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Warming, and bees (redux)

Five days ago the residents of a suburban neighborhood in Concord, CA, got to experience first-hand what happens when a colony of Africanized honey bees takes over a hive of European bees. According to the most recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the original colony had been managed by a beekeeper for 15 years without any problems. Beekeepers conclude that the Africanized bees invaded the colony, killed the European queen, and took up residence. They became agitated when the beekeeper tried to move the hive last Friday. Several people were stung multiple times and two small dogs were killed.

The reason I bring this up is to calm fears. As I wrote last fall, we already know that Africanized honey bees have been in the greater San Francisco Bay Area since 2014. I'm willing to bet that there are Africanized alleles in the honey bee gene pool around Santa Cruz, too. Let me explain why I'm not overly concerned about Africanized honey bees.

As a beekeeper myself I am growing less and less tolerant of bees that are in the least bit jumpy or overly defensive; they make working a hive more stressful than it needs to be, which means the hive is open for a longer period of time, which means the bees get more anxious, which means the beekeepers get more anxious, and so on and so forth. Life as a beekeeper, especially in a suburban area, is much more pleasant when the bees themselves are gentle and sweet. In our experience, the Italian and Russian strains of the European honey bees have a docile temperament and are easy to work with.

There's no doubt that the Africanized alleles are here, and they're here to stay. I touched upon this the other day when I wrote about the bees in our pantry. I also have no doubt about the impact that hobbyist beekeepers will have to control the spread of those alleles for extreme defensive behavior. You see, by re-queening aggressive colonies whose queen may have mated with Africanized drones, a beekeeper removes those alleles from the hive, effectively diluting them in the larger gene pool. Hobbyist beekeepers would be selecting against defensiveness and for docility. Now, I am not a honey bee population geneticist, nor am I an expert on the different strains of European honey bees. However, I do know that if we consistently cull queens whose daughters are too jumpy or quick to defend their colony, then eventually we should end up with less defensive behavior as the Africanized alleles become rarer in the population.

I should also say that those Africanized alleles are not going away. We, beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike, have to accept that Africanized bees have been established in California for decades now and are expanding their range northward. A warming climate may enable them to overwinter successfully in areas that were formerly too cold for them. So we have them, and have probably had them for a while now. Most people encounter only foraging bees; these, whether or European or African descent, tend to be focused on their work and can't be bothered to notice the big lumbering mammal watching them (unless said mammal does something to provoke the bees, in which case all bets are off). It is only when they detect a threat to their colony that the bees become aggressive.

So, what should you do? Well, if you see a feral colony of bees, don't mess with it. This is the same advice that I'd give someone who asks how not to get bitten by a rattlesnake. Pay attention to your surroundings, even if you're just walking the dog around the block. Who knows, a swarm of bees may have taken residence in a tree that you've walked past a thousand times before. If you notice bees flying into and out of a hole in a tree, watch them from a safe distance (binoculars are great tools for spying on bees). If you are concerned that a colony may be in a bad location because of proximity to people or livestock, contact a beekeeper who can remove it safely. Above all, keep in mind that in your daily life you do many risky things. If you don't believe me, check out these data from the National Safety Council in 2002 for chance of death due to:

  • car accident as an occupant of a car: 1 in 17,000 (yikes!)
  • falling from stairs or steps: 1 in 180,000
  • suffocation in bed: 1 in 565,000
  • drowning in a swimming pool: 1 in 450,000
  • contact with hornets, wasps, and bees: 1 in 5,000,000

So don't worry, but do be aware. And don't let the threat of Africanized honey bees keep you from enjoying the outdoors! And don't forget to look both ways before you cross the street, either.

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