Introduction of the Honey Bee into North America

Many people are surprised to learn that the European honey bees introduced into North America after the year 1600 were not the first domesticated bees in the New World. It turns out the Maya of Central America domesticated a species of stingless bee for honey production centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. Some species of stingless bees can still be found in the Yucatan peninsula; however, as is often the case with invasive species, European honey bees have replaced many of the native bee species in North America.

In the lands north of Mexico, European settlers imported honey bees primarily to produce honey and later to pollinate crops. As English settlers spread westward, honey bees spread with them. In fact, the appearance of honey bees often preceded the arrival of the Europeans themselves. Native American tribes soon came to regard honey bees as a bad omen.

By the 20th century, apiaries grew into a gigantic industry, as farmers and owners of large orchards, especially those containing apple and cherry trees, came to rely on huge numbers of honey bees to pollinate their crops. In the short term, this led to an explosion in the honey bee population. The downside was that honey bees became a genetically inbred species even as their numbers grew.

The reason for this seemingly paradoxical event involves the reproductive life of bees. As with other species of social insects (e.g. ants and termites), the worker bees are all females. They hatch from eggs laid by a queen bee, which needs to mate only once in her lifetime (which lasts for 3 to 5 years in contrast to a few months for most workers). The male bees, or drones, arise from unfertilized eggs laid by the queen or workers.

At any rate, over the years, industrial apiaries bred their queens in virtual isolation from other colonies. Predictably, this has made most industrially raised honey bees vulnerable to fungal infections, mites, and probably viruses as well. Over the past five years, billions of honey bees have vanished due to an as yet unidentified disease termed colony collapse disorder.

Another bee experiment that went woefully awry was a breeding project begun in the 1950’s in Brazil. Scientists believed that crossing African bees and European honey bees would produce an ideal hybrid bee that would be docile, withstand tropical heat and pests, and produce abundant stores of honey. Unfortunately, the hybrid offspring, the so called killer bees, were extremely aggressive and produced little honey; however, they were hardy to the point of escaping from Brazil and spreading all the way to the southern United States by 1990.