WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) — If it weren’t true, the history of the Africanized honey bee would sound like the plot from a B horror film.
A 1956 research experiment with African bees in Brazil goes wrong, releasing the bees into the wild. The African bees mate with European honey bees – the bees most commonly seen in North Carolina – to produce Africanized honey bees. Those bees, sometimes called “killer bees” because of their aggressive tendencies, start moving north at 300 miles per year.
Flash forward to November 1989. Workers at the Port of Morehead City unloading an office trailer shipped from Honduras find a feral swarm of bees in the sub-flooring. Former state apiarist Logan Williams goes to the port and makes the first verified report of Africanized honey bees in North Carolina.
The only other verified report of Africanized honey bees in the state comes just two years later, in 1991, at the Port of Wilmington.
The N.C. Africanized Honey Bee Action Plan, updated in 2011, lists the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City – only 100 miles apart – as being at high risk for the bees. The plan was created as a joint effort of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and N.C. State University.
“Although it is difficult to predict if, how, when, and where, it is speculated that the AHB (Africanized honey bee) will become established in the state at some point in the near future,” the plan says.
The bees are established in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, Nevada and, most recently, southern Florida, the plan says. A U.S. Department of Agriculture map tracking the progress of the bees from 1990 to 2011 also shows the bees in New Mexico, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Commercial beekeeper Barry Harris of Wilmington recently told the New Hanover County Board of Health that Wilmington “is the next great epicenter for Africanized bees.”
New Hanover County Commissioner Rick Catlin, who sits on the board of health, also expressed concern about the potential spread of the bees.
“I think we need to look at the Africanized bees issue,” Catlin said. “I think that could hurt our quality of life here.”
Dr. Michael Goins, chairman of the board of health, said it’s not a question of if we’re going to have Africanized bees. “We’re going to have them.”
According to the action plan, North Carolina began preparing in 1987 for the eventual arrival of the Africanized honey bees by first setting up “bee-free zones” around the state ports. Managed bees – those kept by beekeepers in hives – are not permitted in the zones, encompassing a 2-mile radius around each port.
Since no other bee colonies were allowed within the zones, surveys of the area were simplified and it was quickly determined that the 1987 and 1989 Africanized bee incidents at the ports were isolated, according to the plan.
Don Hopkins, the state apiarist, or head bee inspector, said the N.C. Department of Agriculture has a policy of coordinating with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on maintaining the bee-free zones, and that APHIS had bee traps set up at the ports to monitor for Africanized bees.
“Since 9/11, APHIS has undergone a priority shift and that hasn’t been one of their higher priorities,” Hopkins said.
He said the focus of those keeping watch for Africanized bees has shifted from ports to highways, as commercial beekeepers from states where the bees have footholds transport bees for pollination through North Carolina.
“Now that Africanized bees have moved into other states, there’s as much probability that they’ll move in on I-40,” Hopkins said, quickly adding that he didn’t mean the part of the cross-country interstate highway that ends in Wilmington.
Florida, which is dealing with an Africanized honey bee invasion of its own, created an action plan in the mid-2000s. The introduction alone would make for a fine sequel to that B horror flick:
“The Africanized honey bees left the borders of Brazil in 1957. In South and Central America, Africanized honey bees disrupted agriculture, beekeeping, tourism, recreation and public life in general. Hundreds of people and animals lost their lives and many more were injured.”
Flash forward to 2012. Hopkins and other members of the state’s Africanized honey bee advisory committee are preparing to meet to discuss the latest threat – the discovery of a suspect colony in Tennessee, the first state contiguous to North Carolina to have such a report.
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