An africanized bee selection technique for Eastern Mexico beekeeping

M. C. Octavio Jaramillo Monroy & Biol. Silvia Lara Torres

The Africanized bees (ABs), known as "Killerbees" and accused of many human deaths occurred in the American continent, were developed by Dr. W. Estevam Kerr in Brazil in 1957. Thanks to their enormous physical strength and reproductivity, just in a few years ABs spread around, competed with other types of mellifera-bees (or honey-producing bees), and became dominant bees-habitants in the whole Amazon region. In the 1970s they crossed the border of Brazil and entered into neighboring tropical countries, where ABs destroyed beehives of European bees, which used to prevail in these regions before. In the beginning of the 1980s, ABs spread around Central America, and by 1986 they entered the south of Mexico. In spite of all the official programs, which try to stop invasion of the ABs, they have spread around all tropical zones of Mexico in just four years. Then, in the beginning of 1990's, they entered the southern territories of the United States. Right now the ABs dominate practically all tropical regions of the American continent.

africanized bee selection

Official programs in Mexico, including intensive "preventive" campaigns on radio and television, pointed out accidents and cases of death among humans caused by the ABs and created the famous image of "Killer Bees." On the other hand, just a few people know about the positive qualities of these bees, for example, their high levels of honey productivity and resistance to illnesses, and their immense possibilities for Selection.

Octavio Jaramillo,  a Mexican biologist, has been trying to probe these "Positive Qualities" in his research on ABs since 1990. Mr. Jaramillo, MS in Biology, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, received recognition from a Mexican president as LOS MEJORES ESTUDIANTES DE MÉXICO 1981 (the best students in Mexico 1981) and won a Medallion GABINO BARREDA - Generation 1978-81. In 1987 he completed his Master's degree in the Centro de Investigacion y Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politecnico Nacional (the Center for Research and Advance Studies). Since his graduation in 1987, he has been working in research programs of different universities in Mexico, publishing results of his research, and guiding and making assessment of students' thesis projects. His areas of research are bee selection, rearing of bee queens, and animal behavior.

The last research project of Mr. Jaramillo has been on the Selection of Africanized Bees. It is based on scientific contributions of European and American experts on Genetics and Selection of Bees such as Dr. Susan Cobey, Ph.D., University of Ohio, USA, Dr. Cornuet, Station Expérimentale d’Apiculture, Avignon, France, and Dr. Luis Medina, Universidad Autonoma de Yucatan, México. In his research, Mr. Jaramillo has selected a few family lines of ABs with high level of tameness, high resistance to illnesses and parasites, and high level of honey productivity.

Following is a summary of Mr. Jaramillo's research on the selection of ABs:

Selection of Africanized Bees (ABs) with low levels of aggressiveness is an open possibility in tropical areas. In 2001, our team of researchers has developed a selection technique to improve bees, which are actually utilized by beekeepers in the Eastern Mexico. After selection of three generations of bees, we concluded that determined ABs family lines could inherit their high levels of tameness, even when they reproduced in the condition of free fecundation.

In August 2002, we have begun our field selection work with ABs. The central goal of our selection program is to get better ABs family lines, based on three principal characteristics: level of tameness, honey productivity, and healthiness.

Our research paper describes:

  • Four selection strategies;
  • Selection methodology and necessary field trips;
  • Parameters, scales and indexes, which have been used to evaluate performance of bee colonies;
  • Six steps of the selection annual cycle.

First, in our research we have followed four selection strategies:

  • WHICH bees? The ABs actually utilized by Mexican tropical beekeepers.
  • WHERE to work? In the Eastern Mexico.
  • HOW MANY colonies of bees to work with? 120 bee colonies distributed in 4 evaluation apiaries.
  • WHO participate? Beekeepers, queen breeders, and bee selection specialists, who have disposition, solvency, and capacity to work and learn.

Second, the selection methodology utilized is a combination of the “massal” selection with the Dr. J.M.Cornuet's "intra-family" selection technique, Station Expérimentale d'Apiculture, Avignon, France. To asses the performance of the bee colonies, we used parameters, scales, and indexes proposed by Ph.D. Susan Cobey, University of Ohio, USA.

The Selection Program requires a minimum of four evaluation apiaries and six field trips per year. The purpose of these trips is data collection, registration and evaluation of each filial bee colony upon selection of breeding queens' stock. The six field trips are:

  1. December - January: Inspection and evaluation of drones' production in mating stations.
  2. January - February: Inspection and sampling of queen rearing beehives.
  3. May - June: Spring development evaluation of filial bee colonies during multi-floral honey harvest in lowlands areas of Veracruz.
  4. End of August: "Massal" pre-selection and inheritance evaluation of filial bee colonies during period preceding Mexican highlands honey harvest.
  5. September: "Massal" selection and honey production evaluation of filial bee colonies during the first 10 days of highlands honey harvest.
  6. September - October: recovery and transfer of new breeding queens' stock.

Third, the assessed bee colonies parameters in our research are synthesized into “Selection Indexes” supported by “z” statistics. It is explained how we ponder the numerical information taken from each step of evaluation. The pondered values given to each principal factor are: 40% honey production, 20% level of tameness, 20% healthiness, and 20% brood nest factors. These selection indexes let us contrast between distinct bee colonies, apiaries, family lines, and successive generations.

Fourth, for each one of the six consecutive steps of the Selection Program, we describe principal activities and give one explanation about its bases and advantages with respect to other alternative methodologies. The six selection program steps are:

  1. Massal Pre-selection: to evaluate quality management and technical skills of participating beekeepers we use percentage of how many bee colonies have been able to get full strength towards the end of the highlands pre-harvest period. This percentage increased from 11% in 2002 to 51% in 2005.
  2. Breeding queens' stock selection: the selection indexes of breeding queens' stocks have been approximately 25 points over the average indexes of pre-selected bee colonies.
  3. Filial queen rearing and building of evaluation apiaries: Every year, because of unpredictable weather conditions, it is necessary to make certain adjustments to duration and conditions for queens rearing as well as to building of evaluation apiaries. Our reports for the first three selection cycles include such adjustments.
  4. Spring development evaluation during lowlands harvest period: At the end of the annual cycle the most productive bee colonies are the ones that go through the best spring development.
  5. Inheritance evaluation during highlands pre-harvest period: Collected data shows presence of tameness and healthiness inheritance just in one ABs family line ("d" family line) among three generations of queens mated in a condition of free fecundation.
  6. Initial honey production evaluation  during highlands pre-harvest period: Our selection indexes are very practical for selecting the best queens from each family line in every generation. Moreover, the numerical information derived from the three annual selection cycles shows a correlation average of r2 = 0.73 between honey production levels and strength levels of bee colonies. Our correlation average of 0.73 confirms the Farrar's classical theory of correlation average of 0.70.

Finally, our research went through three generations of ABs and came into six main conclusions:

  • For the last 15 years the Mexican governmental queen rearing official policy has favored importation of European bee queens. The European lines of bees have low levels of aggressiveness. However, in the tropical conditions they have lower level of honey productivity and lower level of resistance to illnesses and parasites than those of ABs; moreover, European bees bring their own diseases. Therefore, for the Mexican tropical habitats it is ecologically and economically better to select our ABs with high levels of tameness, when managed with smoke, than to import European bee queens.
  • Some other bee selection techniques in Mexico do not take into consideration regular annual routine of beekeepers. These techniques are more academic than practical and demand too much from participating beekeepers. In contrast, our ABs Selection Program does not break the normal labor routine of the migrant beekeepers.
  • Following the normal beekeeping annual cycle helps to decrease human and financial resources as well as to reduce amount of work. Moreover, our ABs Selection Program requires only 120 bee colonies to work with.
  • For the Mexican tropical areas the most simple, practical, and reliable ABs selection technique is a combination of two methodologies: the selection technique of PhD. Susan Cobey and the "intrafamily" selection technique of Dr. Cornuet. Our technique is adapted to the particular conditions of the Eastern Mexico beekeeping.
  • Only few free fecundation ABs' family lines were able to pass onto the next generation low levels of aggressiveness, "when managed with smoke". The fastest and relatively precise technique to measure levels of aggressiveness of ABs colonies is Dr. Cobey's five criterions.
  • Most of the ABs queens inherit high levels of strength and honey productivity. However, only a few ABs family lines are able to inherit “HIGH LEVELS OF TAMENESS WITH SMOKE” in conditions of free fecundation. For example, in our selection program, all the breading queens had low levels of aggressiveness. Nevertheless, only queens of one family line ("d" family line) inherited high levels of tameness and healthiness among three generations.

Our first results encourage us to continue ABs selection research, despite of some statistical limitations. It is very important that other researchers will confirm our conclusions about tameness inheritance in ABs family lines. Fortunately, not all ABs are "KILLER BEES." The possibility for the "TAME ABs" in the tropical areas continue to be open.
M. C. Octavio Jaramillo Monroy
Biol. Silvia Lara Torres