By Jules Siegel
Remember those "killer bees" from Brazil that were going to doom the honey industry? They're becoming productive members of Mexican society.
Mexican entomologists have crossed European and African bees to create new strains that produce fifty percent more honey and are up to a third less aggressive. After severe declines caused by invasions of varroa parasites and Africanized bees, Mexico expects a bumper honey crop of 60,000 tons in 2000.
Mexico was once the world's leading honey exporter. Even when competition increased, it usually ranked among the top three, after China and Argentina, but it fell to seventh place in 1996, when the harvest declined to 47,000 tons from almost 70,000 in 1991.
Agricultural authorities stepped up breeding and distribution of queen bees to repopulate colonies affected by the varroa mite, as well as to maintain European genetic lines. They educated beekeepers in managing the invaders.
The Brazilian government imported African honeybee queens in 1956 with the idea of increasing honey production. Since 1957, Africanized bees have swarmed outward from Sao Paulo at a rate of 300-500 kilometers per year. The bees reached Mexico in 1986, South Texas in 1990. The migration is expected to reach its northernmost limit in the latitude of North Carolina in 2000.
Africanized honey bees are a tropical species unable to survive in temperate latitudes, but very well-suited to the Mexican lowlands, which include the Yucatan Peninsula, historically one of the world's most important beekeeping regions.
The Mayas were cultivating a native stingless bee when the Spanish arrived. The Yucatan Peninsula (which includes the states Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo) has more than 130 species of native bees. The most important is Melipona beecheii, which builds blister-like sacks of honey and breeding combs in hollow trunks. Even today, the Mayas cut them from the trees and seal their ends with wooden discs and mud to cultivate domestically.
Although Melipona hives produce only a quarter-liter to a liter of honey a year, Mayan beekeepers exported large amounts of honey throughout Central America. They also paid tributes to the Spanish in honey and wax. Mayan culture still places high value on honey as a medicine, especially for ear, eye and throat ailments.
For centuries after the Conquest, the Mayas refused to cultivate European honeybees. In 1911, European bees were brought to Yucatan from the United States, and Italian queens were soon also imported for breeding, but they did not become commercially significant until the 1940's.
A New York-based trading company financed Yucatan's honey export market to make up for World War II American sugar shortages. Wealthy Yucatecans controlled production and marketing until the late 1960s. Today, however, small farmers and individuals dominate commercial production.
In a departure from the usual economic pattern, large-scale producers could not compete with Yucatecan country folk who learned modern beekeeping mostly by working for the big apiaries. These independent beekeepers collectively controlled vast communal forestlands, from which they soon evicted the commercial hives. The government formed two cooperatives that replaced the ten private firms that had handled all exports.
As of the 1995 census, Yucatan state had 726,000 colonies managed by approximately 18,200 beekeepers. The three-state peninsula accounts for more than thirty per cent of Mexico's honey. Yucatecan beekeeping is typically a sideline for subsistence farmers, who sell honey for cash income. Much of the wealth generated by honey exports is redistributed among rural families.
The peninsula's European bees are now all Africanized, but recent studies indicate that feral bees are retaining more European characteristics than expected, apparently because of the overwhelmingly preponderant populations of European honey bees that existed when the invasion began.
Africanized bees usually take over domestic hives that have no queen or are weakened by a failing queen, but they will also invade stronger colonies. Scouts hide under the target hive and acquire the colony's odor. Effectively camouflaged, they enter the hive and kill the European queen.
When searching for fertile queens, Africanized drones start earlier and stay later. Their hives swarm and break off frequently to form new colonies. Population grows fast. The workers produce more honey than European bees and they are more resistant to varroa and other plagues.
Although portrayed as randomly aggressive, they react only when they perceive a threat to their hives. Their venom is no more potent than European bee venom, but they attack hysterically in great numbers and will even chase an enemy for considerable distances.
Authorities now routinely remove wild hives from populated areas. Yucatecan beekeepers used to keep their hives near their homes, but they have now relocated them to unpopulated areas. They've also learned how to handle the Africanized honeybees to avoid upsetting them. Severe bee sting incidents are very rare and almost always occur in the wild when hunters or forest workers accidentally disturb a hive.
In the United States, agricultural experts are mostly concentrating on strategies to control or eradicate Africanized bees. Rather than engaging in fruitless search-and-destroy missions, Mexico is getting the best out of Africanized bees. What could have been an ecological disaster is turning into a bonanza.
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