There are a lot of misconceptions around what African bees are. What do African bees look like? Pretty much like any other bee. We will go into that. African bees versus honeybees? A killer beehive? Let’s have a look at all of this, unpack it, look at where our misconceptions come from, and then move forward.
Apis mellifera – The Honeybee
Apis means bee in Latin, and melli is honey and fera means bring. So it is the bee that brings honey. The Apis genus includes a number of honeybees. Apis mellifera is the species we are talking about in this article. Within the Apis mellifera species, there are sub-races of bees, which have adapted to their parts of the world. African and European bees are both Apis mellifera.
Races Of Bees
Much like any form of racial classification, the racial classification of bees is complex. A race is a group of individuals within a species who are able to mate and successfully produce fertile offspring with another race in their species.
In human history, the concept of race has caused a significant number of geopolitical tensions. A more prudent application of commons sense could have overcome these problems. Similarly, the racial classification of bees makes it difficult to think objectively about the bees themselves.
African Races Of Bees
There are many races of bees in Africa. This is an excellent book by my bee mentor on the honeybees of Africa that I made a minor contribution to as a student. The mentor made a major contribution to my life.
African races of honeybees tend to be smaller and have more efficient flight muscles than their Northern counterparts. The increased rate of evolution in Africa has enabled bees to evolve to be generally more efficient and more disease resistant.
Humans have been a major predator of bees in Africa for most of the history of both species. Africa has a significant number of additional predators. The forests and savannahs in Africa are extremely productive ecosystems. Very high densities of bees existed in ancient times. Bees were a food source for humans and other bee pests.
African bees generally have a relatively defensive nature due to having been irritated by humans for so long.
European Races Of Bees
Bees in Europe tend to be a bit bigger and slower than African bees. The number of hives in the region is much smaller and the number of swarming and reproductive events per year is less. Consequently, the bees are not as adapted in many ways as their African counterparts. European bees are generally far more disease prone, and far less adaptable to resisting new pathogens and pests.
Humans have a much shorter history in Europe and have been pestering bees for a shorter period of time. Humans have also bred bees in Europe to be quite gentle and easy to work with. In some cases, selective breeding has favored honey production over other natural traits. This has lead to highly inbred strains which are very disease prone and unhealthy.
African Bees vs Honey Bees
There is a dangerous misconception that African bees are different from honeybees. Most of the parts of the world that have seen the greatest increases in honey production in the past 50 years are regions with African bees. Good examples are Africa and Brazil. Most places with European bees have seen a decline in honey production over the same time.
African bees can breed with European bees to produce Africanised bees. Africanised bees have different characteristics to European bees. With changes in management styles, the inherent advantages of African bees are harnessed, and honey production increases.
An excellent example of a commercially available Africanized bee is the Buckfast bee which combines European and African bee genetics to produce a truly cosmopolitan pollinator. Page 8 of the link above provides a deeper understanding of this.
African bees are not very susceptible to varroa mites, tracheal mites and are more resistant to other pathogens common to bees. They are not affected much by small hive beetles. The African bees are able to deter bears as well as the scary things African bees have to deal with in the jungles of Africa.
The Killer Beehive
There has for a long time been a war on African Bees in the middle parts of the Americas. This has resulted in stereotypes of African bees which have been associated with stereotypes of “Africa” which are harmful to the perception of anything from Africa.
There is a perception that African bees are aggressive. Some are yes. Some European beehives are also aggressive. African bees, if properly handled are not overly aggressive. Their advantages outweigh their disadvantages. I have personally worked with European and African bees and can attest to this.
People coexist with bees in cities throughout Africa and South America. There is a bit of adaptation to common sense needed around African bees. Don’t throw rocks at hives, or spray them with water. These bees will educate you. Once the education process is complete, the ability for humans and bees to coexist improves.
The most docile bees I have ever worked with were in fact an African race of bees. Apis mellifera unicolor. The second most docile race was in the highlands of Lesotho, in Southern Africa, and the third most docile and easy to work with were in Slovakia. I have been chased across a field by “gentle” European bees in Canada and was roundly humiliated by a “peaceful” swarm working in a field in Maine.
African bees require a bit more smoke and attention to work than most European bees. Once you learn how to handle them they are just bees like any other bee. To use an analogy: If you know a mechanic is quick to anger but very talented, you are just a bit more polite around that person. This behavior results in your being able to fix your vehicle really well and not get your nose broken.
How To Identify Killer Bees
If you suspect that you have a swarm that is displaying aggressive traits and wish to see if it is an Africanized hive you should best contact your local extension officer. Samples of bees will be taken and analyzed in a lab. Here the researchers will measure angles in the veins in the wings to screen for African/European morphometrics. If this gives a positive, there are genetic tests that can confirm this.
My general advice is that if you are in an area where bee aggression is a bad thing then remove those bees and put them somewhere where aggression is a good thing. Learning to work with aggressive bees is a useful skill. I have worked the supposedly most aggressive bee races in the world in the Central Congo in short trousers and a t-shirt.
Bee Lives Matter
We have a huge global loss of pollinators. Generally, the populations of European honeybees are declining faster than the populations of African honeybees.
Somewhere along the line, some logical circuit needs to close in North America where we say “If they can successfully farm with African bees in South Africa, Brazil, and Mexico..” why is this not being done in North America? I have spoken to beekeepers in South Africa who have harvested over 900 pounds of honey from a single beehive in a year. These beekeepers move their bees to a minimum of five pollination contracts and rest in honey flows in between.
I have attached a few pictures of Mr. Kola Lerouxs hives in South Africa. Those hives are Apis mellifera scutellata. They are highly productive, and are in a mountainous area where they have snow for two months of the year.
My observation is that the lives of all honeybees matter – not just some races of bees. It sounds like another discussion that is high on the global narrative right now. Maybe it is time we address whether the biases that influence the human discussions on race also influence our perception of races of honeybees.
If you enjoyed this article, please share. And remember, next time somebody says African Killer Bee, ask them if they are Beeing racist. This is a conversation we really need to have.