National Geographic : 1976 Apr
clearing land. "We protect our people with heavy suits and veils. But it is so hot, the people take them off. This is how they are killed. Bees make land clearing expensive. The workers demand more money." Honey Hunters' Defense: Alcohol Oddly, the African bee has brought to northern Brazil one of the most primitive forms of livelihood: A number of peasants have become meleiros-wild-honey hunters. Francisco Soares da Costa (page 500) lives in grim poverty with at least a dozen children and grandchildren in a mud hut near Aracati. He explained how, during the four-month honey season, he uses smoke to chase the bees away from their nests long enough for him to extract their honey. Often meleiros begin their day by drinking. Alcohol, they allege, counteracts the forty or more stings they receive going after a colony. "Sometimes my husband comes home stung so badly he has fever all night," Francisco's wife, Maria, told me. For his efforts Francisco harvests some 130 gallons of honey a season. He can sell that for about 100 dollars-most of his income for the year. Francisco's hardships so moved Bianca that as soon as she returned from Brazil she sent him a bee suit. As the wild bees have moved northward, the perils have subsided in southern Brazil, where stories of terror and stinging death are now largely memories. Commercial beekeep ers have moved their hives far from populous areas. Many wild colonies have been eradi cated. And, as the Africanized bee has con tinued to cross with the European, the former has grown markedly less aggressive. The cooler climate, also, may have helped tone down its temper. Many beekeepers now praise the very bee they cursed five years ago. They have dis covered that some African genes are good for honey production. "The Africanized bee is the only one I want now," said Dr. Paulo Sommer, president of the Beekeepers' Association of Parana. "It gives me twice as much honey." Thus the Africanized bee promises to be come a new resource not only for Brazil, but also for many lean and hungry lands through out the tropical and subtropical world. But it can still be aggressive. The beekeep ers usually wear bee suits and veils now and practice continual genetic selection. When ever a hive becomes overly aggressive, the beekeeper replaces its queen with a gentler one. The apiary queens often mate with Africanized drones from the bush, and after several generations the African traits fre quently build up too strongly. Africanized bees are physically almost identical to European bees, yet even my un trained eye could tell that the bees in Dr. Sommer's apiary, like all bees in Brazil Flower-bright boulder proclaims a "City of the Bees" (right), a Brazilian apicultural center near south-coast Florian6polis de signed to encourage beekeeping. In northern Brazil a veiled and canvas-covered doll used in teaching bee-protection techniques in trigues a young visitor (left). Despite incon venience in handling high-strung swarms, apiarists recognize the higher honey output of Africanized bees. They sometimes double the amount made by European strains. Hives at the bees' point of origin in southern Brazil become gentler with succeeding gen erations, a possible effect of the crossbreed ing programs that eliminate the fiercest swarms. Barriers of cold in the United States may halt the northward spread of the easily provoked insects; Africanized bees winter poorly in low temperatures.