Once a menace, African ‘killer bees’ are all the buzz for health solutions

Africanized bees, known as “killer bees,” once gained notoriety in the United States for swarming and killing.

But while Africa’s bees tend to be more aggressive than their European or American counterparts, their aggression also makes them more productive and resilient.

The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi is working to utilize the African bee and its aggression to the continent’s advantage.

“We have found in our previous studies that bees in Africa are a bit resistant, they are resilient to the bee pests,” said Dr. Suresh Raina, the principal research scientist at the ICIPE’s African Reference Laboratory for Bee Health.

He calls the quality a “novel resistance mechanism,” and his team is selectively breeding bees that exhibit this quality to create a strong base of bees in Africa.

12 male bees for one queen bee

In the center’s lab in Nairobi, a scientist collects the semen from male drone bees, squeezing their thoraxes and killing them in the process. Twelve male drone bees will die to artificially inseminate one queen bee.

She puts the queen in a plastic tube, attached to carbon dioxide gas. The gas sends the queen to sleep, temporarily paralyzing her.

Once the bee is asleep, the scientist opens up the bee’s vaginal canal and drops the semen into it. The bees that will come from this queen will be less hostile to humans than this typical strain of African bee, and more productive and more resistant to disease.

‘Shortages of pollinators’

While Africa has been spared by the mass bee losses occurring in the United States and Europe, with less advanced food security systems, Africa’s scientists say they need to act proactively.

“Bees are dying and countries are having shortages of pollinators, even in the United States,” Raina said. “We thought, suppose if that disease occurred in Africa. What will happen to the food security system here?”

Positive signs

Around 70% of what the world consumes is dependent on bees for pollination. But with a population that is predicted to double by 2050, African farmers will have to provide for a larger — and wealthier population.

Scientists have no intention of bringing African bees to the struggling bee populations in the United States or Europe.

“You don’t want to cross one variety with another one and it will cause a disaster,” Raina said. Still, studies from the laboratory may give some answers to some of the world’s declining bee populations.

Scientists are working on a bio pesticide made of a locally sourced plant extract that may help combat the Varroa mite, a parasite that contributes to death of bees in the United States. And while the research is still out, the signs are positive.

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