Puerto Rico’s Gentle “Killers”

In Puerto Rico, scientists have found our best lead so far on rebuilding the bee population.  The restrictions on the use of pesticides and planting of more bee-friendly ground are helping, but there is still the varroa mite to contend with.  Could mixing so-called killer bees with gentle honeybees make them stronger?

About 400 years ago, European settlers brought their bees to the Americas.  In North America, there wasn’t much difference, but in the South American tropical climate, the European bees became weak and fell prey to diseases and parasites.  If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the exact issue honeybees are facing now.  And then, as now, scientists looked to new genetics to help bees survive.

In the 1950s, an African bee species was bred with tropical bees in Brazil.  The result was very strong, healthy bees that were incredibly aggressive.  The beekeepers intended to selectively breed down the aggression over several generations, but before that was accomplished, several swarms escaped their quarantine and bred with wild honeybees.  This produced what most people heard about on the news as “Africanized honeybees” or simply “killer bees”.

But in Puerto Rico, there was a different result.  A small colony made its way to the island and mixed with the European bees there, taking over with a new queen.  However, they didn’t stay aggressive.  Over a span of 30 years, without any intervention from humans, the “killer bees” became gentle toward humans, but still strong and healthy.  Not only that, but the Puerto Rican bees are strong enough to fight off the nasty varroa mite.  Researchers are hopeful that understanding the genome of these gentle “killer bees” could help them breed for stronger bees worldwide.

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