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'Killer Bee' Swarm Found in Kern County

July 25, 1985|PAUL JACOBS | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — The vanguard of Africanized honeybees--sometimes referred to as "killer bees" because of their aggressive behavior--has been positively identified in a Kern County oil field, the state Department of Food and Agriculture announced Wednesday.

The species, which began moving northward from South America 30 years ago, has arrived in California several years ahead of the schedule predicted by experts who worry about their impact on agricultural production.

State agriculture officials say they are still not sure whether the bees are an isolated unit or a part of a larger invasion.

"If colonies of Africanized bees exist, the department will move aggressively to eradicate these unwanted bees," said state Food and Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill.

The department is advising the public to be especially cautious within 20 miles of the spot where the swarm of bees was found. The bees were discovered near the intersection of Interstate 5 and California 46, north of Bakersfield and near the town of Lost Hills.

A skiploader driver found the swarm in a burrow and covered them with asphalt. The bees were reported to officials the next day after it was noted that the asphalt appeared to be disturbed.

Kern County officials collected 50 dead bees from the burrow and sent them to the state Department of Food and Agriculture for identification.

In appearance, the Africanized bees are almost identical to domestic varieties. However, after a complicated series of tests, scientists for the state and the University of California agreed that the swarm was indeed the feared Africanized type.

The results have been confirmed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Despite their fearsome reputation, the Africanized bees are no more venomous than common, garden-variety honeybees. What makes them especially dangerous is that a slight disturbance can trigger an attack from an entire swarm. Unlike the European variety of bees, the belligerent killer bees can take as long as half an hour to calm down.

While Department of Food and Agriculture officials insist that there is "no evidence that (the killer bees) cause more human fatalities than domesticated bees," the Africanized variety has been held responsible for numerous deaths in South America. The bees have also killed large numbers of animals that disturbed them.

The bees are the descendants of 26 colonies of honeybees that were brought from Africa to Brazil in 1956 in a breeding experiment that has proved to be an ecological disaster.

After escaping, the African bees bred with wild, European-type bees. The Africanized hybrids soon began spreading, displacing the milder-mannered bees as they moved northward.

Pollinate Fewer Crops

The Africanized bees do not pollinate with as great a variety of crops as the bees they are replacing.

For example, the invading variety tends to avoid tomato-like vines. Their presence could represent a threat to several crops that depend on bees for pollination.

And the bees could represent a serious threat to honey production. The Africanized variety uses up its honey almost as fast as it collects it, rather than storing large quantities for later use. Honey production in several South American countries has fallen off sharply after the arrival of the species.

As a result, the state has had a quarantine procedure in place to isolate and destroy any invading colonies.

The arrival of Africanized bees has long been predicted. But just a few years ago, scientists were predicting that they would not arrive before 1988 or 1989. Some scientists scoffed that the bees would not survive the long journey up through the Americas, and one prominent expert predicted that they would be stopped at the Isthmus of Panama.

Scientists predict that the bees' advance northward will stop only where a frostier climate prevents them from surviving.

State officials have now been sent to the Kern County site in an effort to determine how the bees arrived, their number and whether there are other colonies.

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