Human Interest

Beekeeping used to be a less risky business for veteran organic beekeeper Patrick Pynes: Before Africanized honey bees became ubiquitous in Arizona, he often went without gloves while handling combs.

The Africanized honey bee — quicker to sting, more unpredictable in general — has made protective gear essential, however. Not only does it protect Pynes from painful stings, it helps his students feel a measure of security. Stings can be discouraging to a student in beekeeping; it may be the thing that keeps them from embracing the hobby.

On Wednesday, March 9, at Sedona Winds Retirement Community, Pynes addressed the challenges of raising Africanized honey bees — or, as he calls them, tropical honey bees. He rejects such terms as “killer bees,” and thinks “Africanized” is too generalizing. After all, the tropical honey bee is from Tanzania, a dry equatorial region of Africa.

Many other varieties of honey bee still exist in Africa.

“Words are important,” Pynes said, explaining that by labeling tropical honey bees as aggressive distorts the truth: They are a highly defensive species, but they are also able to be kept in colonies. According to Pynes, 99.9 percent of drones, or the mating males, in Arizona are tropical — meaning that if you want to be a beekeeper in this state, you had better educate yourself.

“Many of my students don’t yet know, if you’re going to raise bees in Arizona a great majority of them are tropical,” Pynes said. He gestured outside at an apple tree alive with the movement of bees. “I’m pretty sure some of them — most of them — are what we usually refer to as Africanized.”

Pynes highlighted the historical and cultural importance of recognizing how tropical bees came to the Americas. Historically, Apis mellifera, the most common agricultural honey bee, is an import: Before the arrival of Europeans, none existed on North or South America. So, too, prior to the mid-20th century, the Americas were home to no tropical bees.

The unintended introduction of an invasive species that began in Brazil in 1957 produced many effects. To this day, tropical honey bees are considered less desirable than their temperate European varieties.

Regardless, Pynes said that he is “immensely grateful to be a beekeeper.” Moreover, he considers it a possibility that tropical honey bees are a blessing to beekeepers and honey producers. Currently, colony collapse disorder is decimating many temperate European honey bee colonies. Tropical honey bees, however, are flourishing.

“I try to encourage people to get beyond what are some significant fears about this different type of bee,” Pynes said.

Encouraging words aside, Pynes admitted that the danger can be quite real. Colonies of tropical honey bees can be dangerous to anyone near. Deaths can result, and often not because of stings: A typical defensive posture is to find the nose and throat of a threatening animal — humans included — and suffocate that animal by entering those cavities.

Pynes said that he always makes sure the zipper of his face mask is secure. Bees will find the smallest gap and enter there.

“Like water flowing through a pipe, they will find any way in.”


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