Honeybee pollination is responsible for successful crop production and annually generates $7 billion for Arizona agriculture, according to a University of Arizona study. One-third of America’s diet is the result of bee pollination and honey and one crop, California almonds, relies on honeybees for pollination, reports the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Bees play a large role in the almond industry; California has 800,000 acres of almond orchards that require 1.6 million domesticated bee colonies for pollination, according to a 2013 Yale report. If losses continue at the same rate, only 1 million honeybees would survive to pollinate the orchards the following year and beekeepers may not be able to meet the demands of the almond industry using managed honeybee hives. However, states such as Arizona have another species of bee available to beekeepers, the Africanized bee.
The USDA reports an annual bee loss of approximately 30 percent, representing a decrease of 2.5 million colonies that leaves 1.75 million colonies for pollination. There were 4 million honeybee colonies in 1970, according to the USDA; today there are 2.5 million.
If almond growers continue to increase their acreage, the bee industry would not be able to keep up, said Eric Mussen Ph.D., apiculturist at University of California, Davis.
“We’re still able to provide the necessary number of colonies they need for almond pollination. Now that necessary number keeps growing and growing on an annual basis because more trees are coming into bloom. So whether or not we can keep up with this forever is a really interesting question,” he said.
Mussen said 80,000 colonies were set back this season because of pesticide exposure, as there were bees brought to the almond orchards that were exposed to pesticides before reaching California.
“So far we’ve managed in the almonds and it all depends on how we do next year, but we had some problems at the end of the almonds down here this year and it set back an awful lot of bees,” he said.
But one type of bee, labeled “The Killer Bee” by 1970s Hollywood films, may limit bee loss if beekeepers and local residents accept the bees as an agricultural resource and not a threat to society.
The bees won’t form massive swarms and hunt humans down as shown in movies, states the bee safety guide from the Maricopa County Department of Emergency management.
Colonies consisting of up to 40,000 Africanized honeybees, commonly called “killer bees,” arrived in Arizona in 1993 and are indistinguishable from European honeybees unless examined closely. They are not more venomous, according to the guide.
The USDA estimates there are about 250,000 feral honeybee colonies in Arizona, nearly all of those colonies are suspected of being Africanized, which means there are about 10 billion Africanized bees in Arizona.
Africanized bee related deaths are usually the result of allergies or fatal human errors, reports the University of Arizona in a bee management guide. Seven out of 10 bee-related deaths are the result of people drowning, running off cliffs or running into oncoming traffic, not the bee venom.
But why use a more defensive bee?
Africanized bees are sometimes used in California to pollinate crops, Mussen said.
“They’re brought over from Arizona and other places. They’re brought in for almonds and they pollinate and generally, the beekeeper just takes them out before anybody has really had much to do with them,” he said.
But there is something unique about the Africanized bee other than its defensive nature and notorious reputation. The Africanized bee’s genetic makeup may make it hardier than European honeybees, as it is less susceptible to one of the largest threats to honeybee colonies, the varroa mite.
Varroa mites do not cause as much destruction in Africanized colonies as they do in European colonies, Mussen said.
Brown and eight-legged, the parasitic varroa mite feeds on adult and developing bees, causing deformities, short life spans and disease, according to the USDA.
Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman Ph.D., research leader at the USDA Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, said nutrition and starvation, varroa mites, pesticides and queen loss are the main causes of honeybee colony collapse.
“What causes colonies to collapse is usually a combination of poor nutrition, high mite populations and possibly some exposure to pesticides. And when those three things come together, you can be pretty sure those colonies are going to die over winter,” DeGrandi-Hoffman said.
“When the varroa mites showed up in about 1990 in California, it spread all over the state. It had spread all over the country by then as well and in 1995 and 1996, there were people all over the country saying we can’t find a feral colony anywhere at this point in time, they just seemed to be gone. And that’s not quite true because the feral Africanized honeybees weren’t gone,” Mussen said.
Michael Bush has kept bees at Bush Farms in Nebraska for about 40 years. Bush uses a natural approach to keep bees; limiting pesticides and antibiotics; feeding the bees natural food; re-queening using bees from the area; and using natural combs.
“It wasn’t hard to keep bees naturally 40 years ago; it was a piece of cake.” Bush said, “But when the varroa mites came along, it was a little more difficult. The tipping point for me was allowing them to build their own comb.”
Bush said Belgian professor Ursmar Baudoux introduced a new method of artificial comb foundation construction about 100 years ago, which increased comb cell size to increase the size of the bee and produced more honey. Honey production and creating a hardier bee are why African bees were initially introduced to Brazil, Degrandi-Hoffman said.
Baudoux produced bigger bees by making bigger cells, Bush said. But bigger bees and larger quantities of honey have a price.
Making the cells bigger increases the length of the honeybee gestation cycle, which allows varroa mites to lay more eggs during a longer timespan. Africanized bees have a smaller cell size, which means a shorter gestation period and less mites, Bush said.
Another advantage of the Africanized bee is their brood nests are slightly warmer than European honeybees’ nests, Mussen said.
“One thing we do know is the mites tend to reproduce better on a brood that’s a trifle cooler than what the Africanized honeybees run their normal brood nest at,” he said.
To try to increase the temperature in hives, beekeepers moved the European honeybees into smaller cells. However, bees regulate the temperature of their hive to their preferences and it did not work, Mussen said.
Overcoming the ‘hype’
Bush said he worked with bees in New Mexico and Arizona where most bees are Africanized and found them to be manageable. He finds the hype concerning Africanized bees unmerited.
“I think the reputation for being really vicious comes from that first cross between an Africanized feral and one of the European and that’s when you get those vicious bees,” Bush said.
Mussen said Africanized bees are less defensive when trying to build a hive and pollinate; when food is in abundance, their energy is spent on building a new colony, not defending it.
“There are beekeepers that can go out and work Africanized honeybees in their T-shirts and shorts on certain days. If they get touchy then the guys just close up the boxes and say ‘I’ll come back tomorrow.’ They’ve been in Brazil for about 40 years now,” Mussen said.
Where do honeybees come from?
Bumblebees, characterized by their fuzzy appearance, are native to the United States, but honeybees are foreign. European colonists introduced European honeybees in the 1600s and 1700s. African honeybees were introduced to Brazil in the 1950s. The African bees escaped research facilities and entered the wild in 1957, reaching the United States in 1990, according to the National Atlas of the United States of America.
“Beekeepers in Brazil know how to work with the bees and select more docile strains. After so many years of them, Brazil was Africanized and the end of the story is that it was a success story,” Degrandi-Hoffman said, “Brazil is one of the leading producers of honey in the world and they do it with African bees.
“We’re not going to be 100 percent effective in preventing the spread of African bees and beekeepers need to learn how to work bees like that, that have different traits to them and have nest defense behavior. I think that beekeepers will adapt and it’ll be part of the fabric of the beekeeping industry.”
Caution for keepers, queens
DeGrandi-Hoffman said beekeepers need to be careful with all types of bees when moving colonies into crops for pollination.
“Beekeepers really select for their lines of bees, but I wouldn’t be going catching swarms of African bees and putting them in boxes,” DeGrandi-Hoffman said.
Many beekeepers re-queen their hives when they believe an Africanized drone has inseminated a European queen. Replacing the queen ensures only European offspring will be produced.
However, Bush said re-queening with a pure-bred European queen purchased from breeders results in a limited gene pool and does not encourage resistance to mites and other diseases, leading to honeybee loss.
Scenario: there aren’t enough bees for agricultural crop pollination
If the honeybee population severely decreased, DeGrandi-Hoffman said crop productivity will be reduced, prices will increase and imports will increase.
“I pay a lower percentage of my salary for food than my parents did and the generation before that and that’s a real success story for the productivity of U.S. agriculture. The things that bees pollinate are really the cornerstones to a healthy diet,” DeGrandi-Hoffman said.
“There’s a real tie-in between human health and the health of honeybees,” she said.
To maintain honeybee numbers and ensure pollination continues at a healthy rate, homeowners and gardeners can help provide food for bees, DeGrandi-Hoffman said.
Flowers that have brightly colored, blue or yellow, petals have a sweet smell, are full of nectar, and are tubular are more likely to attract bees, according to the USDA Forest Service.
“The best thing people can do is plant plants that bees can get nectar and pollen off of. In other parts of the country there’ll be these rolling lawns in people’s backyards and front yards and they are lovely, I understand, but they don’t do much for things like bees and if they can put some gardens in there with some flowering plants, that would really help their local pollinators,” DeGrandi-Hoffman said.
• Sam Gauvain is a junior at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.