Taming Aggressive Bees

Scientists look at the genes of bees to learn why some are so aggressive.
Karin Heineman, Executive Producer

(Inside Science) -- James Nieh, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has been studying bees for decades. He’s often a go-to expert on bees.

“I often get people who ask me, ‘what about those killer bees, those Africanized bees?’ And it turns out that these guys are beneficial in the environment for a variety of reasons, beneficial in the sense that they do better than the European honeybee,” said Nieh.

They do better than European bees in tropical climates. And they are resistant to certain mites that attack other honey bees. But they can still be problematic.

“The problem with Africanized bees, although they will also pollinate our crops, is they're highly aggressive. And people have probably seen these stories about bees killing people, unfortunately, or at least getting very hurt by being stung. So, the question is, why are they so aggressive? What is it in their genetics that actually causes them to want to sting you by the hundreds or the thousands?” said Nieh.

“Typically, people study aggression at a colony level, which makes sense. You go near a colony. The colony gets activated, and the next thing you know, if it's Africanized, you could have thousands of bees chasing you, trying to sting. We need to come up with an individual assay where we have one bee, and we can see how aggressive that bee is. Then we can look at its genetic makeup to try to see what genes are correlated with that aggression,” remarked Nieh.

“We take an individual bee, and we look at its stinging response and its biting response, typical aggressive behaviors,” said Nieh.

Scientists say that finding genetic markers of aggression could help beekeepers identify and remove aggressive colonies before they show hostile behavior.

“So what Felipe [graduate student at UC San Diego] is doing, is he's using the natural alarm pheromone of a honeybee in this individual assay to see whether or not it triggers aggression, and if there's a difference in aggression between European and Africanized bees,” said Nieh.

Researchers are looking at bees to find which genes are involved in the different aggressive behaviors displayed by bees.

Knowing more about a bee’s genetic makeup could help breed the perfect bee -- one that has the ruggedness of Africanized honey bees, but the gentle personalities of European honey bees.

According to Nieh, there’s a strain of Puerto Rican Africanized bees that appear to have both these ideal characteristics. But persuading others to import Africanized bees -- even gentler ones, and ones that are still good pollinators -- isn’t easy.

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Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.