Honey bees are among the most commonly known, and beloved groups of insects, and the ecological services honey bees provide are so significant that humans literally could not live without them. Amazingly, 70 percent of all human food crops are pollinated by bees, and these crops provide Americans with 90 percent of the essential nutrients they consume. Many people are surprised to learn that not a single honey bee species is native to North America, and the honey bees that are currently raised by beekeepers in the country actually originate from Europe. This honey bee species is aptly known as the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), and it is the most economically important species of honey bee out of the seven that have been documented worldwide.
The European honey bee was first transported to the New World by European settlers during the 1600s, and today, more than 20 subspecies of European honey bees have been described. Although honey bees are known for inflicting venomous stings that can trigger potentially fatal allergic reactions in sensitive individuals, they are not considered pests. Unfortunately, the far deadlier Africanized honey bee (aka the killer bee) is a pest, and this species is known for occasionally building nests within or on structures, and for aggressively attacking humans and animals in response to nest disturbances.
Back in 1956, researchers collected colonies of exotic honey bees from Africa and shipped them to Brazil so that they could crossbreed with another species in the country. This was done in an effort to increase honey production, and create a robust beekeeping economy in Latin America. Although honey bees had never inhabited the Americas before they were transported to the continents by humans, the exotic species of African bees found the tropical New World environment hospitable, and they began reproducing in massive numbers. It would be an understatement to say that the goal of producing hybrids succeeded, as multiple African honey bee colonies escaped from the Brazillian apiary and proceeded to mate with European honey bees that had long since established a wild habitat in North and South America.
Each year or the next three decades, the African honey bee species traveled 300 miles northward, mating with European honey bees along the way. By 1990, African honey bees arrived in Hidalgo, then Houston, and eventually, they established an invasive habitat in most states located in the southern half of the US. However, by this time, the exotic honey bees were no longer representative of the original African species; instead, they were hybrids of the African and European honey bee species. To put it another way, the unusually aggressive hybrids were similar to European honey bees, only they had become “Africanized.” Countless Africanized honey bee envenomation incidents are reported to US poison control centers annually, and some of these attacks result in fatalities in San Antonio. Today, Africanized honey bees are among the top ten most commonly managed stinging insect pests in residential areas in the south.
Have you ever encountered a swarm of killer bees?