African honey bee queens were imported by Brazilian scientists in the 1950s in order to breed a honey bee for use in tropical climates. Some swarms escaped into the wild. Because they were highly adapted for tropical survival and had no natural competitors, they thrived and spread rapidly through South America, extending their range by as much as 500 km (300 mi) per year. By the 1980s, Africanized honey bees had reached Central America and soon colonized Mexico. In 1990 the first swarm was found in the United States. The bees spread from Texas to New Mexico and Arizona and then into California by 1994.
The bees reached an apparent climatic limit to their southern range in the middle of Argentina, and their range is expected to be similarly limited to the southern and coastal states in the United States. They have hybridized to some extent with resident wild and hive populations of European honey bees. However, many of the basic African honey bee traits remain, including rapid population growth, frequent swarming, minimal hoarding of honey, the ability to survive on sparse supplies of pollen and nectar, and a highly defensive nature.
Africanized honey bees are more difficult to manage than European honey bees and produce less honey. The businesses of many beekeepers in Latin American countries have failed as a result of Africanization of the native hives. Africanized honey bees are not expected to have the same impact in the United States because of advanced beekeeping technology and climatic limitations on the spread of the species. Africanization of bee hives can be prevented by the annual introduction of new European queens to each colony. Africanized honey bees have increased the number of human deaths due to bee stings in Mexico and Argentina and probably in other countries. In the United States, however, although more people have been stung by bees since 1990, no more bee-related deaths than usual have been recorded.
Scientific classification: Africanized honey bees are considered hybrids of African honey bees. They belong to the family Apidae in the order Hymenoptera and are classified as Apis mellifera scutellata.
Contributed by: Evan A. Sugden