Living With Africanized Bees In San Diego
It's been about eight years since Africanized honey bees came to California. Today, bee keepers say they have taken over San Diego's wild bee populations. But bee keepers hope that breeding efforts can create a bee that has the hardy Africanized traits but isn't quite as mean.
A beehive belonging to bee keeper Eric Robinson has been re-queened. That means he put a tame Europeanized queen bee into a colony of wild Africanized bees, who then accepted the queen as their leader. The result was a genetic cleansing of the hive as the old aggressive bees died off and the new queen's more passive offspring replaced them. Robinson said this kind of taming of wild bees has been going on for about as long as people have been breeding dogs.
"There was originally a wild dog that was the wolf," he said. "The wolf is the same species as dog and they can interbreed. But over generations people selected dogs that were more docile, more friendly. And the same thing has been done with bees."
But the problem with those bees that we've made as gentle as poodles is they don't survive well in the wild. This is especially true in San Diego County where they're in competition with a true wolf -- the African honey bee. Although Africanized bees only arrived in California about eight years ago, they have done very well.
Pete Holtzen has a company called Honeybee Rescue. He relocates wild bee colonies that have become unsafe for humans. Holtzen estimates more than 95 percent of the wild bees in San Diego County are Africanized. He said as summer wears on, and flower nectar becomes scarce, those bees will pose a danger to people.
"When it starts to get hot and the bees have no food source, they are going to get angry and aggressive," said Holtzen. "And I think the chance of someone getting hurt is really, really high."
Cases of people being stung to death are rare, but they happen. A month ago an Encinitas man was killed by a swarm of bees as he was clearing brush with a backhoe.
James Nieh is a professor of biology at UCSD who studies bee behavior. He said when a bee stings you it releases an alarm pheromone that other bees can smell, causing them to react aggressively.
"So when a normal honeybee stings you, maybe a couple of other honeybees will come by, investigate and try to sting you. In an Africanized honeybee you could have hundreds of bees trying to sting you," said Nieh.
Frightening for us, but for the bees it's a very effective way of discouraging bears, humans and other predators that may steal their honey and destroy their hives. Nieh said natural selection favors the Africanized bees in other ways.
"Their main advantage seems to be that they are more resistant to this mite, verroa destructor, which causes huge bee losses and is definitely implicated in colony collapse disorder," he said.
Despite the dominance of Africanized bees, the future of San Diego's bee population is subject to debate. Bee keepers will continue to favor the genetics of Europeanized bees, given their gentle nature. Bee keeper Eric Robinson said he expects years of cross-breeding could produce a local bee that brings the best of both worlds.
"So maybe we can produce a hybrid which has the resistance of Africanized bees plus the docility of European bees and we'll end up with a nice cross," he said.
But Pete Holtzen, of Honeybee Rescue, said the aggressive traits of Africanized bees will not go away.
"The bees fly faster. The eggs hatch out a day faster. They're just harder workers. They reproduce with a vengeance," he said.
For the time being, Africanized bees clearly dominate San Diego's feral bee population. And speaking of that, if you are ever attacked by a bunch of bees, run. James Neih says bees do not fly very fast, and the faster you can make a bee line out of there, the less stung you're going to be.