Ecology And Environment

The Ecology of Honeybees

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"The Ecology of Honeybees"
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European honeybees in the United States, the most common variety, are vanishing at an alarming rate. Some estimates show that we have lost at least half the nation's honeybees in the last 10 years. We have lost nearly 100 percent of the feral (wild) bees, excluding the occasional recent swarms that have taken up

residence in trees or other non-managed locations.

The reasons the bees are dying off are complex and not completely understood. One thing that is understood is that without some change, we may no longer have honeybees in the United States by the year 2035. At the very least we will not have the European honeybee, which is the backbone of our bee culture. We urgently need detailed and extensive research to understand what is killing the honeybees so we may be able to stop the annihilation.

Believe it or not the Africanized honeybee, improperly called the "killer bee" by ignorant or misinformed individuals, could someday be the salvation of our beekeeping industry. These bees do not usually physically attack the European honeybees. They do, however, out-compete and replace them due to their specific mating habits; Africanized drones have an advantage over the European drones when it comes to mating with a queen.

The African bee has been portrayed as a monster for years because that sells newspapers and movie tickets. It is true they have an aggressive nature that is turned "on" in the same gene that also controls the gentle nature of the European bees. In fact, the most common European bee in the United States, the Italian honeybee, is descended from Africa.

Not all bees in Africa are aggressive. The specific type of bees that was brought to South America for experimentation was aggressive and through mishandling they escaped into the wild. The rest of the story of the Africanized bee in America is history, so to speak.

All honeybees can be selected for aggressiveness or gentleness. Even the African bee has become more gentle as it has crossed with European bees during the slow migration northward. Very few people have died from venomous insect stings or bites in the United States since the arrival of the Africanized bee and even fewer have died from the African bee stings. Their venom is no more potent than any other bee; they simply attack in greater numbers when the alarm goes out to defend the hive.

Africanized honey bees have been in the South Western United States since October 1990, when a swarm entered Texas from Mexico. If they had proven to be the public menace depicted in the movies, the death toll would be staggering by now. In actuality, the bees have spread throughout the Southwestern United States and have been in Florida for about 2 years. The benefits of the honeybee easily outweigh the concerns of Africanized honeybees, even if beekeepers have to be more careful with having the Africanized bees around populated areas. The most important detail is that the public needs to be educated about the reality of Africanized honeybees before those bees reach North Carolina, in order to prevent mass hysteria and foolish ordinances which would hamper the important work done by honeybees and beekeepers.

The Africanized bee, for several reasons, has shown great resistance to the problems European bees have faced from Varroa Mites. In fact, in many areas of the Southwestern United States, beekeepers keep Africanized bees with great results. The truth is, the aggressiveness of the Africanized bee is more of an annoyance to beekeepers than a real threat to the general public. Africanized honeybees are capable of disastrous results in certain situations, but those situations are really pretty rare here in the United States.

Education is key in preparing for the possibility of Africanized bees spreading here someday. If we were to lose the rest of our European honeybees, it appears we might still have the Africanized bee to depend on for honey and pollination of crops. Should the Africanized bee remain as the only honeybee left in the United States, the negative view of that particular insect would change really quickly as we began to realize how fortunate we are to have such an important pollinator. We would adapt to the aggressiveness while we selected them for gentleness. I predict that with concentrated breeding efforts, should they become the only honeybee we have left, we could select for gentle bees across the board in most apiaries in less than a generation.

To insure our honeybee crisis is solved, we do need every available researcher to tackle the problem. Before we can solve the problem, we must understand it better. Every citizen needs to be educated about
honeybees as well as the need for honeybee research. Then, we all need to educate our political leaders to fund the research to protect and promote this valuable insect that causes at least one third of what we eat to be available for our tables. I much prefer being able to save the gentle European Honeybee at all costs, instead of trying to replace them with the Africanized honeybee.

The one thing that no honeybee has shown resistance to is pesticides. The same political leaders that need to be educated about funding research for honeybees, also need to hold pesticide manufacturers to a higher level in protecting the complex relationships between plants and animals. Each of us needs to carefully consider the consequences before applying pesticides.

Please call and write your congressman to let him (her) know of the very critical need for the Federal Government to step up efforts to help the European Honeybee with research and programs for assistance to beekeepers in the United States.
Contact your state representatives to encourage them to fund additional research at Universities and other institutions of research. Encourage your local leaders to be honeybee and beekeeper friendly in regards to local ordinances and policies they may consider.

More about this author: Calvin Robinson

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