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Human association with honeybees is a long one. We have and continue to move bees, beekeeping equipment and the products of bees as we travel. Thus it was not unusual for Brazilian beekeepers to look elsewhere for better adapted bee stock as they sought to improve beekeeping return in the 1950s. The resulting importation of African bee queens into Brazil would, like our repeated importations of Varroa into countries, prove to be a costly, serious mistake. Africanisation of honeybees in the Americas from Argentina to the south-western USA (with only Chile and a few Caribbean islands as exceptions) has completely changed the culture of raising bees in the Americas. Paradoxically it has also opened new opportunities for rural development using bees.
History of Africanisation
I was involved in the capture of the first Africanised bee swarm as the bees colonised Panama and the Isthmus of the Americas in 1982. Like swarms elsewhere this one was gentle to handle and hive. Since 1982 I have travelled among the countries and visited many beekeepers, old and new, who have had to deal with the population of Africanised honeybees. The Africanised bee population is well suited for tropical/sub-tropical conditions and has advantageous biology for colonisation of new territory. Today nobody particularly "likes" the bee but they have no other option as repeated attempts to reintroduce European (temperate-adapted bees) have repeatedly failed. Once numbers arrive the changeover to Africanised genetic material is exceedingly rapid â€" in two years in tropical areas - somewhat longer in higher elevations and as it extends beyond the 30th parallel.
The Africanised honeybee is a tropically adapted ecotype. It is virtually unchanged genetically from the bee imported in 1956, although this is a debated topic. It is not a hybrid of imported Apis mellifera scutellata and the then existing honeybee populations of Brazil. In Brazil and in other regions to which it spread there is initial hybridisation but then a change-over to African genetic material. The Africanised honeybee is a bee well suited to rapid reproduction and extremely responsive to environmental conditions. By reproducing more rapidly than temperature-adapted honeybees, it is able to exceed at the "numbers" game. The bee colonises with high swarming rates and then out-reproduces the existing population of the region because it divides more frequently and rears queens faster (in both days and in the yearly cycle) than do other honeybee races. It thus completely replaces the existing bees. It is a bee population well suited for successful colonisation.
Beekeepers with European bee experience have universally expressed optimism in their ability to handle Africanised bees, both before their arrival and then for one or two years post-arrival. In fact, in every country Africanised honeybees have colonised, beekeeping has been negatively impacted in numbers of managed colonies and honey harvested. Many, but not all commercial beekeepers, quit beekeeping and virtually all part-time/hobbyists have given up their bees. Beekeeping techniques practised with European honeybees sometimes lead to stinging incidences involving animals and humans. Some instances do unfortunately result in death to people or animals from a toxic reaction of too many stings in too short a time period. The beekeeper trying to keep these bees is often the first to suffer with these stinging instances.
Changes are necessary with Africanised bees. You dress for the worse, you must isolate your apiary (not in distance necessarily but by maintaining it within a vegetation corral), you must inspect rapidly (either late in the day or at night), you simplify equipment to basics but proper fitting frames is a necessity, you harvest products besides honey (the bee is an excellent pollen collector), you reduce colony numbers and space colonies within the apiary and you seek to reduce stinging incidences so you can keep your apiary location (nobody wants to be an apiary neighbour but isolated sites invite night time vandalism and honey and/or hive stealing). Established beekeepers have a hard time adjusting to the "new" beekeeping.
The Africanised honeybee does represent a "new" resource for rural subsistence farmers - campesinos of the Americas. Honeybees are readily available and free as swarms, as bee colonies in trees and caves and for honey hunting. The campesinos are not by tradition keepers of honeybees, traditionally keeping stingless bees. European honeybees seldom swarm in the tropics so only well-to-do farmers could previously afford to establish a bee colony and could only start a new one from existing colonies. Bees were valuable livestock so they were kept immediately adjacent to a residence. Now Africanised bees are establishing feral colonies throughout the Americas. In wetter areas the swarms can be large mega swarms with several queens, the result of absconding due to the unfavourable forage conditions. Reproductive swarms occur early in the productive season and can be numerous and also very productive to hive and harvest. Most swarms and absconds establish feral colonies within cavities or, in about 10% of cases below a thick tree limb. These bees can be transferred to a hive or by killing the bees the honey, pollen, wax and brood can be harvested.
Training is needed to demonstrate management of Africanised bee colonies and better means of harvesting wild colonies. The bee is manageable with Langstroth equipment or other hives. Top-bar hives have not yet proven to be advantageous although more extensive trials are needed. Management experience is restricted to older beekeepers with knowledge of European bee management. These beekeepers have greatly reduced their colony numbers and in addition to honey, harvest pollen, propolis, royal jelly and more wax to keep their businesses solvent.
Beekeeping with Africanised bees can be part of a sustainable livelihood for the American campesino. As in other countries a small number of managed colonies and/or harvest of wild colonies can improve a family income by 50%. In addition to management and product harvesting, training efforts are needed to develop local markets for the harvests. Beekeeping is not easy with Africanised bees â€" dressing for stinging incidences in hot, heavy beekeeping equipment is expensive and not pleasant. Local manufacture of equipment and veils, gloves (plus adaptation of plastic grocery bags) is increasing. Managing colonies as a seasonal occurrence rather than a fixed-based resource is now recognised and markets develop when there are quality products available.
Much of the experience from communities in Africa and Asia needs to be communicated to campesino beekeepers in the Americas so they do not "reinvent the wheel" and try and fail with the techniques already found to be unsuccessful. Alas we continually fail to benefit from experiences of others; since Africanised bees have been the only Apis bee to have been keep in the Americas for fewer than 50 years, new and old beekeepers and development projects will likely experience more failures than successes in dealing with the Africanised bee.
I have published the situation of the Africanised bee in the Americas and all of these points are explained in further detail in the book Africanized Honey Bees in the Americas