This book-length project investigates and examines the history of the relationship between humans and the Africanized honeybee.
The Killer Bee Project
The Africanized honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, (or AHB)—the one villainized by the media as a killer bee because of its highly defensive demeanor (yes it does sting more often)—has the propensity to swarm more than its genetic half-sister, the relatively tranquil European honey bee found throughout most of the United States. Offspring of African queen bees from Tabora, Tanzania and Pretoria, South Africa, imported to Brazil formed part of the first colonies of these hybrid bees (part African, part European, thus Africanized) that swarmed—or escaped, one might say—from Dr. Warwick Kerr’s controlled laboratory setting in the State of São Paulo in 1957. Kerr was developing what they considered to be a better honey bee, one that could produce more honey and be more resilient in the tropics.
Swarming is the process by which honey bee colonies reproduce and multiply. The queen bee flies from hive location A accompanied by about 30% of the worker bees to a new hive location, “B”, previously scouted out by the workers. The remaining 70% continue to work from A, collecting nectar and pollen, rearing a new queen that will produce eggs and future worker bees. Africanized bees swarm frequently (maybe 8-10 times a year) and average migration/colonization of the species occurs at a rate of one-two kilometers per day. Now, I don’t mean the same colony is swarming each day. Collectively, though, all offspring of the first Africanized queen that “escaped” the bee lab in Sao Paulo dispersed in each cardinal direction arriving at physical and climatic barriers—the Andes in the west, the Atlantic in the east, the winter season in Argentina—except in the north, where they continued to migrate, making the slow journey through Brazil’s Amazon to Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, by 1981 across the Darien Gap in Panama, into the rest of Central America, Mexico by 1986, and finally Texas in 1990. Averaging one-two kilometers a day for thirty-three years, swarming and swarming, colonizing new territories, killing cows, horses, dogs, humans along the way, discouraging large numbers of beekeepers from working ever again with any kind of Apis mellifera (the so-called European or Africanized), but producing more honey per hive.
Example of Human-Honey Bee Interaction
Early on there were attempts to control AHB. Teams of entomologists, agricultural extension agents, and ministry or department of agriculture officials devised bee barrier schemes at highly strategic zones along the migration path. There was hope that AHB would encounter “natural” enemies in the Amazon or Darien. In a 1972 National Academy of Science report the top-level research team proposed using the Central American isthmus as a zone to stop AHB because of the relatively smaller area that was needed to cover to block them. At the Panama Canal it was suggested to put up a giant net or—and this is in print—create a high wall of gas-fueled flames or create a wide radiation belt with nuclear weapons through the jungle. Pesticide barriers were also proposed.
In Mexico, a Bee Regulated Zone—or BRZ—was established at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This biological barrier was set up to destroy all bees that were found to be aggressive—regardless of their sub-species, European or Africanized were destroyed (bear in mind that it is only possible to determine the “race” of bee by either wing measurement tests or DNA)—with an incentive of about $1 dollar, a bounty to be collected for each swarm reported to the agricultural authorities.
Some of the Cultural Production of an Icon
Regardless of all these attempts to stop them, in October of 1990 an AHB swarm crossed the US border at Hidalgo, Texas where today one can find the World’s Largest Killer Bee in the self-proclaimed Killer Bee Capital of the World. Hidalgo’s mayor, John Franz, spent $20,000 to build this superlative bee that floats down International Boulevard during the BorderFest held each year in March. The killer bee has become a cultural icon, with meaning about its behavior circulating through news articles—TIME first coined the term “killer bee” in a September 1965 issue—and movies—the late 1970s saw a number of different films producing attack narratives—some of which were titled “The Swarm” and “The Savage Bees”.
This is a sampling of the different narratives we are told by the experts and by the media, those producing knowledge about the Africanized bees. This quasi sci-fi, threat- and danger-scape is deeply embedded in race, science, migration, labor and development discourses, drawing from a whole host of ideas well outside of the realm of entomology. That said, I want to ask: in what ways and to what extent have these narratives informed governance strategies and policy? What are the challenges of “governing” the killer bee?
Killer Bee Governance
AHB has been in the US for over 20 years and a number of deaths have resulted from mass stinging incidents. Beekeepers, in the counties where AHB is present, have adapted their management techniques to this new bee by using more safety equipment, thicker bee suits and gloves to keep the stingers out, and by visiting hives more often to control swarming (a beekeeper does not want their bees to swarm as it reduces honey production). Governance strategies in the form of “Action Plans” were implemented by local and state officials, with the federal government and its agencies remaining non-committal to a comprehensive and universal plan of action for all states. But what has been learned in the last 50+ years? How do you control or manage something that flies? What strategies are in place today to manage the AHB in both the media and legislative circles? How has AHB forced responses from the human community?
My goal for this book is to explore different ways the Africanized honey bee has entered our imaginations—through news media, movies, novels—and has exercised its own agency as a species—through its colonization and territorialization practices via the swarm—and the response made by humans seeking to manage and control it. When the State tries to manage the risk involved with the killer bee (as icon, as invasive, as a danger) what kind of knowledge—and whose knowledge—is privileged and who assumes the risk??
Focusing on the different forms of cultural production related to AHB, I am especially interested in analyzing how information emerging from research in the entomological sciences circulates through mainstream media and popular culture and how the language, narratives and images in those media register and promote a particular understanding of the science, and of AHB, that is steeped in (often misleading) cultural biases and assumptions.
The funds solicited will be used for travel expenses to and from multiple sites within the geography of killer bees, including: Tanzania, South Africa, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Guyana, Venezuela, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, USA, Puerto Rico, etc... I will interview key actors in honeybee management in each of these countries and spend days in institutional archives tracking down the details that will go into a rich exploration of this sub-species of honey bee.
Link to my beekeeping video from Paraguay:
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