U.S. invasion of killer bees leaves few panicked--except beekeepers

October 21, 1990|By New York Times News Service

WESLACO, Texas -- There is no talk of killer bees at Andy's Cafe 2 here, no panicked calls to the City Hall in nearby Alamo, not even a mention of the bee invasion in the Beeville Bee-Picayune.

But over the next few years, the Africanized honeybees will have a dramatic impact on beekeepers and agriculture as they cause a reduction in both honey production and pollination.

And their long-awaited arrival here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley last week set off speculation about possible effects on everything from lawsuits to wearers of beeswax-based hair replacement systems.

Still, after years of anticipation, the bees' arrival has been something of a welcome anticlimax.

"Here in the valley, people have been anticipating this for so long, people are just sick of hearing about it," said Dave Mayes, with the department of agricultural communications at Texas A&M University. "People know more about the bee, and their anxiety level has decreased."

The relaxed response is likely to change as the bees become more prevalent and as stings are reported. Beekeepers view them as a serious threat to the annual $150 million U.S. honey production industry and to the up to $10 billion in agricultural products that bees help pollinate.

Still, when the first swarm of aggressive bees finally buzzed into Texas, their debut played out here much as their spread across the country probably will -- an epochal event for beekeepers and a real, but minor, risk for the general public.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed Thursday that a 3,000-bee swarm of Africanized honeybees was found and then destroyed Monday in one of the department's pulp-paper traps about a mile north of the Rio Grande.

The discovery means that 33 years after African bees were inadvertently let loose in Brazil, the aggressive strain has entered the United States.

Although the Africanized bees' sting is no worse than that of other bees, the bees are extremely aggressive in defending their hives and have the potential to attack and sting in angry swarms.

There are no precise figures on fatalities.

The government of Mexico says at least 16 people have been killed by the bees there in the past three years, and some experts estimate that 700 to 1,000 people have been killed by stings since 1957, when the bees escaped from a Brazilian breeding experiment and started heading north at about 200 miles a year.

Still, experts say that even when the bees arrive in greater numbers the risk of a fatal sting will be less than that of being struck by lightning.

In 1987, the last year for which figures are available, 99 Americans died after being hit by lightning and 53 died from stings by bees, wasps and hornets, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

For the bee industry, the risks are far more immediate and real.

The Africanized bees are harder to work with, produce less honey, and are of less use in pollination, experts say.

In Mexico, beekeepers reported a 20 percent reduction in honey production in areas infested with Africanized bees.

Officials say the U.S. beekeeping industry could face annual losses of $26 million to $58 million after the arrival of the bees, if no effective steps are taken to limit their spread.

Beekeepers hope that the bees will lose some of their ferocity as they move north and breed with other bees, though there is little evidence that this has happened in the past.

Instead, their main hope is that by carefully managing their hives, being sure, for example, that they are stocked with European queens, beekeepers will limit the impact of the Africanized bees.

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