Friday, July 10, 2015

Musings about Beekeeping with Africanized Bees



I have a love-hate relationship with Africanized bees. It’s what I have to work with in Honduras. Sometimes I just want to get rid of all of them and say that’s enough—no more dealing with these ornery critters. Other times I actually consider myself lucky that these are my bees. And then when the honey comes in and the money from the sales start, it makes all the stings worth the effort.


Beekeeping with Africanized bees is a love-hate relationship for me. They have a good side and a bad side. It’s been a long journey of trial and error to learn some of the tricks necessary to work with these bees.


I’m frequently questioned about how it is to work with Africanized bees. How defensive are they? How is the honey production? What do you need to do differently? Are they really killers? What needs to be done to manage them?


As a beekeeper in Honduras, I’ve been having this love-hate relationship with Africanized bees for the last 24 years. Some things I have figured out with these bees, but it is still a continuous learning process. 


Honduras as a country generally experiences this same relationship. When this bee first arrived everyone hated them. It basically destroyed the honey industry here. Now, some 30 years later, many Hondurans have come to love the bee, learning ways to manage them and improve their lives through honey sales. 


Africanized bees in Honduras


Beekeeping has a long history in Honduras. It goes back to the times of the Mayas who managed different types of native stingless bees common to this area. The bees were usually kept in hollow tree trunks and the honey would often be fermented and used in their rituals. Later European colonists arrived, and the European honey bee came along with them. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that the modern system of movable frame beekeeping began to appear (although many people continued to keep colonies in rustic boxes).


The coloring of Africanized bees can vary. Many tend to be rather dark but some can be a nice orange color. In general they are a bit smaller than European bees. Their reputation of being very defensive is well earned. But at the same time they are now earning a reputation for being good honey producers. 


The big change for Honduran beekeeping came in the early 1980s with the arrival of the Africanized bees that had slowly been making their way northward from South America. Although it is a cross between African and European bees, genetically it remains closer to the African bees, including preserving the defensiveness these bees had developed.


Most of the backyard beekeepers got rid of their hives when the bees arrived. Few new beekeepers took their place. The production of honey declined precipitously. No one wanted to deal with these ornery creatures.


A common question I receive is if they are defensive and “killers” like the news and media portray. Most definitely they can be. There are always articles in the Honduran newspapers mentioning attacks by Africanized bees—and sometimes they do result in death. Everybody has a story about chickens or dogs or horses or donkeys being stung to death. Other times the victim was a person.


There are always newspaper headlines about Africanized bees attacking people or even deaths due to stinging incidents. Everybody seems to have a story about chickens or dogs being killed by bees. Africanized bees can definitely be dangerous.


The most recent fatality was on June 10 of this year. According to the newspaper articles a 76-year-old man was stung to death after accidentally bumping into a hive on the property he took care of. He apparently had poor eyesight and failed to see the box. The fire department reported that the man was stung at least 500 times. Not so many years ago the victim was a former Honduran congressman who had a run-in with a colony on his farm.


Here are some newspaper headlines about these two incidents and others from the last four years:


“Muere hondureño atacado por enjambre de abejas”—“Honduran attacked by swarm of bees dies”




“Muere diputado “Lalo” Sarmiento”—“Congressman “Lalo” Sarmiento dies”



“Abejas atacan y matan a Eduardo “Lalo” Sarmiento”—“Bees attack and kill Eduardo “Lalo” Sarmiento”



“Huye de enjambre de abejas y cae en abismo”—“Escapes from swarm of bees and falls in abyss”



“Abejas africanizadas matan a anciano”—“Africanized bees kill elderly man”



“Ataque de abejas africanizadas en Talanga”—“Africanized bee attack in Talanga”



But can they be managed? Most definitely. There is now a resurgence in beekeeping, because there are ways to deal with them and they can produce good amounts of honey. People are realizing it is a viable alternative to generate income for their families. The number of new beekeepers is growing as people learn the techniques to manage this bee and reap the sweet benefits of their efforts. 


Beekeeping is always on the list of projects to promote when development organizations want to improve the lives of rural farmers or find alternatives for people living in or near protected forest areas. The national government is always earmarking money to go towards beekeeping projects. Honey production is increasing yearly. There are far more headlines in the newspapers about this increase in beekeeping and honey production than there are for the attacks by these bees.


Africanized beekeeping is now being actively promoted in Honduras. More and more people are being trained to take advantage of this activity. Honey prices tend to be high and much more stable when compared with something like coffee. The number of beekeepers and the amount of honey harvested is increasing yearly.


Abejas africanizadas—a bane or a boon?


Would I change my Africanized bees for some pure European bees? I don’t even really want to explore this question. I have what I have and I really can’t do anything about it. They are Africanized, and I can’t change that. But for the sake of those who are curious, here is a list of what I consider some pros and cons with them.


Advantages:

  • A good hive will produce honey. If managed well, a lot of it. These bees are adapted to the tropics and work hard. It is often mentioned how they usually get started working much earlier in the day. I always see this when I need to seal up a trap hive full of bees in order to move it to the apiary. I need to do this while it is completely dark. If I over sleep and it is barely starting to become light outside, it’s too late to seal them all inside. They are already coming and going.
  • I don’t really have a problem with mites—either because of the Africanized bees’ hygienic nature or because the mite cycle is always broken when they swarm. I don’t feel the need to treat for them. I remember the commercial beekeeper I worked with back in the States. He was always treating with this and that and spending a bunch of money. He had to or otherwise he wouldn’t have the strong colonies or the desired honey production. It was a lot of extra money and a lot of extra time and a lot of extra worries—I’m glad I don’t need to do that.
  • They can protect themselves better—especially from the two legged varmints. There is often not a high respect for other people’s property in Honduras, especially if left unattended. The apiary has to be out in the bush so it seems to say to people that it is fair game to enter it and steal honey. Only the most serious persons, however, will enter the hives to steal—everybody else is going to get stung up big time.
  • If you want to get free bees, there are always plenty of swarms to catch. They are easy to deal with. Africanized bees tend not to be fussy about their nesting cavity so almost any type of box can potentially work.

Disadvantages


  • They are defensive—no ifs, ands, or buts. For any serious bee work you need to armor plate yourself. You are better off overdoing the protection bit and erring on the side of caution.

Full battle gear and lots of smoke. A beekeepers always needs to be over cautious when working hives of Africanized bees. While sometimes they may remain calm, there are other times when they can get downright nasty. The best thing then is to close them up and come back another day.


  • You cannot really do backyard beekeeping any more—unless maybe if you live by yourself out in the boonies. You never know what might set them off and cause a tragedy. Something as simple as the sound of a machete could rile them up. As a result of this….
  • The apiaries are more vulnerable to theft. You are almost forced to keep them in an area away from housed and animals. This means that the die-hard thief will have an opportunity to steal the honey if they want. It becomes much harder to keep an eye on the hives and find secure sites.
  • If the colony runs out of stores, they will abscond rather than stick around and starve to death. You won’t end up with small colonies at the end of the dearth season, rather empty boxes.
  • Africanized bees do like to swarm more—proper and timely management must be taken to curb this.
  • Maintaining colonies of European bees would be very difficult. Any queen rearing or natural queen replacement will be affected by the high number of feral colonies in Honduras. It is almost certain that the new queen will mate with Africanized drones, continuing the Africanization. There is also the threat of them being easily robbed out during the dearth period.

I’m going to stop this post here. There will be more musings, detailing what I have to do in order to take advantage of these bees. It will consist of some of the ins and outs, the dos and donts, the cans and cannots of my beekeeping with Africanized bees.


---Tom


Africanized bees deserve their name “killer” but at the same time they can also be manageable—even for bee beards. We hosted a “Bee Day” for the fish culture volunteers during my Peace Corps training in Honduras. We had to show them, and ourselves, that bee beards can actually be done with Africanized bees.


More newspaper articles:


“Abejas africanas atacan a estudiantes en Danlí”—“African bees attack students in Danlí”



“Enjambre de abejas ataca varias personas en un centro turístico”—“Swarm of bees attack several person at tourist center”



“Bomberos rescatan a familia de ataques de abejas africanas”—“Firemen rescue family from attacks of african bees”



“Abejas africanizadas atacan a habitantes y mascotas de vivienda”—“Africanized bees attack the habitants and pets of household”



“Abejas africanas atacaron a tres personas y mataron dos perros”—“African bees attack tree persons and kill two dogs”



“Cuatro escolares hospitalizados tras ataque de abejas africanizadas”—“Four school children hospitalized after Africanized bee attack”




“Brutal ataque de abejas”—“Brutal bee attack”

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences with Africanized hives. I have 5 hives with one becoming more aggressive. I will try some of your stated techniques in handling this one hive. I am in the process of having them make a new queen from some larva from my other hives to try and calm this one down.

    Jack

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  2. Saludos Jack. I`m glad you found my blog post useful. Hopefully you also saw the follow up, “More Musings About Beekeeping with Africanized Bees.” I have one more part to this trilogy of posts with more specific techniques and management strategies I have to use with my Africanized bees in Honduras. It will be on my blog in the near future.

    I’m not sure where you are, but I hope you understand that aggressive doesn’t always mean Africanized. Here in Honduras everything is Africanized; there are no more pure Italian bees except if maybe you imported some mated queens. An aggressive hive in the States, for example, may be Africanized but there are also other strains of bees that can be classified as aggressive. It also is possible that something may be happening outside or inside the hive that changes its temperament.

    In general, however, what I mention about Africanized bees can also apply to other aggressive hives—such as what may set them off and start them stinging or the best time to enter them to take a look.

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  3. Hi Tom,
    I found your blog on the Beesource message boards and I am very glad I did. I am an expat living in Colombia with my wife and children (wife is Colombian) and I am sort of an accidental beekeeper. We moved to Colombia to build a permaculture farm and bees were always going to be part of our design, I just wasn't planning to do the beekeeping. We hired a local to sell us bees and hives and he would manage them for us in exchange for 1/2 the honey. Well, once he was paid he just wasn't interested in doing anything more. So I started to do research to see if I could manage them myself and after many books, including Les Crowder's book, over 100 hours of youtube videos and countless websites I am now hooked on bees and want more than ever to make this work. Of the four boxes we bought, one is empty, one seems to be very strong and the other two are less so. They are so badly cross combed that I can't remove the frames with out breaking comb (they are Langstroth hives). Of the ten frames only 5 have built comb and from what I can see on the outside comb they are filling it with pollen and nectar - I can also see the bees bringing the nectar in on their legs. They are also building fresh new comb. I can't tell what's going on on the inside frames. I want to go to a top bar so on the strong hives I put a small top bar box (15 frames) with the idea that when they fill up the box they are in now they will move up. It's been a few months and the last visit to the hive I saw they were up there checking it out but not building any new comb yet. Right now it is the rainy season. So my question is about seasonal management here in the tropics. We're at 1500 meters and the rainy season is from May until september, and another small one in Dec - January. I've found unlimited info about temperate climate management but next to nothing about tropical management, particularly in South America. I have questions like: When to leave the bees alone, when to expect a honey flow, is there a swarm season... Beekeepers here are far and few between and it wouldn't be unusual for someone to burn or poison a hive so people keep a lid on there apiaries. I'm also limited in my Spanish so I have a few challenges. If there is any info you can share about seasonal management I would be very grateful or a book to recommend or website.

    Thanks you,
    Daren
    darenjm@yahoo.com

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  4. Regarding the crosscombing issue---I keep Langs, with NO foundation in the frames because I want the bees to draw their own comb---it's cleaner and appropriately sized for their purposes, unlike the uniformity of wax foundation patterns. But, you may have started with frames that did not have a comb guide on the underside of the top bar. This is very important to get them going straight. Google "comb guides" or "starter strips" in hive frames to see a drawing of what I am writing about. Also, it is imperative to do inspections frequently from the beginning of hiving the swarm or cutout, so that as soon as they are going wonky, you make some small cuts and adjust the combs to get in line. Also, very important is---your frames must always be firmly pushed together, not leaving gaps between the end bars. The endbars are designed to maintain the proper "bee space" when pushed together tightly, but bees will draw two combs from the underside of the topbar and other messes if you don't honor that spacing.

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    Replies
    1. Saludos Beestrong, Thanks for adding a comment. I understand exactly what you’re saying here. Maintaining that bee space is one of the reasons that the width of the bars in tbhs is so important. If you make them too narrow or too wide the bees eventually begin to make the comb between two bars.

      An alternative is to always put empty bars between well drawn out combs. This is what one top bar beekeeper in Jamaica always does. He doesn’t like to mess with starter strips. But he is also always on top of his hives to keep potential cross combing problems in check.
      I do use starter strips with my hives in Honduras (extra insurance against cross combing). Usually it’s a strip of paper (the bad photocopies from school) that I dip in wax two or three times to get a good thickness. I’ve also used wax covered popsicle sticks. All my bars have grooves.

      I will still get curving at the end of some combs, especially in the honey storage area at the end of the box. But this is usually my fault since some of my hives are very hands-off with minimal management. I only enter some when it is time to harvest.

      And then there are those occasional hives (mainly new swarms in a trap hive) that cross comb everything even though I have starter strips in the bars. Maybe the box wasn’t level in the tree or maybe that’s just a characteristic of some Africanized colonies. --Tom

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