Bee Researchers Make Friends with a Killer

Scientific American     By Erik Vance  12/12/13

Latin America finds Africanized killer bees are better honey producers than expected

In the Mexican highlands, nestled between towering cliffs blanketed with verdant temperate jungle, is the tiny mountain town of Tepotzlan. Home to an ancient Aztec outpost high in the mountains and inhabited with monkeylike creatures called coatis, it is the definition of quaint, picturesque Mexico.

It’s also a great place to buy honey. Most honey you buy on Mexican streets isn’t the genuine article—it is honey-flavored syrup. For the real stuff, you have to go down a small side street in Tepotzlan and wander around asking for the “mujer de miel”—the honey lady. Eventually you find her house, a bland wall facing the street, guarded by a massive angry dog. But inside, her courtyard is friendly, lined with bushy plants and flowers of every type. The honey lady is thin and elderly but sharp as a tack. Ten dollars buys you the best honey in town and a few minutes to talk beekeeping.

Bees in Mexico, she says, aren’t what they used to be. Her hives don’t produce like they once did and entire colonies often fly away before she can even harvest their honey. “The problem,” she says, “is the Africanized bees.”

It’s been almost 30 years since Africanized (often called “killer”) bees first landed in Mexico. It took them just seven years to take over the country and cause an extended media panic in the U.S. In the end, they invaded southern states such as Texas and Arizona but were halted by colder winters north of there.

For most of us, the story ends here. European honeybees, favored by most beekeepers in Latin American and the U.S., however, have pretty much disappeared from Mexico and points south—leading to steep declines in the collection of honey. Except that’s not the end of the story...

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