Monthly Archives: January 2010

Africanized Honey Bees (A.K.A. Killer Bees)

Review Prelude: How to Survive a Killer Bee Attack!

Some Do’s and Dont’s from the experts.

Do:

  • Run. In a straight line (it’s faster than a circle) and into the wind (increased drag slows the bees more than it slows you. Bees only took Physics 1 and they always assume no friction).
  • If possible, find shelter. It’s better to be inside a car with 40 bees than outside seriously regretting your profound oversight.
  • Pull your shirt over your head. Why? Killer bees like to sting you in the face. In fact, it’s the only thing they like to do.

Note: If you don’t think you can run fast with your shirt pulled over your head, then clearly you’ve never been attacked by bees. Rest assured, you can run fast with your shirt pulled over your head. You can run really, really, really fast.

It also turns out that you’re amazing at Parkour.

Don’t:

  • Jump in water (the bees will be waiting for you at the surface, and probably not with a piña colada).
  • Swat at the bees (this only attracts them).
  • Immediately remove your pants and underwear. Just saying don’t do that.

Alright. On to the review.

It is strange and unfortunate that there is not a Nobel Prize for Really Bad Mistakes In Science1. This international award could be presented annually in Stockholm by a sad clown wearing a lab coat and goggles, giving scientists that much more of an incentive to get things right for once. Brazilian geneticist Warwick Estevam Kerr would have made a fine nominee. For it was Mr. Kerr who introduced Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) to the Americas.

Oops. Bring out the clown.

It all started in 1956 when Kerr was contracted by the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry to hybridize aggressive, hardy, African honey bees with their relatively gentle-but-hard-working cousins that we all know and love, the European honey bees2. His goal was to selectively breed a super bee that was friendly and produced lots of honey, but liked the weather in the tropics and spoke fluent Portuguese. Everyone was to get rich. That was until some African queen bees escaped from Kerr’s facility in 1957 using a grappling hook made of cafeteria trays and bed sheets.

The full scope of the blunder was not immediately apparent to Kerr. Being a brilliant geneticist, he brilliantly assumed the African queen fugitives would breed with feral bees — thus diluting their infamous aggression. He was half right. Keep in mind that in the world of genetics, 50% is considered pretty good3.

The sole entry from Warwick Kerr’s lab notebook on the day the bees escaped. To a  fault, the man tended towards optimism.

And breed they did, spreading their dominant genes that coded for fury out into Brazil (where one farmer died from more than 1,000 stings) then South and Central America and Mexico before heading towards the southern United States. Here, the news media was waiting in a full-tilt frenzy that surprised even the killer bees. It was mayhem. So crazy were the major news outlets with killer bee fever that they were routinely putting entomologists on television. Actual entomologists. On television. The hysteria may have culminated in 1978, when Hollywood produced a movie starring Michael Caine called The Swarm. Now we had serious actors playing entomologists. That’s how nuts it was. And this was all fifteen years before the first killer-bee fatality on U.S. soil4 (1993).

‘Sorry, communism, but we’re afraid of these now.’

To be fair, our neurotic preoccupation with killer bees is not entirely without cause. They are certainly terrifying. Whereas normal European honey bees are slow to respond to intrusion and limit their defense to a relatively small area, Africanized honey bees will attack a perceived threat (like, say, a hippie gathering flowers) up to 100 feet from the hive, immediately, in far greater numbers and pursue over a much larger area. Africanized bees will give chase for up to ¼ mile from the hive, and are not above hopping on a Vespa if it means stinging you just a few hundred more times.

Bee rage has been neatly standardized by an experiment in which a little felt flag was briefly waved in front of hives with the help of a mechanical arm. European honey bees typically delivered between zero and ten stings to the flag in 30 seconds. In contrast, Africanized bees stung it between 400 and 500 times in the same interval. That little felt flag later passed away at the East Houston Regional Medical Center.

Furthermore, when honey bees sting, they release – along with their venom – an alarm pheromone5 called iso-amyl acetate that, curiously, smells like bananas.  The pheromone is a chemical signal for other bees to attack. Because if there’s anything killer bees hate more than felt flags, it’s a non-banana that still stinks like a banana. It just makes them completely insane. So then more bees attack, which in turn releases more alarm pheromone in a horrifying fruit-scented positive feedback loop.

‘Is that banana?  I think that’s banana.  If that’s banana I am seriously going to lose it right now.’

The venom of Africanized honey bees is no different than European honey bees, nor do they deliver more of it per sting. It’s just that they’re total jerks. Disturb a hive of Africanized bees and you can expect to be pursued by hundreds or even thousands of apoplectic flying syringes (as opposed to the comfortable 20 to 40 norm). And just FYI, the average non-allergic person can withstand about 7 bee stings per pound of body weight before death becomes a real possibility. If you’re allergic to bees, you can use the same formula — just be sure to enter your weight as 1/7th pound.

This is all bad. But on the bright side, Africanized honey bees pollinate plants and plants are crucial to agriculture production everywhere in the blah, blah, blah, blah.

Grade: F

Warwick Estevam Kerr Grade: F-

1 Past winners might also include American chemist Thomas Midgley, Jr., who gave us tetra-ethyl lead additives for gasoline (it turns out that lead in the air is not too helpful) AND chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) a refrigerant/aerosol propellant that helped keep our drinks cold and our hair styles groovy, but also tended to destroy our planet’s vital ozone layer at an alarming rate. Bring out the clown.

2 These are the normal honey bees you prefer. The ones that sting you less than 2,000 times. They were originally imported from Europe.

3 75% is excellent. And 100% is considered practically a sure thing.

4 They’ve killed about 26 since in the US, the latest in Tivoli, Texas. Killer Bees also inhabit New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Utah. So maybe take “I love camping and the outdoors!!!!” off your online dating profile now.

5 This is why beekeepers employ smoke. It’s thought to mask the effect of the bee’s alarm pheromone. Neat.

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*UPDATE* – Antlers as Organs

There has been some chatter in the blogosphere after Animal Review referred to moose antlers as ‘organs.’  Some commentators have weighed in against that assertion, on account of antlers appearing externally and having a wood-like texture.

That being said, antlers are in fact organs.  In fact, some scientists believe that they may hold clues to human organ regeneration.  Very few deer or moose believe this, but they mostly practice Eastern medicine anyway.

Moose

The moose (Alces alces) is the largest member of the deer family.  Which is good news, given that anyone who’s ever bumped into a moose in the woods will tell you that they are indeed enormous, so anything larger in the deer family would really strain logistics.

‘Did you get my authorization request for 11,000 coffee creamers?’

How big are moose?  A male moose can be seven feet tall at the shoulder and ten feet at their head, with a massive rack that can easily span six feet across and requires turning one’s moose head 90 degrees to sneak between trees.  They can easily reach 1,500 pounds (females, which are smaller, work out obsessively), though the record trophy is over a ton, with a 38-point rack that must have been a nightmare to carry and completely ruined the feng shui of the family room.

‘Look what I did!  Say…does anyone know anything about levers?’

Moose inhabit the upper regions of North America (specifically Canada and Alaska, but also Northern New England, Upstate New York, Minnesota, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the North Rockies, and South Florida1).  They can also be found across Northern Europe and Russia, where they are known as elk, or ‘Elch’ in German or ‘elg’ in Scandinavian tongues, or лось in Russian.  This all gets a bit confusing, since in North America the word elk refers to the second largest deer species, the elk (Cervus candesis, lit. ‘Not A Moose’).2 A simple rule of thumb is this: In Europe it’s an elk, in North America it’s a moose and a non-elk elk spelled Elch or Elg (meaning moose), and in Russia there is a лось, which is a moose (лось).

Got it?  Good.

Oh, лось?  He’s over in Russia.

The word moose itself is derived from the Algonquian Eastern Abnaki word moz, which translates loosely to ‘twig eater.’  Originally meaning to taunt the moose, the bullies soon found themselves humbled by a stern lecture from an antler.  Only the males have antlers and shed them in the winter to conserve energy, and they do come in handy for impressing lady moose (cows), clonking into things, being inconvenient, and weighing a lot.  Given that the male moose has to regrow a massive rack every year in preparation for mating season, their antlers are among the fastest-growing organs in the world.  Even more fascinating, if a male moose is ever castrated, he will immediately shed his antlers and begin growing a new set of misshapen and deformed antlers that he will wear the rest of his life without ever shedding again.  Why?  Because of his shame.

As the largest deer family member, the moose needs to consume nearly 10,000 calories a day just to maintain its body weight.  This is just one of many reasons that moose make notoriously bad pets.  While other deer make fine, if slightly confusing pets, the moose not only sucks up hundreds of dollars a week in food but also take hours in the bathroom getting ready every morning and needs to be taken on walks 47 times a day.

‘Hey, Carl….you busy?’

Like many animals, moose like to make a contribution to the natural ecosystem.  But unlike most animals, they also like to contribute to destroying automobiles.  As terrible as hitting any animal is, and as much damage as, say, a whitetail deer might do to your car, hitting a moose will really ruin your Kia Spectra (yet another reason not to get a baby moose on impulse).   In Scandinavia, they test their Scandinavian cars on fake moose, and then turn around and attack the competition in ads with the slogan, ‘There are no moose in Japan.’  Upon hearing of this ad campaign and realizing that they had shamed their nation by not having moose, hundreds of executives at Honda Motor Corporation committed ritual suicide.

The main thing to know about moose is that they are enormous.  More pointedly, owning one as a pet is a decision almost bound to bring a lifetime of regret.  It will most certainly cause family conflict, and in all likelihood your friends will stop coming over.  Plus your neighbors will gossip.  You may end up on the news.  And there are at least even odds that your chandelier will need frequent repairing.

‘Hey did you need that crystal chandelier or were you planning to get rid of it?’

GRADE: B

GRADE AS PET: D+/C-

1 Floridian moose are mostly retirees, and if you think old people and cars don’t mix – or moose and cars don’t mix – then just imagine old moose and cars.  It’s a mess.

2 This was due to European settlers deciding that C. candesis looked more like their elk than their own silly red deer species, so they did the logical thing and called this obviously-completely-different animal an elk (moose).