According to the apiculturists, the Africanized bees have the advantage of being faster and more efficient pollinators and collectors of nectar, and so produce far more honey than the European bees.
Manoel Tavares Ferreira, who has worked with Africanized bees for three decades, said that when he started in beekeeping as a boy in the 1960s, his Italian bee colonies produced about 44 pounds of honey per hive per year. Then came the more vigorous Africanized bees, and Tavares' pastime became a cottage industry and then a going business. He calls it Apis Flora.
His home on the edge of Riberao Preto is something of a monument to his metier. Daily, his work teams haul in truckloads of combs to Apis Flora, a processing factory and wholesale store installed in the basement of his two-story house, which is made with honey-colored bricks and hexagonally shaped windows that look like cells of a beehive. With his downy brown beard and mustache, Tavares has even taken on a bee-like aspect himself.
"We got stung a lot at first, but now we know how to manage the Africanized bees," he said fondly.
Tavares' bees produce an average of 138 pounds of honey per hive per year, more than three times the average output of the European bees. Some of his African queens reign over super-colonies, which turn out better than 220 pounds a hive annually.
In 1993, Tavares' 980 hives yielded 52.4 tons of honey and total sales of $1.2 million. Working with entomologists, Tavares said he hopes by 1995 to produce kinder bees and still maintain high productivity.
North Americans have known about the inevitable migration of the Africanized bee into the subtropical zones of the United States since the late 1960s. A 1972 report of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the Brazilian bee was "dangerous to people and animals and is difficult to manage," and recommended exterminating the Africanized Honey Bees.
Since then, U.S. agriculture authorities have occasionally asked scientists in Brazil about the nature of the AHBs. "Many people take advantage of the sensationalism and fear to win research funding," said David de Jong, an American entomologist at the university apiculture center in Riberao Preto. "But they never once came to us for management solutions."
Rather than trying to trap and kill the bees, he said, American officials ought to be working with local beekeepers to teach them how to manage the Africanized bees and educate the public on how to stay out of harm's way. "It's no good to get dressed up in a moon suit and have your neighbors stung," said De Jong.
Part of the answer may be, paradoxically, to encourage the keeping of Africanized bees. "The absence of apiaries will favor the spread of wild bee colonies, which will nest in trees, fields and homes," said De Jong. "That could really cause some problems."
Even if they wanted to, it is doubtful that authorities could stop the Africanized bee Anschluss. Everywhere they have gone in the tropics, these bees have toppled European colonies and established their own empires. But while Texans tremble, and Californians soon may, beekeepers in Central and South America have learned to live with, and even covet, their invaders.
Tavares' Apis Flor has plans to create an African queen bank, to preserve and then sell the best-producing stock. At one apiculture fair in southern Brazil, an Africanized queen bee was auctioned off at the startling price of about $400. By contrast, a European queen sells on the commercial market for about $7 to $8.
Mexico took a cue from the Brazilians and recently placed orders for 100,000 African queens from Brazil.
"Historically, when Africanized bees arrive, societies suffer," said De Jong. "Then they get used to them."
Brazil's Honey Production Estimates, in tons:
*Imported African bees are accidentally released in Rio Claro, Brazil.
Source: Brazilian Agriculture Confederation