The African Queens

Honeybees are an Old World species and likely originated in Africa. In order to succeed in places with cold winters, like Europe, they had to develop new adaptations. Mainly behavioral adaptations: they retreat to their hives and form a winter cluster. The workers and the queen crowd together tightly, with the queen at the center, and the workers shaking and shivering. The cluster moves around to reach reserves of honey.

The winter generation is different from summer bees: a bit plumper, and they have a several-fold longer lifespan to make it through the winter. (queens have an even longer lifespan – several years)

Their strategy means that they have to store enough honey to feed the hive over the winter.

Honeybees were introduced to the New World by European settlers and did well, often swarming many times a summer.

They don’t seem to have done as well in tropical areas of the New World.

In the 1950s, a mad scientist decided to cross some African bees with European strains in the hope of making Brazilian bees busier. However, a number of African-strain queens escaped.

The resulting hybrids – Africanized bees – were successful, mainly because they invested in more bees, rather than saving honey for the nonexistent Brazilian winter.

This had consequences. Africanized-bees are probably more economically useful in those warm climates: they produce less honey, but honey production is not nearly as important as crop pollination. More bees, more pollination.

Eventually they spread all over the tropical and subtropical parts of the New World, limited only by cold winters.

The disadvantage is that Africanized bees are very aggressive, to the point of being dangerous. They can sting people to death: they are responsible for something like 1000 deaths since their introduction. Thus, ‘killer bees’.

I’ve known this story for a long time, but recently ran into one more interesting wrinkle. Bees can learn. They can associate the location of a favorable site with various characteristics and can remember profitable sites from day to day. They can learn to associate an originally neutral scent with a sugar reward. Within a honeybee population, there is genetic variation in learning abilities.

Which raises the natural questions: are bee subspecies equal in their ability to learn?

In this study, the authors hypothesized that Africanized bees might be spreading because they had greater cognitive capabilities than the European honeybees: brains rule OK!

There are certainly examples of this: humans displace chimps because we’re smarter, and it seems likely that placental mammals ( like cats ) have a cognitive advantage over native Australian marsupials.

But, as it turns out, European honeybees perform significantly better in a learning assay that Africanized honeybees do. I think that simply skipping an expensive behavior that has no payoff in a warm climate ( saving up lots of honey) is enough to explain most of the observed killer bee fitness advantage.

I would guess that the selective pressure for better learning in European bees is due to the payoff for remembering prime nectar and honey locations over the several months of winter. Africanized bees don’t have that kind of long pause in foraging, have less need to remember such patterns for long periods. Perhaps.

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27 Responses to The African Queens

  1. Dr J Thompson says:

    Fascinating confirmation of the cold winter hypothesis. Birds seem to have encephalized more in Northern hemisphere if they over-winter, but not if they migrate. (From imperfect memory, that last claim has been questioned, suggesting that it is the large and the very small brained birds that over-winter, and the medium brained ones that migrate, but nothing is perfect.)

  2. dearieme says:

    Subtle stuff, Cocky old boy. What can you be alluding to?

    • dave chamberlin says:

      I wonder if someone wrote a book about the different evolutionary pressures placed on mankind above and below the frost line if he or she could even get it published. Some scholarly type working for years to present all the facts in great detail would be shouted down with accusations of racism. It wouldn’t matter if the malthusian trap squeezed much harder above the frost line than below it because a much higher percentage of children reached adulthood every generation. It wouldn’t matter if there was supporting evidence to show a marked and statistically significant difference of IQ as you move south in the world. It could be true but we can’t be hurting peoples feelings so let’s just hide that dangerous speculation to one comment in an obscure blog.

  3. teageegeepea says:

    There were smaller populations in Australia vs the Old World, thus fewer total mutations and less competition/selection. So the placental vs marsupial vs monotremes (you didn’t mention them, but I’d guess they’d be more like marsupials) factor might just be correlated.

  4. CMC says:

    Maybe they spend all winter “talking” about those locations. ‘Western field beyond red barn, when wilt thou defrost….’

  5. Smithie says:

    There’s a wasp species found in New England. (Some sort of paper wasp?) Nests are small, wasps are big. Uncommon to see more than five on a nest and the combs are completely exposed.

    Seem a lot less agressive than species with bigger hives, like hornets or yellow jackets, though they are not completely peaceful, and will often take up a warning stance.

  6. saintonge235 says:

    Interesting, thanks. It’s tragic that the killer bees escaped and caused those deaths, though in return not only did South Americans get more pollination, the U.S. got the Killer Bees from South of the Border sketches on Saturday Night Live, back when it was funny.

    Of course, the lab escape scenario in Brazil is not the only time we’ve been troubled by a lab escape.

  7. reziac says:

    I worked for a beekeeper off and on for about 10 years.

    “…honey production is not nearly as important as crop pollination. More bees, more pollination.”

    Er, well, that’s where the money is, mainly because the almond and orange producers need pollination on a schedule. And once the bloom is done, you either have to move the bees elsewhere, or start feeding them, plus there are other management issues like hive maintenance. So it’s more cost effective to hand that job off to a beekeeper who moves the hives to clover or buckwheat for the rest of the season. (Our bees were wintered in SoCal but trucked to Montana for the summer.)

    However… honeybees (technically an invasive species) actually displaced the native solitary bees that had previously been the main pollinators in the Americas. Those solitary bees are considerably more efficient pollinators (to where some gardeners buy boxes of solitary bees to improve garden production). The main difficulty for commercial crops is that the solitary bees can’t be convinced to show up in bulk on demand, and won’t stay put just because that’s where you plunked down their hive. And they don’t produce more bees that stick around like honeybees do, nor do they produce side crops (honey, wax, and queens).

    Africanized bees don’t survive prolonged hard freezes, and it’s not just a matter of not putting up enough honey (they do well enough for that). There’s a sharp line in the mountains just north of Los Angeles and if you work with bees, you’ll notice rather quickly which kind you’ve got… it changes right about where it gets below freezing for the whole month of January every year. English bees tolerate all sorts of activity around the hive, and if they get annoyed might chase you 20 feet in ones and twos (and if they get generally mean, it’s a sign the queen is old or sick). Africanized bees are a lot more touchy, sometimes get offended for no real reason, and when they take offense will chase you 300 feet en masse. Once had some come robbing (looking for fragments of honey or wax to carry off) while I was painting empty hives in my yard — I had to run for the trailer, and it sounded like hail when they hit the metal skin behind me. Was definitely preferable to work not down at my place, but rather up at the honey house which was above the freeze line and didn’t get mean bees randomly showing up.

    And Africanized bees can be mean even while swarming; English bees are not.

  8. Vlad says:

    But why are Africanized bees very aggressive? is there an evolutionary explanation?

    • reziac says:

      It’s probably the other way around — Africanized bees are essentially the wild type, while English bees (having been domesticated and captive-bred for a very long time) have been selected to be easier to handle.

      Social wasps can be aggressive pretty much like Africanized bees, and no one has done any selection with wasps; that’s just the wild behavior.

      Remember that all English bees in America, even in the wild, are descended from domestic hives imported from Europe; they are not a native species. And domestic hives often swarm on their own, and if there’s no box handy for them to move into, then you get another “wild” hive.

  9. Henry Scrope says:

    So the European bees, as long as they aren’t exterminated by hybridisation, will eventually prevail as any disturbances in climate or other circumstances will advantage them over the Africanised? Or am I too dense to get what you mean?

    • reziac says:

      Africanized bees kept moving north until they hit too much cold weather; they outcompete pure English (European) bees wherever winters are sufficiently mild.

      However wherever winters have a prolonged hard freeze, English bees survive and Africanized bees don’t. This may change with future hybridizations, given there are a lot of wild swarms of both types of bees, and overlapping territories.

      Some beekeepers catch wild swarms, but most buy queens (or whole hives) from captive breeding programs, and the majority of their bees originate in the northern tier states.

  10. Cat Rationalist says:

    Australia is much smaller region than North America + Eurasia + Africa which periodically connected, so main advantage of invading placentals were that they had larger area to develop.
    A placental mammal long living on a island likewise probably wouldn’t survive invasion of mainland marsupial. From South America which is larger than Austalia, possum made to NA and still competitive despite smaller brain.

    • Coagulopath says:

      This is true for every form of life. The fittest species in a 50 million km^2 area will likely outcompete the fittest species in a 5 million km^2 area, for the same reason that a group of a million people will likely contain a taller man than a group of a thousand people.

      The botanical history of an island is usually sad: ten thousand years of harmony and then rats/pigs/goats/rabbits kill everything.

      • dearieme says:

        Do you know the story of North Rona? WKPD:

        The island continued to be inhabited until the entire population of thirty died shortly after 1685 after an infestation by rats, probably the black rat (Rattus rattus), which reached the island after a shipwreck. The rats raided the food stocks of barley meal and it is possible the inhabitants starved to death, although plague may have been a contributory factor. … The rats themselves eventually starved to death, the huge swells the island experiences preventing their hunting along the rocky shores.

        • Coagulopath says:

          I didn’t know that. What a history the island has.

          It was resettled, but again depopulated by around 1695 in some sort of boating tragedy, after which it remained home to a succession of shepherds and their families. It had a population of nine in 1764.[11]

          “On one occasion … a crew from Ness in Lewis had their boat wrecked in landing at Sula Sgeir in the month of June, and lived on the island for several weeks, sustaining themselves on the flesh of birds. Captain Oliver, who commanded the Revenue cruiser Prince of Wales, visited Sula Sgeir in the month of August to look for the lost boat. He found the wreck of it, also an oar on end with an old pair of canvas trousers on it, and over the remains of a fire a pot containing birds’ flesh; but there being no trace of the men, it was thought they must have been picked up by a passing vessel. Nothing more was heard of them until the month of October following, when a Russian vessel on her homeward voyage met a Stornoway craft in the Orkney Islands and informed the crew of the latter that they had taken the men off Sula Sgeir and landed them in Rona. Captain Oliver at once went to Rona, and found the crew consuming the last barrel of potatoes which the poor shepherd had. He took away the former and left the latter sufficient provision for the winter.”[12] Captain Benjamin Oliver commanded the vessel from 1811 until 1847.[13]

          “The last family which lived upon Rona was that of a shepherd named Donald M’Leod, otherwise the ‘King of Rona,’ who returned to Lewis in 1844.”[14] Sir James Matheson, who bought Lewis in 1844, offered the island to the Government for use as a penal settlement. The offer was refused.

          Although farmers from Lewis have continued to graze sheep on Rona ever since, the island has remained uninhabited, apart from one brief and tragic episode in 1884–85. In June 1884, two men from Lewis, Malcolm MacDonald and Murdo Mackay, having reportedly had a dispute with the minister of their local church, went to stay on Rona to look after the sheep. In August, boatmen who had called at the island reported that the men were well and in good spirits, and had refused offers to take them back to Lewis. In April 1885, the next people to visit Rona found the two men had died during the winter.

          A contender for Britain’s Worst Island?

          Other options include Gruinard (British biological warfare testing ground, uninhabitable for 40 years due to anthrax), and Pitcairn (populated by descendants of the Bounty mutineers + a full third of its population arrested in 2004 for child molestation).

  11. rune ulv says:

    I have Nordic brown bees in Norway, but it’s still bumblebees that are the best pollinators in the garden, as the bees only go for the species that gives the most nectar at the moment, ignoring the rest. When the raspberry flower, all other pollination stops.

    • reziac says:

      Here in Montana, I live next to a bee yard, but they only come up the hill when they’re hungry in the spring (owner should feed ’em the first couple weeks after he sets them out, but he doesn’t). By the time my garden gets going, they’ve gone elsewhere, and most of the pollination seems to be done by very small solitary black bees, don’t know what species they are. The honeybees come back when the seed onions bloom, tho — they really like those.

  12. Nomen Est Omen says:

    “Apian equality is a contingent fact of history. Equality is not true by definition; it is neither an ethical principle (though equal treatment may be) nor a statement about norms of social action. It just worked out that way. A hundred different and plausible scenarios for apian history would have yielded other results (and moral dilemmas of enormous magnitude). They didn’t happen.” — Stephen Jay Waspowitz

  13. ralph says:

    i sense this post is not just about bees

  14. Coagulopath says:

    I wonder what EO Wilson thinks?

  15. Thersites says:

    If true, some small justification for the atypical climactic preferences of Liam O’Flaherty: “I was born on a storm-swept rock, and hate the soft growth of sun-baked lands where there is no frost in men’s bones”. Then again, he spent most of his adult life as a deep-fried Commie, so maybe cold-weather intellectualism isn’t so wonderful after all.

  16. Philip Neal says:

    If the killer bee queens were African, the drones and genes they mated with presumably were not. And haplodiploidy, and inclusive fitness and other things I can’t work out for myself because I am not William Hamilton.

    I have a different question concerning animal communication in general. It is well known that bees forage for resources such as nectar by flying in the direction encoded by the waggle dance. Certain monkeys have different warning screams associated with different species of predator. And so on.

    We look at a cave painting of stone age ancestors hunting game with spears and we wonder whether it was the record of a hunt which had already happened, or a game plan for one which was anticipated, or to initiate boys as hunters, or a prayer to the gods – or etc.

    This is clearly a real distinction to which a stone age anthropologist could have elicited an answer. A bee performing the waggle dance, one imagines, would think it a distinction without a difference, even under questioning from Dr Doolittle.

    My question is this. Does anyone know of an example of non-human animal communication where the distinction is demonstrably real?

    • mfc says:

      cognitively advanced animals engage often in play behavior, which might for instance include signalling aggression, but also meta-communicating that the aggressive signals are not for real …

  17. JP says:


    So if bee keepers had less protective equipment
    or if honey making was more of a economic concern.

    you would have selective pressure for docile or honey productive bees

    What was the protective equipment like in medieval Europe and what were the alternatives to honey as sweeteners?
    Actually I don’t think that it would explain honey production due to the way it was collected traditionally, but i’m no expert so could be wrong on that.

    I remember reading that the the bees in Hispaniola had similar behaviours to African bees with the exception that they were much more docile. Does that imply that Hispaniolan bee keepers have less protective equipment?

    perhaps we should have a campaign for less protective equipment for bee keepers.
    after all we all want docile bees.

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