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Market Scene : 'Killer' Bees Make Honey of a Deal With Brazil : Production has soared since the ornery invaders took over beekeepers' hives.

April 05, 1994|MAC MARGOLIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

RIO DE JANEIRO — When this summer rolls around in Southern California, the season may bring more than hot weather and bougainvillea. Migrating steadily northward for years, swarms of Africanized "killer" bees have crossed the Rio Grande into Texas. Large colonies have already been spotted in Arizona and are expected to reach California this fall, perhaps sooner.

American authorities are waging war at the front, trying desperately to trap and kill the winged aliens. But here in Brazil, where the notorious migration began, beekeepers in prosperous farming communities are enjoying another fruitful season of honey production.

"Before the Africanized bees arrived, beekeeping was a hobby in Brazil," said Lionel Goncalves, a geneticist at the University of Sao Paulo's rural campus in Riberao Preto, Latin America's leading research center for apiculture--the process of raising bees for honey.

"Now it is a thriving business," said Goncalves. Honey production in Brazil has increased from about 6,500 tons a year, before the arrival of African bees, to 40,000 tons a year today.

The bees that are terrifying North Americans are the direct descendants of 26 queens from Africa that Brazilian entomologist Warwick Kerr imported for research purposes in 1956, then accidentally released. Until then, it was European bees, brought by Brazil's Old World immigrants, that dominated the apiaries here. Then came a genetic coup d'etat, a case of what Alfred W. Crosby, an environmental historian from the University of Texas at Austin has called "ecological imperialism."

The smaller, faster African bees out-flew their Italian and German rivals and mated with the European queens. So, in a few generations, Brazil's bee population was almost entirely "Africanized." These bees, known in entomological shorthand as Africanized Honey Bees, or AHBs, flourish in tropical climates, where they quickly dominate other bee colonies, but are not known to advance into colder regions.

The Africanized bees are far more agile and aggressive than their larger, lumbering European counterparts. Bee for bee, they are no more ornery or venomous than European bees, but they are renowned for attacking in strength, and occasionally stinging to death, any intruders on their turf. Pursuing their prey for up to half a mile, they have terrorized farmers, killed thousands of livestock and reportedly stung to death as many as a thousand people in the past three decades throughout the Americas.

It was this untoward behavior that became the stuff of horror movies and screaming tabloid articles and earned these insects their fearsome moniker.

But these killers do not faze Pedro de Assis Caetano. Dressed in padded white overalls and a nylon-netted hood, Caetano plucked a dusky honey bee off the back of a fellow worker and placed it on his own bare forearm. The angry bee lowered its abdomen, unsheathed its stinger and squeezed a yellowish venom into the exposed flesh.

"See how he pumps?" said Caetano, casually waving a gloved hand through a buzzing black cloud of bees. "He only stops when all the venom is gone."

If this had been a Hollywood movie set, Caetano would be writhing on the ground, mugging for the camera in a fit of fatal anaphylactic shock. So it is in the 1978 horror film, "The Swarm," in which killer bee attacks claim 37,000 lives, provoke the explosion of a nuclear power plant and set all of Houston ablaze.

But this was a thriving commercial apiary in bucolic Riberao Preto, Brazilian honey country and for more than three decades the home of the scutellata bee species--the Africanized honey bee. Caetano, who works eight hours a day collecting honey from the combs of these dreaded bugs, said he is stung so often--normally, 30 or 40 times a day--that he has developed an immunity to the venom. "I don't even feel it anymore," he shrugged.

Not all Brazilian beekeepers are so ready to offer up bare flesh to the bees. Yet after more than three decades of working with Africanized bees, Brazilian scientists and apiculturists say the Africanized bees are more feared than they are understood.

"I call these bees defensive not aggressive," said geneticist Goncalves. "In the first years, we had a lot of trouble with these bees, but now beekeepers prefer the Africanized bees."

In Brazil, as in other countries, the takeover by Africanized bees at first threw beekeepers into a state of confusion, if not panic, and as they learned to deal with the invasion their honey production tumbled. Here it fell from 6,500 tons in 1957 to 4,120 tons in 1974.

Slowly, however, man and bee came to terms, and honey output climbed steadily to about 40,000 tons last year, making Brazil the world's seventh-largest producer and the third in Latin America behind Mexico and Argentina. There are some European bees surviving in the temperate latitudes of South America--in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay--but in subtropical and tropical countries like Brazil, the Africanized bees reign.

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