Defensive honey bee colonies can pose a threat to beekeepers and the public. However, there are no standardized protocols in place for beekeepers or PA apiary inspectors to reliably test for defensive behavior. Additionally, current protocols and educational programs for beekeeping are developed for mild-tempered European honey bee subspecies, yet beekeepers may have other subspecies that could be of African ancestry, which may be more highly defensive.
Africanized honey bees (AHBs) are the result of a hybridization process between European and African honey bee subspecies that started in Brazil in 1956. AHBs arrived in the southern US in 1993 and are likely moving northward by both natural expansion (facilitated by climate change) and by direct importation of honey bee packages produced in the south and brought to PA by beekeepers. Through recent genome sequencing, the López-Uribe lab and collaborator the Harpur Lab from Purdue University found the presence of high proportions of African ancestry (~20%) in 5 out of 20 honey bee colonies sampled from PA. In much of the northern US, beekeepers are not prepared to manage and work with these highly defensive honey bees. Without proper management plans or testing availability, beekeepers and the public may be injured or killed when working with or near AHB colonies in PA.
With support from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), we are working on a project to develop a reliable genetic protocol that would be available to beekeepers and apiary inspectors who may need to test reliably test for the presence of defensive behavior in PA. In addition, we are aiming to sample colonies throughout PA to better characterize the proportion of African ancestry in colonies across the state. With this information, we will develop a management plan to monitor and control invasive AHBs.
Video of Dr. Liz Cambron and collaborator Kate Anton testing a defensive honey bee colony in State College, PA by waving a leather strip in front of the hive entrance. The number of stings is then counted to measure aggression level.