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Could a 'killer bee' expansion be good news for farmers? (+video)

Amidst a honey bee decline, researchers find that the Africanized honey bee has actually expanded its range in California. Could this help the agriculture-filled state?

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    In this file photo, an Italian bee collects pollen from a poppy flower at Dustin Gimbel's home in Long Beach, Calif. Gimbel raises the insects to help maintain the health of his garden. He also harvests the colony's honey.
    Joshua Sudock/The Orange County Register/AP/File
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Honey bees have made the news in recent years as they have experienced a mass die-off. But one honey bee is not in such dire straits and is actually spreading its range.

The Africanized honey bee, a hybrid of the European and African honey bees, is now foraging for pollen further north than ever before, at least in California.

Researchers have determined that these bees have reached nearly to Sacramento, with the northernmost bees found just 25 miles south of the state capital. 

Furthermore, over 60 percent of honey bees examined in San Diego County were found to be Africanized, according to a study by researchers at the University of California San Diego published Friday in the journal PLOS ONE.

Africanized honey bees are not typically found in beekeeper’s hives. The residents of the white boxes are mostly European honey bees.

The Africanized bees are largely feral, or unmanaged. “They have their own wild hives,” says Joshua Kohn, co-author of the study. These bees make their homes in trees, the eaves of a house, an abandoned drainpipe – anything that feels homey. And, he adds. “They seem to be doing, at least in our area, very very well. They’re very abundant.”

“The bees that are in decline, certainly, are managed bees, bees that are used in agriculture where you bring in hives in order to pollinate crops,” says Dr. Kohn. Beekeepers reported a loss of 34 percent of their honey bee colonies from April 2013 to April 2014, which is actually an improvement over a loss of nearly 45 percent the year before.

The bees are dying from colony collapse disorder, which happens when workers in the colony disappear. Researchers suspect that these losses stem largely from parasitic mites.

Could these feral Africanized bees help fill the gaps? 

Kohn suspects that the Africanized honey bees might be disease resistant or have a better way of responding to mite infestations than their European counterparts. Perhaps this trait will present a solution.

But in the meantime, the Africanized bees might lend a hand, says Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, research leader at the USDA's Carl Hayden Bee Research Center.

“Honey bees are honey bees,” says Dr. DeGrandi-Hoffman. “Those bees can still be very helpful for pollination.” 

Beekeepers prefer working with European honey bees. But, says DeGrandi-Hoffman, as long as they’re helping with pollination, “Any feral bees that are out there can be a bonus.”

Why are honey bees so important?

Honey bees have been in such dire straits that the nation's chief executive has stepped in. President Obama created a plan in May, complete with a task force focused on improving the health of bees and other pollinators.

Bees, and some other insects, pollinate certain crops, allowing them to produce fruits, berries, nuts, and other tasty treats. The food that fills dinner tables across the country is largely made possible by bees. 

Bee pollination alone accounts for about one in every three mouthfuls that we eat and more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year. 

Agriculture needs honey bees and much of California is filled with just such crops.

With managed European honey bees in sharp decline, Africanized honey bees might hold some hope.

European bees are more docile and easier to manage commercially, while the Africanized bees are frequently called killer bees for their more aggressive behavior and tendency to swarm.

Not native bees

Both honey bees were introduced to the United States by humans. The European honey bee has been around since the 1600s, but the African honey bee didn’t make it to the Americas until centuries later.

These bees were brought to Brazil from Africa in the 1950s by a researcher hoping to breed a better bee for the climate. But in 1957 some escaped and began their trek across the Americas. 

As these bees expanded their range, they bred with European bees, creating a mix of genes and the resulting insects were dubbed Africanized bees. These traits first appeared in bees in the United States in 1990 when a swarm was found in Texas. Today, Africanized bees spread across the southwestern region of the US.

A threat?

When stories came out about these bees overwhelming and stinging people to death, killer bee hysteria began. The bees aren't more venomous than other stinging insects. Instead, they attack defensively as a swarm.

“I don’t consider it anything different than the threat of rattlesnakes or shark attack or any of those things,” says Kohn. Deaths by bee-sting are rare, can happen from any type of bee, and are usually caused by an allergy. 

Their aggressive nature does make beekeeping more difficult, says DeGrandi-Hoffman. Beekeepers frequently fight to keep Africanized bees out of their hives. 

In addition to being especially defensive of their nests, these bees also swarm, creating a new colony themselves away from the beekeeper’s management.

But it is possible to manage these bees.

How can Africanized bees be used?

Most beekeepers in the area have Africanized bees in their hives now, says Nathanael Siemens, an almond farmer in Wasco, Calif. He keeps a few hives to support his almond business, Fat Uncle Farms. 

“It’s just a different management style,” says Siemens. Beekeepers can focus on managing the Africanized bees and be very successful, he says. 

More often, though, beekeepers see a blend of traits among their hives. “You kind of get the best of both worlds,” he says.

Africanized bees and European bees might be similar enough. “They’re not all that different, except when it comes to some genes for nest defense,” DeGrandi-Hoffman says.

Kohn suggests, “It’s possible that there’s genes in those bees that could be used for breeding a better form of the managed honey bee.”

The hope would be to select genes from the Africanized bees while avoiding any genes supporting the bees’ aggressiveness.

That might be tricky, says DeGrandi-Hoffman. “Whenever you do those selections for traits, you never just get that trait.”

But if beekeepers and researchers can find success and create a less aggressive hybrid, they might be able to make a more resilient bee. 

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