beekeepers battle invasion
But most beekeepers will be working to prevent it from happening in their domestic hives.
(Southern Arizona beekeepers believe the differences between Africanized and European bees have been highly exaggerated, and Africanized bees will be no problem to beekeepers or to the public.)
“Our aim is to keep it as African-bee-free as possible,” said Henry Graham, president of the Texas Beekeepers Association – the first state in the United States to face these bees.
“We want to do that because we have bred the (European) bees for 200 years – bred them for their productivity, their gentleness and their stability. Why would we want to lose these traits now, to something we don’t know very much about yet?”
More woes, no more honey
“The pressure from the public, the high costs, the idea of working with a defensive bee,” Quintero said.
“In the bee yards in Mexico, which are now mostly Africanized, it is very tense, very nerve-wracking. There is not an enjoyable relationship between the bees and the beekeepers.”
Public fear suddenly is no small issue for the bee industry where Africanized bees have invaded.
“The public thinks of them as ‘killer bees,'” said Graham. “I often get calls from people who say, ‘Your bees attacked me,’ but I know that’s not true, because I’ve kept my hives European.
“But the general public is so scared. They see beehives, they react very strongly. So, we’re steadily losing (hive) locations because of that fear. People just say they don’t want bees on their land anymore.”
In addition to that, some Texas cities are trying to outlaw domestic hives in urban areas, also to soothe public jitters.
Bee experts call these pressures against beekeeping “very naive.”
It’s a bad move,” said Paul Jackson, Texas apiary inspector. “These hives are the best competition, the best defense against the Africanized bees.”
But it is a costly business to keep Africanized bees out of domestic hives – in dollars, time and manpower.
Hives must be ‘re-queened’
To do it, hives must be “re-queened” with imported European queens at least once a year – twice as often as usual. Imported queens cost nearly six times as much as locally produced queens, Graham said.
How much damage the Africanized honeybee will finally do to the bee industry in the United States is “a tough question,” he said.
“They are a real threat to any beekeeper who does not manage his colonies properly.
“But I do believe they will not be as threatening in Arizona as they will be in Texas – mainly because of climate. This is a tropical bee and your climate is drier.
“You will have Africanized honeybees, but I think the number will be lower in Arizona.”