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Are African bees "killer bees?"

Most insects and animals, no matter where they come from, might camouflage, and, in the extreme, kill or bring about death, one way or the other when they have to defend their territory; this is the case with the bee in Africa, which has a sting, just like other bees, that some people react to fatally. Known scientifically as Apis mellifera Scutellata, so-called killer bees were "first domesticated in the scrub desert of central South Africa. Although their hives are small, they are said to be more productive than the Italian, German, and other strains of European honeybees to which they are related. Proponents of Apis mellifera Scutellata say the African bees set to work an hour earlier than their cousins, are more disease-resistant, and yield more and, by many accounts, better honey" (McNamee). With such qualities for bees, it is no doubt the Brazilian government, in 1956, charged Professor Warwick Kerr, an English native turned Brazilian citizen to research into these bees. By importing these African Bees, Brazilian production of honey increased tremendously, raising Brazil from the 47th honey producing nation in the world to the seventh; a remarkable feat by any standard. But typical of dictatorships, when Professor Kerr fell foul with the Brazilian military regime at the time by publicly criticizing their neglects and excesses, he was not only jailed, his remarkable work and credentials were tarnished as he was presented as some weird scientist bent on destroying his adopted country. As usual, gaudy newspaper stories in the wake of these events gave the people to believe, and not without the support of the military dictatorship, that Kerr had been training his bees to kill by attacking human beings when commanded, hence the emergence of the myth of killer bees. One site has summed up the trend appropriately: ".. .Ker's work at improving the honey bee by importing Africanized stock was at first ridiculed and criticized within his country, and that tone was irresponsibly picked up by the North American journalists and bureaucrats. Journalists, because the thought of 'killer Bees' invading America sold papers; Bureaucrats because the thought of 'killer Bees' invading America meant research and regulation dollars" (Dr. Kerr). But the truth as Gregory McNamee has pointed out is that:

African bees are no more venomous than their European cousins. Neither do they go out of their way to look for targets, human or otherwise. The difference lies in the African bees' defensiveness; resistant to most pests, they have natural enemies only in predators, and, survival of the fittest being what it is, the African bees have long since evolved to resist predation with extreme prejudice. When their colonies are attacked or approached, they tend to swarm and sting with abandon. Since their arrival in the Americas, the African purebreds have intermingled with European varieties of honeybee, giving birth to a hybrid, the "Africanized bee." It is these small, graceful creatures that have been crossing our border into the American Southwest of late, and giving so many people fits.

Back in Africa, these bees are simply called bees just like bears everywhere are simply called bears, even with their killer instincts. It is in the West, especially in America, that the destructive modifier "killer" has been added, and this addition is certainly in keeping with the strange and exotic, if not barbaric portrait of Africa which has already been burnt on the average Western mind. Calling these bees "killer bees" conjures the picture of monstrous insects that leave their hives bent on finding some innocent victim whose pilgrimage on earth they are determined to terminate, and woe betide us, here they are in America at last, after wiping out the entire continent of Africa, one would suppose; a good plot for Hollywood it would seem to me. How interesting would it be for some poisonous spider from America to be called "killer spiders from America?" But America is not in the tropics, and only things from the tropics are dangerous or, better still, fit into this mystifying mold of savagery.

No, these bees are out there gathering nectar which they store in their hives as food. It is only when the notorious human invader strays around their hives, or comes in more directly in search of sweet honey (to sell and make money), that he is attacked and in some cases some people with allergic reactions die. Sometimes, humans mistakenly stray into these bees' territory and are attacked; after all, the bees cannot tell the difference between an invader and a stray human being. This, however, is no reason to brand bees from Africa "killer" bees. Name any creature that will not fight back in self-defense, even if it means killing or dying in the process. The fact that African bees are fiercer in defending their territory does not make them "killer Bees." Interestingly, the idea of these bees being called "killer bees" is as strange as it sounds since people also die from allergic reactions to bee venom from European honeybees. As Leon Marshall reports in his article "Killer Bee' Touted as Economic Lifesaver in S. Africa," Elize Lundall-Magnuson, an entomologist who manages the Beekeeping for Poverty Relief program in South Africa also does not see African bees as "killer bees" she points out that this fierce reputation comes from comparisons with its more docile European counterpart. Gregory McNamee is more poignant in his rebuttal:

To call them 'killer bees' is clearly wrong; the once more common German bee is more aggressive. And because Western culture tends to equate anything African with savagery, 'Africanized bees' isn't much help. In Latin America the creatures are called abejas bravas, 'brave bees,' a name unlikely to catch on with any but the savviest gringos.

Is it true that everyone in Africa co-exists with all the animals, like lions walking down Main Street?

As shocking as this question might be to an African, the truth is that so many people think this way, and worse even, about the continent. Rev. Charles R. Stith's remarks in Ebony are indicative of this fact:

When I was U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, some of my friends were surprised there weren't lions and elephants walking right up to the front door of the embassy residence. Instead, they saw paved streets, modern restaurants to go out to for dinner, modern hotels of the sort you'll find in any western city in the world—like the Kilimanjaro Hotel in Dar es Salaam, where they have flat-screen TV access to the Internet you've got some of the greatest tourist attractions of the world beyond wildlife. (125)

This kind of thinking is unbelievable yet true; how unfortunate that a culture could leave its citizens to be this misinformed about a people. No, lions are untamed animals that exist out in the wild and do not come close to human beings except when their hunt for food leads them to surrounding villages where they raid farmer's cattle and usually get killed in the process. Otherwise, an African whose village, not to say town or city, is far away from those areas that are suitable habitats for big game, like lions, might live and die without ever seeing a lion, let alone strolling down Main Street with a lion walking in the other direction.

Have you ever seen an elephant alive?

In the wild, no, but at a zoo, yes I have. It must be remembered that contrary to what the media shows of Africa, all Africans do not live next door to wild game. A question such as this amounts to saying for example, that every American has seen a bear, or a bison, or a buffalo live since they inhabit the United States, and this is not the case. In Africa too, unless people happen to be on a hunting expedition, or find themselves around these animals' natural habitats, only then do they manage to see these animals alive, just as tourists do.

 
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