Can Killer Bees Save America?

With scientists unable to solve the great honeybee die-out, the search for alternate pollinators is on—and killer bees are proving the most resilient, and terrifying, of the bunch.

11.27.15 6:00 AM ET

Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is another way of saying that the honeybees of North America are still dying faster than usual and we’re trying to figure out why.

According to the USDA, losses of honeybees for the last eight years are at 29.6 percent, which is above the 18.9 percent level of loss that beekeepers say is “acceptable for their economic sustainability.”

To combat the symptoms of CCD, before each winter, beekeepers start off more bee colonies, which they will combine in the spring. This is how honeybee populations are rising around the world. Still, it’s not known if these methods can be relied on in the future, which is why there is talk of finding alternative ways to help pollinate plants.

To understand the wide world of alternative pollinators, The Daily Beast reached out to Michael Burgett, emeritus professor of entomology at Oregon State University.

“Honeybees are only one kind of pollinator native to Europe, which only came to North America in 1622,” Burgett says.

“My personal opinion of CCD is there’s been a resurgence of parasitic mites,” says Burgett. “We’re on a pesticide treadmill with them. Basically, commercial beekeepers heavily rely on miticides to which the mites develop resistance in 3-5 years, so they have to keep switching.”

The varroa mite latches onto bee larvae, sucking bee blood and leaving open wounds. Starting in 1978 the mite left East and Southeast Asia and started appearing in Germany, Bulgaria, and Italy. Soon enough, it crossed the Atlantic.

“The only place where beekeeping is a major activity and varroa is not found is Australia, and they’ve managed that thanks to protections against invasive species,” says Burgett.

One of the positives of CCD is there’s a lot more money going into bee research. Such attention has led to the discovery of several additional pathogens (including several new viruses) which the varroa mite is hosting. Says Burgett “I would venture to guess that 75 percent of CCD problems are related to varroa and varroa-[related] diseases.”

In recent years, one type of bee that’s gained more attention, particularly in matters surrounding CCD, is the Africanized, or so-called “killer bee.” According to Burgett, “there are 28 known sub-species of [the western honeybee]. Eleven of them live on the continent of Africa. One was taken to Brazil in the 1955 with the idea of using a bee that evolved in the tropics to improve pollination or honey production” in that region.

“The bees escaped the research facility in Brazil and found the tropics of South America much to their liking. Tropical honeybees, when the landscape dries up, they move, finally crossing the U.S. border in 1990. Because they’re tropical, they’re severely inhibited in moving too far north beyond Southern California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and all along the Gulf Coast.”

Africanized bees may show some resistance to the varroa mite. Says Burgett, “Uruguay got the varroa mite in the early 1980s and it didn’t seem to do them much harm. When I was there, I saw colonies thriving that had varroa in them and I thought ‘Woah, these are Africanized hybrid colonies, but they’re not dying from this horrible parasite!’ I thought maybe [Africanized bees were] more resistant.”

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Africanized bees do have a shorter time in the pupa phase so if a colony is attacked by varroa, fewer mites hatch. This means there’s more time to try to control them.

Burgett was quick to point out problems with hailing killer bees as our salvation, though. “It turns out there are also different strains of varroa,” he says. “The first varroa that were accidentally imported into South American came from Japan…That strain of varroa is not too pathogenic to [western honeybees].”

According to Burgett, the jury is still out as to whether Africanized bees have a resistance to the mites present in the U.S., but either way he wouldn’t recommend them. “I certainly wouldn’t suggest to anyone that you import Africanized bees as a method to combat varroa… If you’ve got resistance to varroa, that’s great, but if I get 10,000 stings every time I open a hive that’s no good.”

“In their pure form they’re practically unmanageable and a public health threat.”

Worldwide, there are eight true honeybee species, seven of which occur in East and Southeast Asia. The closest relative to the western honeybee is the eastern honeybee. In the 1980s another species of mite caused elevated losses of western honeybees and “led to evaluations of alternatives,” Burgett says. “There were talks of importing [the eastern honeybee] into the U.S. as an additional pollinator. The biggest reason that never went anywhere was the Asian Honeybee is tropical in origin, so it would work in Hawaii and Southern Florida, but it wouldn’t work anywhere else. It’s not a no-risk trial either; there could be pathogens that switch over to [western honeybees].”

So now both eastern honeybees and Africanized western honeybees are out. What options are left?

For honey? None. For pollinators? “Worldwide there are 20,000 species of bee,” says Burgett. “Most of them are solitary [rather than living in colonies] so they’re not easy to build up.”

Burgett shared three alternative-pollinator success stories with me. “We grow a lot of alfalfa in Oregon and Washington. It was discovered back in the 1960s that there’s a couple of solitary species [the native Alkali bee, and the introduced alfalfa leafcutting bee] that can be commercialized.”

“During the winter, they’re hibernating. You can literally put them in a refrigerator and bring them out two weeks prior to the alfalfa bloom so the bees can go to work. After the bloom, you put them back in the fridge.”

Bumblebees have also been successfully commercialized in agriculture. Unlike all other bees native to the Americas, bumblebees live in underground colonies, but do not produce honey. “There are 250 species of bumblebee worldwide. Oregon has about 12,” says Burgett. “Every colony dies every fall. In August, the bumblebee colonies produce new queens and males, which fly off and mate. The males die and the queens hibernate individually. They come out of hibernation in March and April to start the cycle again.

“The Dutch figured out how to collect queens in the fall and put them in the refrigerator, later initiating them to start nests… They have been super successful in greenhouse agriculture. Greenhouses in British Columbia that are producing winter vegetables use bumblebees.”

It takes a lot of research to bring an alternative pollinator to the market. Solitary bees tend to have only one generation per year, and are active for only about six weeks per year, somewhere from early spring to late summer, depending on the species.

“There’s four USDA bee labs devoted to honeybee work and one devoted to wild bees,” Burgett says. “[The bee lab in] Logan, Utah, is always looking for candidate bee species that might be commercialized to pollinate a given crop … This is a process that can take up to 30 years of research before a new species of bee can be taken to farmers with a ‘Hey, here’s an alternative to honeybees.’”

“We have 20,000 species worldwide,” he adds. “The potential for finding commercial uses of these other species is great.”

Burgett also advocates for planting bee-friendly gardens, and encouraging local governments to promote plant species that allow better foraging for honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. “Native plants need native pollinators,” he says, “so let’s create a habitat where both the plants and the pollinators are thriving.”