TODAY’S TOPIC: Kern County Colonies Killed; Gradual Migration Next
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) _ Kern County has won the battle of the ″killer″ bees. Next comes the war.
Norman Gary, the entomologist from the University of California at Davis who found the first Africanized bee hive in Kern County last summer, isn’t optimistic about the next round.
″Even with all the bee researchers in the country working on this problem, we’re going to be hard-pressed to develop solutions in the time frame that we have left,″ Gary said.
That frame is about five years, when massive swarms of the feared bees are expected to cross from Mexico to Texas.
Kern County declared victory against the bee on Monday, and a state quarantine was lifted for a 1,088-square-mile area in the southern San Joaquin Valley.
However, a federal quarantine will remain in effect until January. That requires federal certificates for the movement of bees from the quarantine zone to any other state.
California paid for the majority of the $1 million eradication project, which involved 76 workers covering a 462-square mile quarantine zone and an additional 400-square-mile survey zone.
In Kern County, only a few Africanized bees invaded an area dominated by European honeybees and could not gain a foothold.
Colonies with Africanized traits were killed with pesticides, but that procedure cannot be used in a widespread attack because the chemicals kill both the unwanted Africanized and beneficial European bees.
So, the best hope is that Africanized bees will mate with European honeybees during their northward migration and lose some of their aggressive traits such as stinging en masse.
″We have hopes that, when the main front arrives, we will be dealing with a quite different bee than the highly Africanized variety,″ said Len Foote, who directed the Kern County attack.
No one knows how the killer bees arrived a year or two ago in desolate oil and farming region in western Kern County, about 150 miles north of Los Angeles, but it is thought the bees may have hitchhiked aboard oil equipment shipped from South America.
Their presence was discovered last June after an oil field worker noticed a swarm engulf a rabbit. Federal, state and county authorities launched a cooperative eradication project that shut down Monday after finding 12 Africanized colonies and inspecting about 22,000 samples of bees from the area.
Of the 12 Africanized colonies, seven were commercial and five were wild. Three were considered highly Africanized, and the remainder had varying degrees of aggressiveness.
Africanized bees, which are native to sub-Saharan Africa, became a threat in the Western Hemisphere when experimental swarms escaped in Brazil in the 1950s.
″When they arrive in an area by their natural migration, they build up populations very rapidly,″ said Howell Daly, a bee researcher at the University of California at Berkeley. ″The history has been throughout Central and South America that European bees disappear as an entity for whatever reason.″
Scientists believe experimental genetic management will be the answer to migration.
″By manipulating the genetics of bees, we hope to manipulate their range, the area they might infest,″ Gary said. ″Furthermore, we hope to alter some of their behavioral characteristics, such as their inclination to sting, and we would like to control more effectively their reproduction,″ much like scientists alter livestock genes.
Africanized bees pose an economic threat to beekeepers and farming in general. Although a single Africanized bee’s sting is no more dangerous than the bite of a domestic bee, the swarming behavior of the intruders multiplies the risk.
″The general public has to realize that bees basically are one of our best friends in agriculture,″ Gary said. ″The bottom line being that one-third of the total food in this country requires honeybee pollination.″
Africanized honeybees seem less inclined than their European relatives to pollinate some crops, such as almonds and tomatoes, which worries those growers.
″It’s very difficult to make a legitimate comparison between what’s happened in South America and what may happen when the bees reach the United States,″ Gary conceded. ″The frightening thing about this whole scenario is that we really don’t know the final outcome, and the stakes are so high.″
The California bees are apparently the first swarms to be established in the United States. But they weren’t the first to arrive.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first Africanized bees were detected in the United States on July 6, 1979, when two colonies were found on a ship that docked at Corpus Christi, Texas.
Last year, some dead Africanized bees were found in cargo on a ship that docked in Oswego, N.Y., after sailing from South America.
In all, there have been six known landings of Africanized bees in the United States, according to the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which watches the nation’s borders and ports for bugs and blotches that might harm U.S. crops and animals.