JO-ANNE NINA SEWLAL
Last week, we introduced the topic of Africanised bees (Apis mellifera scutellata), a sub-species and cousin of the docile European honey bee. Africanised bees have received a lot of attention and fear of these bees is due to their highly-defensive nature. This includes attacking predators or what they perceive to be a predator by the hundreds and with great intensity. But many of these fears are unfounded. This week’s article aims to clear up some of these misconceptions as well as look at how their presence benefits the environment and the bee-keeping community.
So why are people really afraid of Africanised bees? One reason is their predisposition to swarming. Many people have the misconception that swarming is how bees attack. Swarming is in fact the means by which bees find a suitable site for their colony. Workers scout for a suitable location, and when one is found, the queen along with 60 percent of the workers leave the colony to take up residence and establish a colony at the new site. The workers that are left behind care for the developing queen who will then lead their colony. So that swarming is actually good for beekeepers (once it can be controlled) as it creates more colonies and increases the honey production of the apiary.
In terms of venom, similarly to European sub-species, once a bee stings you, it dies as its venom gland rips out of its body along with its stinger which embeds itself into its victim, pumping venom until it is removed. So getting stung by a bee is not a pleasant experience. For persons with allergies, a single sting can indeed be deadly. To a person without allergies numerous stings at once can be fatal, hence the fear of being attacked by a swarm of these insects.
But are Africanised honey bees more dangerous than their European cousins? Africanised bees are actually smaller and contain less venom. However, when disturbed, workers respond faster and in greater numbers, with the unlucky recipient of their attention receiving ten times more stings than from a colony of European honey bees. This means that often the recipient would go into anaphylactic shock.
However, the term “killer bees” is misleading since just as with European bees, Africanised honey bees are not out to kill but defend their colonies. Swarming bees are not aggressive as they have no colony to defend. They are also not physically able to sting since they have engorged themselves with honey in order to make the trip and found the new colony.
What then does the arrival of Africanised bees mean to the beekeeping industry in this country? Africanised bees were first detected in Trinidad in 1979 and their aggressive nature caused more than half of the beekeepers at the time to quit, reducing the number from 350 to around 200.
So how have beekeepers managed to “tame” the Africanised bees? Simple, they have not. Beekeepers have learnt to adapt. One such adaptation is working according to nature’s schedule rather than their own. They also have to pay more attention to the flowering schedule of the plants in the vicinity of their apiary.