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5.0 out of 5 stars Evil twin, 30 Jun 2013
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This review is from: Killer Bees: Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas (Paperback)
"Killer Bees: The Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas" by Mark Winston is a book about the so-called killer bee, one of the most notorious insects of the Western hemisphere. More formally known as the Africanized honeybee, this dangerous insect established itself in Brazil in 1956, and has gradually spread to all tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas. Due to its aggressive nature, the bee has gotten quite a reputation and become a "pop insect", featured as a villain in countless horror flicks and novels, not to mention sensationalized media reports. But yes, the Africanized honeybee *is* dangerous, and have killed humans, pets, livestock and - most importantly - European honeybees, creating havoc in Latin American beekeeping. The European honeybee is the "nice" honeybee we are used to, and has been introduced all over the world to boost honey production. The Africanized honeybee or killer bee is descended from the African honeybee. It should be noted that both European and African honeybees belong to the same species, Apis mellifera ("Western honeybee"). This means that killer bees and "normal" honeybees are difficult to physically tell apart, despite major differences in behavioural patterns. It's almost as if the killer bee is the evil twin of the European honeybee...

Winston's book was published in 1992, before the killer bee had established itself in the southern United States. The author is a biologist, and the book is to some extent based on field research in French Guiana and Venezuela. The main point of "Killer Bees" is to asses the future impact of this invasive species on U.S. beekeeping and honey production. This part of the book feels dated. The chapters on killer bee behaviour are more interesting. Deadly or not, I admit I was fascinated by the offensive tactics of the Africanized bees...

The legendary aggressiveness of these bees is an evolutionary adaptation to their original homeland, Africa, where honeybees are under constant threat from predators, including the honey badger and (ironically) man. Killer bees can pursue a real or perceived attacker for up to one kilometre, and attack virtually anything that gets in their way in the process. The bees spread by swarming or absconding, and can fly considerable distances until settling down on a new nest site. The more docile European honeybees (the "normal" honeybees we are used to) are no match for the killer bees. The latter either attack and take over European hives, or mate with European bees, gradually taking over their gene pool. Beekeepers might discover, much to their shock and dismay, that their hives have been "Africanized" and very difficult to manage. Another trait facilitating their rapid spread is that killer bees can build nests essentially everywhere, both in the open and inside cavities. Some colonies have been found on ships. Winston's research team kept empty beehives at their research station, only to witness how a large swarm of killer bees entered through the open window, taking the hives by storm.

Apparently, killer bees *can* be managed, and the original African bee is a great honey producer in South Africa. They have also been more or less successfully managed in Brazil, which has a fairly advanced beekeeping industry. In other Latin American nations, the arrival of the killer bee has led to disaster, as poor beekeepers were forced to abandon their "Africanized" hives. Due to their aggressive nature, managed killer bee colonies must be kept in isolated areas, far away from any human habitation or livestock, but this is often impossible in regions with poor roads and few vehicles for transportation. Beekeepers must also use protective equipment, which may be expensive and is difficult to wear in a tropical climate. Interestingly, killer bees are quite docile when swarming, making it possible for Winston and his "killer bee team" to carry out their research without too much protective gear. One photo shows a man dressed only in shorts (the author?) looking on as a swarm of killer bees enters the research station!

"Killer Bees" is directed at a general audience, and very easy to read. It seems to be one of the few popularized book on Africanized killer bees, and is refreshingly free from the sensationalism that often mars this subject. I therefore give it five stars. Next week on Ashtar Command Channel: the curse of the fire ants!
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Killer Bees: Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas
Killer Bees: Africanized Honey Bee in the Americas by Mark L. Winston (Paperback - 23 April 1992)
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