Lessons From Nature

Episode One - Killer Bees

Frank Garcia had been working hard – too hard – in the boiling Arizona sun. He ached all over and felt every day of his 71 years. From now on, Frank vowed, he’d take life easier.

Home at last, he flopped gratefully into a chair on the porch and relaxed in the cooling shade. Half asleep and unconcerned, Frank noticed a small swarm of bees nearby. One landed on him. Instinctively, he swatted it.

And that was the beginning of the end of Frank Garcia. For the bee was no ordinary honey bee. It was a killer – and as it died it sent a signal to the hive, triggering a mass attack.

Within seconds, Frank was engulfed in a swarm of stinging killer bees. They came at him by the thousand, wave upon wave, the rising pitch of their wings sounded like a revving engine.

Frank’s neighbour Gary Elam takes up the story.

‘I heard muffled yells, then hammering on the door. My wife Mary answered it and screamed. I hurried over. It was terrible… like Frank was buried by bees, staggering under the weight of them. I couldn’t just leave him there. But if I let him – them – into the house…’

Gary’s daughter, Mary Jo, rushed upstairs, put on her wedding veil and bravely ventured outside. ‘Must save Mr Garcia.’ She grabbed a hose, sprayed the air around him, and tried to disperse the cloud of besieging bees. But it was in vain – they would not be diverted from their deadly mission.

Meanwhile, Mary Jo’s mother had phoned the Emergency Services. Paramedic Dave Cadena and his partner arrived in their ambulance soon after.

‘Somehow we managed to get the poor guy into the ambulance. My partner checked for a pulse. I opened the patient’s mouth and – God, I’ll never forget the sight – his mouth was full of bees – a hundred at least. And they were coming out of his nose, ears…’

‘We reached the hospital too late. He’d gone. The doctor said not to blame ourselves, said nobody could survive so many stings. The autopsy found bees in Mr. Garcia’s stomach.’

This 1997 incident, while exceptionally gruesome, is far from unique. More than 1,000 people, as well as uncounted animals, have died in similar attacks.

Killer bees – properly known as Africanised honey bees – seem set to take over the Americas.

How did these fearsome intruders get there? Can they be stopped?

The saga started in Brazil with a campaign to boost honey production. Imported European bees, perfectly suited to their native environment, were faring less well in Brazil’s tropical humidity. For decades, beekeepers had complained about low yields of honey. Surely something could be done to ‘perk up’ the underperforming bees…?

Enter geneticist Warwick Kerr. In 1956, at the Government’s request, he travelled to South Africa and brought back 63 queen bees. The aim was to mate them with European stock to create a hybrid that would combine the best features of both breeds. Kerr knew the risks. African Honey Bees are notoriously vicious and volatile, but he believed that their fiery nature could be diluted by an injection of European docility.

Experiments began at a quarantined research station. And, surprisingly soon, Kerr was able to announce a breakthrough: the first generation of hybrids.

But then the (inevitable?) accident happened. Some Africanised queens, along with platoons of workers, escaped. Not even Kerr foresaw the consequences.

African Bees have honed their lethal skills over millions of years – a defence mechanism against honey-thieving predators, including man. Supersensitive to any perceived threat, the bees respond with terrifying suddenness and in overwhelming numbers. They also possess phenomenal reproductive powers. The hybrids inherited all these traits.

And what of those escapees? Before long, Brazilian peasants were reporting livestock stung to death. Human fatalities followed.

Killer bees were on the rampage. Irresistibly, year by year, country by country, the colonising insects surged through South America.

Then, forever seeking new lands to conquer, the bees veered north, to Central America.

Next, Mexico fell (with appallingly high losses: 400 lives so far).

Finally, in 1990, the relentless squadrons swept into US territory. Texas, Arizona, Nevada, California… each in turn would face invasion by killer bees.

 TV and press provided graphic coverage.

One news bulletin featured an Alsatian dog named Baron. His owner, Natalie Leseburg, pursued by frenzied bees, had fled indoors. Only then did she realise that Baron was still outside. Later, following a trail of blood, she found Baron’s body. His face was barely recognisable, scraped red and raw on a wall as he’d frantically tried to get the bees off him. (Five hundred stings are equivalent to a rattlesnake bite; 800 will kill the average person. Baron had suffered more than 2,500 stings.)

Anxious communities became angry and sought ways to fight back. Kill the killers!

Today, teams of ‘beebusters’ are dedicated to doing just that. It’s war, but can they win? In Tucson, Arizona, men such as Brad Bartlett take each battle as it comes. Sometimes the bees make an easy target. Out in the open, a homeless colony – inactive and ‘innocent’ – hangs like a gigantic cluster of black and yellow grapes. Brad hits hard and fast with a jet of soapy water. ‘Suffocates ’em,’ he says.

But when the bees have a nest to defend (perhaps under someone’s roof), their ferocity is full throttle. ‘R-e-a-l mean,’ says Brad, ‘but me and the guys can be meaner.’

Towns and cities, especially in arid terrain, act as a magnet to migrating swarms. Urban conditions offer everything a bee could want: ample nesting sites, plentiful pools of water, all manner of blooming plants for the nectar and pollen needed in honey-making.

Even Los Angeles has been forced to play host to these ‘horror movie’ aliens. Beebusters there handle 6,000 calls a year from panicked citizens – even film stars in Beverly Hills whose gated enclaves are no protection against rogue bee interlopers.

If Africanised honey bees are a menace to humans, they cause still greater havoc among the domestic bee population – mild mannered creatures, originally from Europe. The aggressive newcomers have swamped the peaceful residents and bullied them into submission.

Once killer bees infiltrate a hive, the occupants soon succumb. An Africanised queen lays about 3,000 eggs a day, and her numerous young mature earlier than their European counterparts. Rival queens are ruthlessly eliminated. In no time, a benign community can become belligerent. As the Africanised bees proliferate, they divide and spread out to form fresh colonies, occupying more and more territory.

Now, because of constant interbreeding, in large tracts of America all honey bees are starting to show a savage streak.

Bad news for honey producers, but worse perhaps for farmers.

Bees pollinate crops worth $20 billion a year, one third of the country’s food supply. Amiable bees, trustworthy allies. At least they were…

Ken Letsky worries – a lot – about the future. His mobile pollination units (trucks each containing 15 million bees) criss-cross Texas to perform a vital service. ‘What if my bees were Africanised? Could I control them?’

Ken’s concerns are shared by other beekeepers, but they haven’t abandoned hope. They now know how to remove a killer queen from the hive, so restoring comparative calm. And scientists report real progress in the quest to breed a ‘better’ bee. Meanwhile, though, feral colonies continue to expand, as wild or wilder than ever.

Whatever may lie ahead, one thing is certain: America must learn to live and work with Africanised honey bees.

Could these death-dealing invaders come to Britain one day? No, says the Natural History Museum, only if they were introduced. And even then, they wouldn’t survive our winters… unless, of course, the climate changed.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2005

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