Attack Of The Killer Bees!

THE YEAR IS 1934. The nation stands stock still with terror. America's fright is not the result of the rise of Nazism, not of Stalin's depredations, not even of John Dillinger's widespread rampaging. No, the country lies paralyzed by the fear of Latrodectus mactans--the black widow spider.

The previous year had been a wet one, and insects were flourishing. So, too, were the spiders that prey on them. More spiders mean more spider bites, and by mid-1934 such journals as Scientific American and Science were warning of the threat the thriving population of black widows posed to humans. Popular Mechanics went even further, warning that "the spider has become a menace to mankind," and the tabloid media had millions of Americans convinced the end of our species was near.

Well, 1934 came and went, and with it the attack of the killer spiders. Lacking its arachnid enemy, the media went back to worrying about such matters as Father Coughlin's homegrown fascism and unchecked Japanese immigration, saving the next big scare for Orson Welles' 1939 airing of The War of the Worlds, when the Martians hit New Jersey. (For its part, Japan faced a Latrodectus mactans scare of its own late in 1995, when more than a thousand black widows were found in the port city of Osaka. Entomologists believe these were stowaways in shipments of tropical hardwoods from the world's embattled rainforests. The wheel of karma keeps on spinning.)

Fast forward to 1976. John Belushi and other cast members of the new TV program Saturday Night Live are dressed in yellow-and-black striped outfits, toting machine guns and chomping on black cigars. The joke is the arrival of so-called "killer bees" in Central America, an invading force that invited comparison to Alfonso Bedoya's ruffian gang in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Such luminaries as Elliot Gould and Steve Martin join in the fun.

Fast forward to 1984. Central America is no longer funny. Ronald Reagan has warned the country Sandinista tanks are three days away from the Texas border. In the meanwhile, killer bees have spread northward into Mexico, establishing hives throughout the Yucatán.

Fast forward just two years later, to 1986. Isolated hives of killer bees have been found in California's Central Valley, and the Golden State is in an uproar. "Bee Battalions Mopping Up Killer Bee Invasion," cried the appropriately named Sacramento Bee. The bees are swiftly eradicated with cyanide gas, a threat to humans and animals alike.

And now, fast forward to the mid-1990s. The terror has come to the desert of southern Arizona, along with a few pockets of the Texas borderlands. A few recent headlines from the Arizona Republic and The Arizona Daily Star tell the story: "Africanized Bees Found at Interstate 8 Rest Stop." "Killer Bees Blamed for 3 Attacks." "Pit Bull Dies of Nearly 2,000 Stings; Killer Bees Blamed."

And the terror is upon us once again.

KILLER BEES," KNOWN in scientific parlance as Apis mellifera scutellata, are a variety of honeybee first domesticated in the scrub desert of central South Africa. Although their hives are small, they are said to be more productive than the Italian, German, and other strains of European honeybees to which they are related. Proponents of Apis mellifera scutellata say the African bees set to work an hour earlier than their cousins, are more disease-resistant, and yield more and, by many accounts, better honey.

For those reasons, in 1956 the Brazilian government commissioned an émigré professor, an Englishman named Warwick Kerr, to introduce the African bees to South America. At the time Brazil ranked 47th among the world's honey-producing countries With the arrival of the new variety, that country's ranking quickly rose to seventh, and much of the honey we eat in this country now comes from Brazil. Kerr lost favor in 1964, when he protested publicly against the then-military government's excesses, and he spent time in jail for exercising his conscience. In 1969 he was again arrested, this time for protesting an incident in which Brazilian soldiers raped and tortured a nun and went unpunished for their crime.

The Brazilian government was not pleased by Kerr's protests. To cast doubt on his credentials as a scientist, it portrayed him in court as a kind of Frankenstein doctor bent on mayhem and the eventual destruction of his adopted country. The lurid newspaper stories that followed touched off a panic, proclaiming that Kerr had been training his imported Africans to be "killer bees," attacking humans on command. Thanks to the diligence of the military police, the government went on to trumpet, this foreign madman was stopped before he could put his evil drones to work.

Thus the myth of the killer bee was born.

African bees are no more venomous than their European cousins. Neither do they go out of their way to look for targets, human or otherwise. The difference lies in the African bees' defensiveness; resistant to most pests, they have natural enemies only in predators, and, survival of the fittest being what it is, the African bees have long since evolved to resist predation with extreme prejudice. When their colonies are attacked or approached, they tend to swarm and sting with abandon. Since their arrival in the Americas, the African purebreds have intermingled with European varieties of honeybee, giving birth to a hybrid, the "Africanized bee." It is these small, graceful creatures that have been crossing our border into the American Southwest of late, and giving so many people fits.

To call them "killer bees" is clearly wrong; the once more common German bee is more aggressive. And because Western culture tends to equate anything African with savagery, "Africanized bees" isn't much help. In Latin America the creatures are called abejas bravas, "brave bees," a name unlikely to catch on with any but the savviest gringos. Thanks to a successful lobbying effort by the Brazilian government, the formerly common name "Brazilian bees" has been quashed. Africanized bees, then, is what we'll have to make do with--with no connotations, positive or negative.

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA professor Marla Spivak, formerly of the University of Arizona, is a leading authority on Africanized bees, which she's been studying for more than a decade. She smiles at the media accounts of the terror these newcomers portend, but she wants the public to be aware the bees are no laughing matter, either.

"For the first five to 10 years after they appear in a country," Dr. Spivak says, "they cause problems, but only because beekeepers find them hard to work with. When you work a defensive colony you have to become a better beekeeper, really pay attention to what they're doing. Beekeepers can cull out defensive colonies, fortunately, and select only the most gentle characteristics. The problem is really out in the desert. Where you once only had to worry about rattlesnakes and water, you now find Africanized bees, too. They rarely sting unprovoked, but there are a few weirdos out there."

It's always the few weirdos, of course, that get the attention. Even still, although over the last three decades there have been a couple of thousand bee-sting deaths in Latin America--about the same number as in the United States--there have as yet been no recorded unprovoked attacks on the part of Africanized bees.

Indeed, of the 41 people who died nationwide in 1993 of bee stings, only one was attacked by an Africanized strain. That unfortunate fellow, an 82-year-old man from Río Grande City, Texas, had been stung, an autopsy revealed, about 50 times. "A normally healthy person," Dr. Spivak says, "can take 500 stings and survive with no problems." But the poor man suffered from a heart condition, and 50 stings were enough to seal his fate.

When a young man was stung to death in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, on August 19, 1993, Mexican and borderlands newspapers immediately put the blame on "killer bees." (The abeja brava has begun to earn a bad name south of the border, thanks in some measure to yanqui hysteria.) Two weeks later, a coroner announced the bees had in fact been Europeans, that the man had been stung only a few times, and that he had died from anaphylactic shock--that is, an allergic reaction.

Without question, the Africanized bees are here to stay. Steven Thoenes, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist who operates Tucson-based Bee Master, Inc., notes, "There's a huge influx of the bees in Tucson right now. They arrived in 1993. In 1994, according to our census, they made up 15 percent of the bee population. In 1995, that went up to 58 percent. Our 1996 census, which we haven't quite finished, will probably put the figure at 90 percent."

Despite this invasion, dogs and cats have more to worry about than do humans. Naturally curious, they tend to wander around in the dark corners in which bees like to establish colonies: under thick bushes, in trees, in sheds and eaves. On June 5, 1993, a dog in Tucson died after having been stung 150 times; later that month, firefighters in Sasabe removed a swarm after several animals were stung; and in the following years, reports from across southern Arizona have mounted of dogs, cats, and even horses being stung.

There is no way short of keeping animals indoors to rule out absolutely the chances of their being attacked, Spivak admits. But there is one way to avoid being stung yourself should a swarm decide to share your residence with you: Don't reach for the D-Con. Instead, call a professional beekeeper to remove the colony. You'll be rid of a potential catastrophe, and the beekeeper will have 30,000 productive new workers.

Some of the beekeepers could likely use the work, too. Thanks to an agricultural-subsidy program initiated under President Bush and continued under President Clinton, the federal government imports millions of pounds of honey from China each year. China sells this honey for 40 cents a pound, a full 25 cents less than the basic costs an American producer incurs before market. The result is that native honey is being driven off the market, to the benefit of a few happy importers.

To fight this, the heads of the largest commercial bee farms in the United States, most of them smack in the middle of South Dakota, have pressed for the introduction of Africanized bees to the north country. The improved yield may help lower costs and make American honey competitive against Chinese imports, the product of a country with an appalling human-rights record and no modern tradition of industrial quality in any event.

Let Africanized bees do their bit to breed better beekeepers in this country, in other words. Otherwise, Tucsonans should merely leave the bees alone, and the scared news stories will probably be things of the past.

Steven Thoenes elaborates. "You need to be aware of your surroundings, watch the bees come and go. If they come in numbers, you'll know when they get there. Most bee problems occur in areas within easy flight from washes, and anywhere there's green grass. These bees are tropical, after all, and they're attracted to moisture.

"The Africanized bees are truly dangerous in just one situation," Thoenes adds, "and that's when they're threatened. But it takes about six months for a new hive to become productive enough that the bees feel that they need to attack anyone who comes near. If you see bees arriving in your yard, just get rid of them as soon as you can, and you shouldn't have any problem."

"You should be concerned," Spivak concludes. "But not alarmed."

WHAT, THEN, IS all the fuss about? For whatever reason, people love a good scare. If this were not so, Hollywood would not pump out endless slasher movies, and the major news media would not fall into a feeding frenzy whenever rain falls on the Midwest or a strong wind rises off the coast of Florida.

Our scares, however, are not constant. A century ago, psychiatrist G. Stanley Hall surveyed some 2,000 subjects nationwide about their deepest-held fears. The leading bugaboo, he found, was lightning and thunder, followed in order by reptiles, strangers, darkness, fire, domestic animals, disease, wild animals, and ghosts. These fears seem reasonable; in the 1890s, America was still a largely rural country, full of lightning strikes, grizzlies, rattlesnakes, prairie fires, and rabid skunks. Who knows, maybe it was full of ghosts as well, given our bloody 19th century.

The ranking of those fears has shifted in time. Today, nationally, our top-10 nightmares involve animals of all kinds, including snakes and insects, followed by the sight of blood, closed spaces, heights, and air travel. Lightning doesn't even figure into the list, although it slays more people in most years than bee stings and dog bites combined. Still, given our fondness for gunning each other down, fearing the sight of blood seems perfectly sound.

We have ample industries to fuel our fears: plenty of psycho films, plenty of scare-tactic headlines and doomsayers, plenty of insurance companies that carefully nurture the image that life can, with the proper policy, be made free of risk.

Apis mellifera scutellata has nested in this panic. It's a creature to be regarded with healthy respect, and at arm's length, viewed from a safe distance as it hives along desert canyon walls and the high branches of mesquite trees.

But let us remember that only six decades have passed since black widows threatened to conquer the earth. That scare seems ridiculous now, and in the years to come, the terror surrounding "killer bees" will seem equally silly. There are plenty of real dangers to worry about instead. More Americans are going to be shot down in drive-by shootings than killed by bees of whatever sort. More Americans will die as a result of drunk drivers, of negligent manufacturers, of cancers caused by soil and groundwater and air pollution. These are all things we can do something about, and we would do well to emulate the Africanized bees' industriousness when we finally set to work on them.

The real danger in the rise and spread of the Africanized bee is one of those big-picture issues that comes to light only when it's too late to do anything about them. In this case, as Tucson-based scientists Stephen Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan report in their new book Forgotten Pollinators, that issue is the long-term destruction of native insect populations, especially bees, through the use of agricultural pesticides. New to the region, the Africanized bees have not suffered the same effects, and the relative weakness of long-adapted bee species--which are also suffering from viruses and a particularly ferocious infestation of mites--has opened up a whole new ecological niche for the recent arrivals to exploit. Intensively competitive, the Africanized bees make use of flowering plants before other bees, already weakened, can get to them; neither are the Africanized bees shy about taking over other bees' hives and kidnapping their queens. This, in the long run, will give the newcomers an evolutionary advantage, and it spells doom for the oldtimers.

"The demise of the native bee hardly makes the front page or a spot on the six o'clock news," write Buchmann and Nabhan. "But now the honeybee declining rapidly, too, due to diverse threats--from two mite species, from fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases, and from a host of pesticides (and) herbicides....At the same time, Africanized bees are expanding their occupied range and threaten this vital pollination service"--unless, that is, all the newcomers are tamed and put into the service of the honey industry, which seems an unlikely prospect, given its current state of crisis.

The news is real: Once again, the world is being remade around us, brought on by error and ignorance, by misapplied technology and the drive for economic profit at the expense of the natural world. Africanized bees are only a small part of that story, a story of the destruction we have wrought upon ourselves. Only when the natural world begins to fight back will we know how frightened we should really be. TW

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