Amateur and professional beekeepers are watching with increasing alarm the northward migration of the Africanized honeybee, whose extremely aggressive behavior has earned it the name "killer bee."
Inadvertently released in Brazil during a 1956 hybridization experiment, the Africanized bee has worked its way north, taking over colonies of the more docile European bees that are managed by beekeepers to produce honey and pollinate crops. In 1990 the Africanized bee entered the United States in Texas. Soon it will arrive in California, posing a threat of unknown dimensions to the state's $18-million honey industry.
Amateur beekeeper Charles Duncan is in his third year as president of the Los Angeles County Beekeepers' Assn. A retired aerospace engineer, he traveled to Venezuela in 1986 with a group of 50 beekeepers, both amateur and professional, to get a firsthand look at what they will have to contend with. He was interviewed by Times staff writer Doug Smith.
Question: \o7 Can you recognize an Africanized bee by its appearance?\f7
Q: \o7 Then how do you know when it's taken over a colony?\f7
A: Hostility. The only way you're going to really be able to tell an African from a European is hostility.
Q: \o7 You saw the African bee in Venezuela. How hostile is it?\f7
A: I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. I've been covered with bees a number of times. I've been stung as many as 2,000 times, I think. It wasn't anything like these guys. These guys just relentlessly would not let go, would not give up, no matter how far from the nest.
When we left them, they went with us, all the time. When I try to express this, this is hostility squared. Mean. They are mean.
Q: \o7 Can you give an example?\f7
A: I saw three colonies in the tree. There was a black blob hanging in the tree. We picked up the cameras, and we were going to take pictures. About the time we were ready to snap, we've got them in focus, they were all over us. And this is from a distance of almost a city block away.
Q: \o7 Will the African bee simply force the European bee out of existence in the wild?\f7
A: Yes. I don't think it will ever happen that it's 100%. But it can be a very big change in the feral colonies. The feral colonies may well be replaced to a great degree by Africans because the African tends to move into an area and then just kind of wipe it out.
Q: \o7 How does the Africanized bee take over a hive?\f7
A: They just enter a hive, and they quickly fight and kill the existing queen. Within a very short time, you will have coming out of that colony young African bees. If you take European bees and Africans and mix them together, the Europeans start acting a little more like Africans. Very shortly, the whole hive just changes from a European colony to an African colony.
It can happen in a short period of time. We don't know how short. But a working colony can be Africanized pretty quickly, unless that beekeeper is checking it on a routine basis, like maybe once a week.
Q: \o7 What can the beekeeper do to prevent this?\f7
A: About the only way you can fix that is to re-queen. Quickly re-queen with a European queen and she will tend to control the production of children and it will go back to being a European colony again.
Q: \o7 How do you re-queen?\f7
A: You have to find and kill the African. You can do that fairly easily.
Q: \o7 If it's that easy, what's the problem then?\f7
A: Because every time a beekeeper goes to an apiary, there is expense involved. The beekeeper that has to go out and check his colony one more time, that's fuel, that's labor, that's equipment. It all adds up. And it requires the cost of beekeeping to increase and increase.
You're dealing with cost when you re-queen, because you're looking at six or seven bucks a queen. So the beekeepers that are heads up, that are really on the ball, will re-queen every two years. Some re-queen every year. That's a little tough to do.
Q: \o7 Will beekeepers be facing greater danger in their work now?\f7
A: Yes, they will. In my opinion, they definitely will, and so will agricultural workers.
The inspections are going to be very difficult to make with the Africans, because they're going to be chasing you like crazy. If you're working with bees and they're buzzing around you, that's OK. But when there's 4,000 of them encrusted on your veil and you have keep parting it to see through them, that get's old quickly. It gets hard to breathe. It gets hard to think.
Q: \o7 And someone eventually will get lax and a whole apiary will become Africanized, with 50 hives?\f7