Beekeepers Breed Africanized Bees Despite Deadly Reputation

Killer bees to the rescue.

A major component of the area’s feral bee population — Africanized honeybees were blamed for at least one death last year in Arizona — are being incorporated into declining domesticated hives of European honeybees to bolster production and protect against invasive mites and diseases.

The Africanized honeybee has a “heightened defensiveness,” which leads to a higher frequency of attacks with less provocation from their European counterparts, according to research by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science.

These bees are blamed for the deaths of two elderly people in 1995, and a rash of attacks made the news again in 2013. Five people doing lawn work were stung by a swarm last year, killing one man.

Greg Denker
Greg Denker runs American Bee Control that also uses Africanized honeybees for honey.MAYA DANGERFIELD/NYT INSTITUTE

But some Tucson-area beekeepers have considered Africanized bees a boon to the area’s bee population.

“We’re lucky with the Africanized bee, they’re like a really vital bee, more like bees should be,” said LieAuhTein Schneider, 37, a beekeeper at the Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage in Tumacácori. “People think that they’re highly aggressive, but to me, it’s what a bee is supposed to be.”

European honeybees, composed of six subspecies, are the primary bees used in the U.S. for honey production and field pollination.

In the winter of 2006, the colony collapse disorder decimated the national bee population, with beekeeping operations reporting losses of up to 90 percent, according to a report by the Department of Agriculture.

David Brenton, 62, the beekeeper and owner of Tucson Honey Company, said that the overuse of European honeybees makes them increasingly susceptible to disease.

“Bees that travel for pollination are stressed — they’re stressed by travel, they’re stressed by beekeepers,” Mr. Brenton said. “If they have mites they’ll have to treat them.”

Despite their deadly reputation, Mr. Schneider said that Africanized bees just may be the solution.

“One time we bought a hive of European bees and they didn’t make much progress,” Mr. Schneider said, noting that an Africanized queen took over nine months later. “Since then, it started to prosper.”