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Introduction of the African Bee to South America and Belize

in Issue 32 by

The African honeybee (Apis mellifera adansonii) is a native of Africa, occupying roughly ¾ of the continent, from the Sahara Desert in the north to the Kalahari Desert in the south. In 1957, 26 swarms of African bees, held for scientific breeding studies in a apiary near Rio Claro, Brazil, escaped, starting the “Africanization” of bees and establishing themselves as feral swarms occupying now the whole of South America (except what seems to be their climatic limits south of 32oS. on Northern Argentina), Central America, Mexico and the states of Texas, California, New Mexico and Florida and parts of the Caribbean.

The African bee has the same number of chromosomes (16 in drones and 32 for the queen) as the Italian or European races but their development from egg to insect is slightly shorter. They also start working in the collection of nectar and pollen before the European bees. The life of the adult Africanized honeybee is a little shorter than the European races, but they start working in the field earlier and work more hours per day, which makes them more productive. Africanized bees are very aggressive. They usually attack in great numbers once they have been disturbed. Some families are more aggressive than others. Africanized bees pursue their victims for longer distances. They have the tendency to rob. Therefore, the inspection of the hive, feeding, introduction of queens, etc. have to be done at the right time and with great care.

The queen is exceptionally prolific and very constant with her egg-laying even during times of dearth. Bees consume more reserves during the dearth period due to the constant egg-laying of the queen. Prolific egg-laying by the queen may be one of the reasons they abscond (abandon the hive) so frequently. Absconding is very rare in European races. Absconding is also a response to poor climatic and resource conditions. Rather than dwindle and starve, as often happens in European races, Africanized bees abscond in an effort to move to a better location. Other reasons for absconding are lack of water, crowded condition of the hive, attack by predators and even rough handling by the beekeeper. Multiple swarms with several queens move together. Swarming by Africanized bees is very common, averaging 3.2 per colony.

Climatic adaptations: Africanized bees adapt extremely well to almost any climatic condition. In the tropics they can build nests in the open, and they occupy crack and crevices in trees and on wall rocks, empty boxes, hive bodies, and other places.

Their natural habitat in Africa ranges from rain forests with an annual rainfall of 197 inches to desert areas with as little as 4 inches per year, but it is in the semi-arid regions where they attain their maximum population densities. All the areas that have received mass invasions receive less than 80 inches of rain (see Belize rainfall map) and usually between 40 and 60 inches. In areas where the rainfall is high, the initial invasion population attains the maximum density that can be sustained in the new environment.
European races do not survive in the wild for long periods of time as they are unable to deal with the tropical conditions. On the contrary, the success of feral Africanized swarms established in the forest means that even if a certain degree of hybridization occurs, they retain the traits that allow them to be successful under conditions where European bees usually fail. This suggests that selection for many of the African traits may be intensive, making possible the fact that Africanized bees reaching us might be genetically very similar to the African stocks which escaped from Rio Claro, Brazil, 59 years ago.

The average rate of spread between 1957 and 1963 was approximately 60 miles per year probably due to a lapse of population build-ups since the introduction of Apismelliferaadansonii was a small one. By 1962 a large number of swarms were established in the countryside. The most rapid movement was between 1963 and 1966 in which the front advanced 330 miles. We have to note that this advance was made in habitats that were climatically very similar to the natural habitat of the Apismelliferaadansonii in East Africa where they are extremely abundant. Increasing rainfall encountered between 1969 and 1976 in the north and increasing cold periods between 1963 and 1975 in the south are associated with slower rates of speed. In the region of the Guyanas the front advanced from 165 to 330 miles from 1974 to 1975 and about 200 miles between 1975 and 1976 in an area with no feral swarms and few managed colonies. The front moving through the rain forests in the Guyanas travelled 200 miles from 1974 to 1977 to Venezuela. A second, faster-moving front entered southeastern Venezuela from Brazil, advancing 300 miles per year.

The African bee was first detected at the Panama-Colombia border in 1980 and has since spread to Panama, Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago, only 7.5 miles off the coast from Venezuela. The first swarms of bees in Belize were registered in 1986 in both Blue Creek (Orange Walk) and Punta Gorda. Movements of Africanized honeybees into new areas is said to occur by means of large numbers of swarms. Swarms flights, lasting from 45 to 90 minutes and covering 11 to 30 miles are possible. The density of the front varies according to climatic and resource conditions.

Impact of the Africanized bee in Belize: In general terms, the beekeeping industry in all the countries where the bees are found has been severely affected by the Africanization of the bees. Small or amateur beekeepers usually find their bees too aggressive to handle and abandon or destroy their colonies. Large producers also find it difficult to maintain production since the management of Africanized honey bees is generally more unpredictable and labour-intensive. The first swarms of Africanized honeybees arrived in Belize had the same consequences. A low level of assistance and technical skills, coupled with the aggressive nature of the Africanized bee and the alarm among the general population, caused many of the beekeepers to give up their bees. It is a fact that the Africanized bee represents a real threat; over the years they have killed people and livestock in the areas where they have been established.

The public should be advised not to go near colonies and swarms and, under no circumstances, disturb them. The National Fire Service and the Ministry of Agriculture continue to attend to calls to remove bees in buildings; people should not attempt to handle the bees themselves. Persons with allergy to bee stings or anyone experiencing dizziness should seek medical treatment as soon as possible. People who are stung 50 or more times should also be taken to a medical facility in case treatment is necessary.

Most bee attacks have occurred in the wild or because people do not report bees in the vicinity of their homes until the swarm has been established. Nevertheless as a precautionary measure, aviaries should be fenced, located at least 200 yards from houses and animals and have a sign indicating their presence.

The Africanized bee, friend or foe: In the first years after the arrival of Africanized bees, most countries, including Belize, reacted with enforcement to capture and destroy the swarms and feral colonies, coupled with an intensive selection process in order to maintain the original genetic stock of European bees. Most recently, the trend in some countries has been to reverse their policies, having recognized the positive characteristics and many advantages of working with Africanized bees: their general resilience, resistance to disease and changes in climate, and extreme laboriousness. Native to the tropics and environments with many natural enemies, Africanized bees recognize enemies and fight them furiously for the survival of the colony. They do not get sick easily because their highly hygienic habits make it difficult for diseases to get established.

When properly managed, they are excellent producers of honey, wax, pollen and propolis. Cayo Quality Cooperative has been training beekeepers for several years in the proper management of Africanized bee colonies. The results have been very positive. Our philosophy is that there is much to gain from working alongside nature and with species that are adapted to our climatic conditions and our environment.

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