South African Beekeeping

by Barry Sergeant

As illustrated by photos taken by an independent party in last week’s BEE-L, it is possible to produce docile African bees (scutellata). By that, I mean large colonies that can be worked without protection. Smoke is used only to move the bees away from areas where they may get crushed. In short, the bees are simply not aggressive. Scutellata are, of course, the rootstock of the Africanized honeybee (AHB) in parts of South, Central and North America.

The general reputation of the AHB in the West is that it is a killer bee. Period. Increasingly, parts of the global media machine areentrenching this myth. The killer bee appears in movies and even in pop music. Even well-meaning information published on the AHB, compiled by intelligent people, allows no leeway for this bee.

But the real intrigue for somebody who lives in native scutellata territory – such as myself – is the seeming determination of Americans to sweep AHBs under the carpet. It is always difficult – and often dangerous – to generalise, but allow me some latitude on this one. Countless pages of documentation are available on the story of how scutellata were taken to Brazil in the 1950s.

Some escaped, forming the rootstock of the AHB. In the following decades, this bee colonised millions of square miles, and is now firmly in occupation of significant parts of the US. The only significant limiting factor in the AHB’s spread, as in Africa, would appear to be cold temperatures.

In the US, there appears to be a blind attitude that if you ignore the AHB, it will go away. It will not; it is the most successful bee in Africa, in terms of square miles occupied. In practice, the attitude in the US towards the AHB is that the only good AHB is a dead one. Each year, millions of dollars are spent on locating and destroying AHBs in the US; probably more money than is spent on US bee research. Successful spending of these AHB dollars manifest in juicy newspaper headlines, and the myth of the killer bee deepens.

It appears bizarre that a nation as organised as the US, and with so many clever people (the Enron debacle aside), and with such a freedom-drenched constitution, cannot see the merits of working WITH the AHB, rather than against it. Having generalised, it is becoming increasingly clear that some beekeepers in the US are working with the AHB. Evidently, it is illegal to work with these bees in the US. So far as I know, a combination of federal and other laws requires all AHBs to be destroyed – on sight, so to speak, and with prejudice.

US beekeepers who do work with the AHB in the US have been forced underground. But when people want something, they will get hold of it; to wit, the reaction to the US’s prohibition laws of long ago. I do not have overwhelming evidence, but it appears that US beekeepers who work with the AHB believe it to be a good bee, even a superior bee. If it is indeed a superior bee, in its feral state, imagine how good docile, pedigreed scutellata can be.

Below, you can read information from a US bee man whose name and location are not disclosed. He appeals for beekeepers to work together on the AHB issue. For, as he points out, the day may arrive when beekeeping itself is legislated out of existence. The only people who have a vested interest in demystifying the killer bee myth are beekeepers themselves.

But there is no discernible, concerted attempt to do any such thing. It only remains to say that African bees live in harmony with people over vast areas of Africa, and have done so from time immemorial.

Barry Sergeant
South Africa

An anonymous American writes:

I understand that the so-called “killer bee” has been over-sensationalized by the media, however, the hybridized Africanized honey bees (AHB) we have in the Americas have made trouble and are more dangerous then our traditional European honey bee (EHB). The AHB is a tropical bee that prefers to nest in areas that have lots of food resources and water.

This is in our cities, houses, and backyards. Only a small percentage, 25-30%, of the AHB have the highly defensive trait that gets publicized in the news. The rest of the population is tolerable. The problem is that the AHB swarms 10 to 12 times in wild situations. As you know, each time they swarm a new queen is introduced and new genes are brought into the colony.

This frequent swarming may happen every four to eight weeks. That means the defensive genes may be introduced unnoticed and then you could have an attack. This is why we do bee control in the SA. If you think I dislike the AHB you would be mistaken. I think these are SUPER BEES – mite resistant, with low disease rates, and very hard working. I was a commercial beekeeper for seven years and liked to use the AHB. Unfortunately, it is hard to make a living as a beekeeper in the USA, so bee removal is the next best thing.

It is a needed service with so many AHBs in the cities. Even though we kill the swarms and hives as fast as we can the number of feral hives grows each year. We now have more feral colonies in AHB areas then we ever had EHB.

Public safety should be on the minds of all beekeepers around the world; each time someone gets stung by bees from a beekeeper’shive or a feral colony it becomes harder and harder for beekeepers to keep their bees in their backyards or even in farmers’ fields. We all need to work together to keep the public safe so they do not run us out of town by passing laws that prohibit beekeeping.