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AFRICANIZED BEES

Africanized bees are called that because they are a hybrid between African and European honey bees. They were brought to Brazil to try to breed bees that were hardy like the African bees but were relatively docile and produced lots of honey like the European bees. Some of the swarms escaped, and they were able to expand their range into the United States, including Tucson. Africanized Bees (sometimes called "killer bees") are more dangerous than their European counterparts, not because their venom is more toxic (it isn't) but because you are more likely to get more stings. You get more stings because, compared to European honey bees,:

  • They defend their hive from farther away -- the best defense if attacked is to run (usually they will stop after about a half mile) and seek shelter in a house or car.
  • They get agitated faster -- you have less time to realize your mistake and get away
  • More come out at once to defend the hive -- thus you get more potential stingers
  • And they stay agitated longer -- harder to get away

Why, you may be wondering, do Africanized bees show these characteristics? One reason is because docility has been bred into European bees more than African bees. But they were probably more aggressive, even before domestication. Honey Bees commonly build their hives hidden away in tree cavities. This makes it hard for most predators to find bee hives. So, in Europe, the best defense for the bees is to be quiet, and hopefully the predator will pass by without detecting the hive. In Africa, it is a different story. A bird, called the honeyguide, guides predators (including humans) to the bees' hives. So, when a predator is approaching a hive in Africa, very likely it is being guided by the bird, thus will find the hive. Therefore, the best defense for the bees is an all-out attack. They lose a lot of bees (honey bees only sting once, then their stinger is left in the victim, ripping away part of the bee's abdomen, leaving the bee to die), but they might save the hive. What's in it for the bird? Food. The bird can follow the bees and find their hive easily, but they can't break into the wood to get to the hive. The predator they guide does that, and the bird gets the left-overs. This is an excellent example of mutualism, where both species (the bee and the predator) benefit from the association.