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Science / Medicine : Waging a War on Killer Bees

October 05, 1987|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Agricultural experts in the U.S. and Mexico are joining forces in a bid to halt the northward flight of Africanized bees. The scientific battle targets more than the insects' nasty sting: There is a threat to honey and crop production, and the economic stakes are high.

Volatile males hungry for sex are lured by the unmistakable perfume of a willing mate and then, once drawn into a trap, face slow, suffocating death. An equally lusty female, attracted by the seemingly desperate call of an abandoned all-male harem, bursts instead upon an empty chamber that will soon become her crypt.

The erotic plot of a paperback thriller? Hollywood's latest encounter with casual and violent sex? No, merely part of a plan to halt the advance of the Africanized "killer" bee into North America.

Agricultural experts from Mexico and the United States are joining forces in a three-year, $9-million program to halt or at least delay the bee's flight northward. The effort--set to get under way in a matter of weeks--will apply the latest in bee research to stop the often dangerous insect. The scientific warfare includes lures that exploit the killer bee's busy mating habits.

The economic stakes in the binational battle are high, for the Africanized bee threatens both honey and crop production. Mexico has grown to be the world's fourth largest honey producer after China, the United States and the Soviet Union. Honey exports earn the country $50 million a year.

The United States produces $200 million worth of honey annually; moreover, the cultivation of several American crops depends on professionally organized bee pollination. In California alone, yearly almond crops valued at about $320 million are mainly pollinated by honeybees.

32-Year-Old Problem

The problem of the Africanized bee began 32 years ago, when a breed called the African bee was introduced in the Western Hemisphere by way of Brazil. The African bees roam Africa from Senegal to South Africa but were brought to South America by experimenting Brazilian scientists who let them escape. They have been migrating northward ever since.

Until the arrival of the African bee, the Western Hemisphere was dominated by bees of so-called European or Italian stock. European bees are more docile and produce more honey than the African bee. But genetically, the traits of the African bee are dominant; a European strain of bee becomes Africanized when it crossbreeds with bees carrying genes from the African bee.

The best-known trait of the Africanized bee is its nasty stinging--hence the popular nickname killer. While the bee's venom is no more potent than the European bee's, the Africanized insects sting in larger swarms and generally pursue an intruder for a longer time over a greater distance.

Such temperamental behavior creates problems for both beekeepers and the general public. Beekeepers must protect themselves more thoroughly with clothing and nets and handle the bees more gingerly. Touchy Africanized bees flee at the slightest provocation and may suddenly take up nesting somewhere else far away.

An innocent passer-by who happens upon a hive might have to run 200 yards to escape enraged bees. Recently a beekeeper in Costa Rica was stung to death, the first known instance of a professional bee breeder being killed by Africanized bees. Deaths by bee stings elsewhere are difficult to confirm.

"They're unpredictable," said Janna Evans, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Mexico City. "Sometimes, for instance, they just take to the color black and swarm all over and sting like crazy."

Professional pollinators who transport bees to farm and field face the problem of controlling the bees. Fields might have to be abandoned by human workers while the bees pollinate the crops.

"Who is going to be legally responsible for stinging bees? They're aggressive as hell," said Thomas Rinderer, a researcher for the U.S. Agriculture Department in Louisiana. "I've been working with bees for 15 years. I can tolerate a lot out of bees. But I wouldn't want to be around these bees."

Not only is the Africanized bee grumpy, researchers say, but it devours much of its own honey, thus making it a less efficient honey producer than the European bee.

The agriculture departments of Mexico and the United States are making what may be the last stand against the killer bee. The program is centered on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow strip of southern Mexico between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Isthmus War Zone

A 100-mile long sector of the isthmus has been designated by the warlike acronym BRZ, for Bee Regulated Zone, where the sexual combat will take place. It is considered important to attack mating habits, because the Africanized bees are more prolific breeders than the Europeans. European queens live for six months and lay 1,500 eggs a day while Africanized queens live more than eight months and lay about 2,000 eggs daily.

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