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TODAY’S FOCUS: Mexico Preparing for ‘Killer Bee’ Invasion

June 21, 1985 GMT

CUERNAVACA, Mexico (AP) _ They have mean genes. They’re ill-tempered. And millions of them are coming soon to Mexico.

The so-called African ″killer bees″ are expected to arrive at Mexico’s southern border as early as next year, a prospect that has government officials and beekeepers alarmed.

The African bees, a far more aggressive breed than the European bees used for honey cultivation in Mexico and the rest of the Western Hemisphere, pose a serious threat to Mexico’s $50-million-a-year honey industry, officials say.

″There’s definitely going to be a big drop in honey production,″ said Peter Rabbow, managing director of the Miel Carlota apiculture plant on the outskirts of this resort town 50 miles southwest of Mexico City.

Mexico is among the world’s three largest honey exporters, along with China and the Soviet Union. But only Mexico faces a threat to their honey industries from African bees.

Since 26 African queen bees escaped from a research laboratory in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1957, and began mating with local bees descended from European stock, they have devastated honey industries on their northward journey through South and Central America.

During their advance north from Brazil, African bees have been blamed for the deaths of more than 150 people and countless animals.

Rabbow noted that honey production in Venezuela virtually collapsed after the arrival of the bees. Output fell from 6,380 tons in 1975 to 970 tons in 1981; Venezuela went from exporting honey to importing it.

Miel Carlota is Mexico’s largest commercial honey operation. But it produces only 500 to 900 tons of the more than 60,000 tons harvested nationwide each year.

The country has 2.5 million commercial hives and some 47,000 beekeepers, 90 percent of them small farmers who don’t have the resources to combat the bees, Rabbow said.

″Many will simply find it’s not worth their time to stay in beekeeping,″ he said.

The disruption in the honey business comes as the smaller but fierce African bees take over domestic hives, killing the queen bees so their own queens can mate with the gentle European drones.

Though they produce more honey, they consume most of it, unlike European bees, Rabbow said. Their fierceness also make it dangerous for beekeepers to handle them and requires hives to be relocated away from inhabited areas.

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Attempts to breed the aggressiveness out of the bees have not produced the hoped-for results, he said.

After one cross between a European queen and African drones, the new generation is less irritable. But succeeding generations re-acquire their mean-tempered ways.

The only effective way to fight the bees, said Rabbow, is to continually kill the African queens and insert artificially inseminated European queens into the hives.

The government has distributed pamphlets to beekeepers instructing them on how to deal with the African bees. It is also considering producing a large number of European queen bees for distribution to small beekeepers, but Rabbow said such a program will take several years to provide the necessary numbers. It’s still in the talking stage.

A third proposal under study is to place ″traps″ along the border between Mexico and Guatemala to slow their entry into the country, but Rabbow said such an undertaking would be ″horrendously expensive.″

Here at Miel Carlota, the company’s beekeepers are preparing as best they can for the sting of the ″killer bee″ invasion. Because it already produces queen bees to substitute aging queens in its hives, Miel Carlota will be able to adjust to the impact of the African bees more readily than small farmers.

As Rabbow showed a visitor around, two workers opened a hive less than 10 feet away and the air filled with bees.

″If these were African bees, we would be covered with them,″ he said.

Simply approaching too close to a hive of African bees can set off a massive attack, as can noise, lights and certain smells, he said.

But Rabbow said the danger of attacks on people is not great if hives are moved away from populated areas.

Once they enter Mexico, the African bees will need three to five years to reach the United States. Although cold weather is expect to block their progress into northern states, a U.S. Agriculture Department study warned in 1982 that the ″killer bees″ could seriously hurt beekeeping operations in southern states.

’American beekeepers were not concerned before because the problem seemed too far away, but now they are,″ said Rabbow. ″They realize these bees aren’t just something from a scare movie.″