Whatever happened to the Killer Bees? Killer Bees – more accurately, hybrids of European and African honey bees – were supposed to destroy the world, or at least kill a lot of people trying. They started out in Brazil, not far from the Olympics venues. So why didn’t they show up at the games? Brazil was plagued with slimy water, fires in athletes’ dorms, robberies, a presidentialimpeachment, bullets in bus windows, doping scandals, ticket scandals, a gas station scandal, and, on the last day, an indignant Mongolian coach who stripped off his clothes and threw them at the judges.
I was sure that a massive swarm of eight million killer bees would drop from the sky during closing ceremonies. But along with the massive numbers of local volunteers who didn’t show up, massive amounts of bees were also no-shows.
What does this mean for Brazil’s reputation on the world stage when its own killer bees boycott the event? News reporters ignored bees altogether. That wasn’t the way it was in Brazil a few years ago.
Here’s the backstory. African honey bees arrived in Brazil in 1956. They were brought by a geneticist who was trying to develop a better bee for Brazilian farmers. Brazilian farmers had been using stock which was brought to Brazil from Portugal centuries earlier. Those bees were not well-adapted to the tropical climate. African bees are hardier, healthier, and better producers than European stock, especially in tropical climates. So, 26 queen bees from Tanzania arrived in Brazil to help Brazil’s honey production and pollination. How did that work out? Actually, very well for the beekeepers and the country’s agriculture.
The African bee turned into the Africanized bee in 1957 when the local European bees interbred with the new arrivals. This was supposed to happen in a controlled project over a few years, but a technician helping with the breeding program mistakenly removed wire screens from the pure African queens’ hives, allowing them to escape. This ruined the bee breeding program. The new hybrid Africanized strain became feral, populating the surrounding rain forest. Eventually, the Africanized genes spread throughout the American tropics, creating a hybrid which is more aggressive than the generally docile European strain. The new strain has been called the Africanized Honey Bee (AHB), though the press dubbed the offspring Killer Bees following reports that beekeepers and by-standers were being killed by the new bee-blend.
As the AHB’s genetic stock approached the northern hemisphere, stories about the bees’ attacks on people became more and more sensational. There were some disturbingly inaccurate pseudo-science documentaries. Some showed that the bees were a communist plot to destroy America, or at least were a notice from God that He’s irritated with us all. The excitement climaxed in horror movies that delighted voyeuristic viewers.
Killer Bees (1974), The Swarm (1978), Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare (1995), Killer Bees! (2002), and Killer Bees (2008) all had their charms, of course. The most successful of the lot, Arthur Herzog’s The Swarm, imagined killer bee attacks that claimed 37,000 lives, instigated the explosion of a nuclear power plant, and lit the entire city of Houston with a fireball of Armageddon proportions. The movie starred Henry Fonda, Micheal Caine, Olivia de Havilland and other big names, but it still hit the list of worst films ever made. The recurring theme of deadly bees running amok and attacking and killing with little warning reinforced the common dreadful fear that honey bees have an unpredictable dark side.
Well, with all those reports of Assassin Bees overrunning the country, we figured it was game over for Brazil’s fledgling honey industry. But a funny thing happened on the way to death and destruction. Brazilian beekeepers got used to the bad bees. They learned to manage them. European bees were outpaced by the new African arrivals. It seems that tropical bees perform better in the tropics than non-tropical bees. Brazil’s annual honey production quickly rose from 15 (pre-AHB) to over 110 million pounds (post-AHB). This was noticed by some of the American media. In 1994, L.A. Times headlined: “Brazil’s honey production has soared since the ornery invaders took over beekeepers’ hives”.
I don’t want to trivialize the tragedies that happen when people stumble across Africanized bee nests. Although the bees can be kept and managed by beekeepers, they are much more defensive than the European stock we typically keep in the north. Instead of a few stings from a hive, the Africanized bees may defend with a few hundred stings. Venom overload can kill – about 50 known deaths due to massive stinging have occurred since the bees arrived in the 1950s, but the actual total may be twice that. (Though still short of The Swarm’s 37,000 deaths.)
Regardless the predictions (some of them made by notable bee scientists), Africanized bees did not destroy North American agriculture. Although they’ve been in the USA since 1990, they didn’t reach Washington D.C. by 1995 as many expected. Africanized bees barely spread past Louisiana in 20 years. Some that arrived on cargo ships in Florida years ago haven’t expanded very far nor have they interfered much with normal beekeeping and farming in the sunshine state. Africanized bees roamed around a bit more on the west coast, but millions of out-of-state hives continue to arrive each winter to pollinate the almonds – and they apparently head back to Maine and Montana and elsewhere non-Africanized. In short, the hype was mostly hype.
Meanwhile, in the original homeland of the hybrid bee, Brazil’s Africanized bees didn’t make pre-game chatter even when the announcers were so bored that they resorted to discussing one athlete’s favourite books. The bees were far below international radar. To be fair, when it became apparent that the killer bees would be a no-show, Brazil did manage to conjure up millions of Zika-infested mosquitoes, partly redeeming the reputation of the country’s miscreant insects.