Killer Bees Are Literally A Science Experiment Gone Horribly Awry

An Africanized honey bee hive. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ktr101.

Human attempts to manipulate the planet, its plants and animals, the atmosphere, or otherwise bending nature for purposes arguably always selfish do not always go according to plan — and the killer bee might be the penultimate evidentiary case-in-point.

Killer bees did not come to exist through a freakish yet naturally-occurring mutation — rather, the deadly insects resulted from an innocuous attempt by scientists to create a higher production honey bee.

Until that experiment took a horrifying turn for the worse.

It began in 1957, in a lab near Rio Claro, Brazil, IFLScience reports, when the Brazilian government commissioned biologist Warwick E. Kerr to improve upon an earlier endeavor seeking to create a bee which would produce larger quantities of honey — an experiment thwarted largely by hot conditions preventing that species’ success.

“The European honey bees just sat in the hammock all day drinking lemonade,” Eric Mussen, Emeritus Extension Apiculturist at UC Davis, told IFLScience. “Not having much experience with animal breeding, he [Dr Kerr] thought that if he could introduce into European honey bees some African genes, the result would be a hybrid that would work better at collecting honey in a tropical setting than the temperate-climate European honey bees.”

The result? Africanized honey bees — known widely by the storied colloquial, “killer bees.”

While initially deemed a success by Kerr and his team — the Africanized bee indeed produced a glut of honey — this new hybrid bee came complete with a decidedly pronounced and equally undesirable trait: the killer instinct to protect the hive at any cost.

“The best known and most sensationalized ‘stock release’ story was about a visiting person who did not like seeing the queens confined behind ‘queen excluder’ screens on the entrances of hive, so the screens were removed,” Mussen continued. “Somewhere near 20 colonies escaped into the wild. Theoretically, that escape led to the complete overwhelming of many places in South and Central America by Africanized honey bees.”

Kerr crossed his fingers the pollinators would not survive for long, or would at least have their aggressive instincts curbed through interbreeding. But that didn’t happen, and these killer bees rapidly overwhelmed South and, later, Central America in the ensuing decades — mating with their tamer European counterparts but retaining the belligerent urge to protect.

“By the mid-1980s,” IFLScience notes, “the killer bees made it as far as the US. They can be now be found in many southern US states, including California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida.”

Before you panic, understand that misconceptions about Africanized bees, indeed, persist today. In fact, the defense mechanism lending Africanized bees the familiar name, killer, appears to have been lost in translation from the Portuguese for “assassin bees” — so described due to the method in which they invade and dominate European hives, eventually ‘assassinating’ the queen for full control.

Africanized honey bees on a comb. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Jonathan Wilkins.

Somewhere along the way, ‘assassin’ morphed into ‘killer’ — and the horror movie-like name stuck.

Additionally, Africanized bee venom, itself, isn’t any more potent than that of an ‘ordinary’ honey bee — but the sting of one insect isn’t how killer bees kill humans.

“The sting of an African honey bee is no worse than for a European honey bee, about 1,000 stings is a fatal dose,” University of Sussex Professor Francis Ratnieks, a bee and animal behavior expert, told IFLScience. “They are more dangerous as they are more likely to defend their colony in numbers. As there can be 10,000 bees or more in a colony, a fatal dose can occur.”

Swarming when provoked, the repeated stings from masses of Africanized bees can and has proven deadly to no less than 400 people around the globe — including a sizable number of victims inside the United States.

One recent study observed Kerr’s hopes assassin bees aggressively overprotective defense mechanisms would be naturally diluted through mating with their less hostile brethren might finally be coming to fruition.

In the Africanized honey bee’s two-decade stint in Puerto Rico, aggression as a species as calmed considerably — scientists found in 2012 killer bees located in the island nation are only about as combative as European honey bees.

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