EDITORIAL: New threat

Bees’ lives hard enough without murder hornets

America’s honeybees can’t seem to get a break.

From the time Africanized bees started swarming into the United States through Hidalgo County in 1990, millions of the little critters have been killed or usurped by the intruders. Today, most bees in this country are hybrids of the original Western honeybee and the African lowland bee.

Even before then, parasitic mites began attacking U.S. bee colonies in the mid-1980s. Since then they have faced parasites, pesticides, disease and other threats. After 2006 beekeepers started reporting a mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.

At the time the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that about one-fourth of the entire bee population was killed off every year. Some keepers said the real number was closer to one-third.

But they’ve always bounced back.

Now bees face a new attacker: murder hornets.

The large, stout Asian pests have appeared in northern California and southwest Canada. They invade and massacre the bees, then take their carcasses back to their own hives to feed their young. The hornets have hard, thick shells that honeybees’ stingers can’t penetrate.

Beekeepers and other agricultural interests worry that if the hornets spread throughout this country they could irreparably harm our honeybee populations, and wreak havoc on our entire agriculture industry.

Honeybees pollinate most agricultural products we enjoy today. The fields of broccoli and cauliflower, melons and citrus products we see along Rio Grande Valley highways, and the products they provide, depend on pollination. Other insects, such as butterflies and moths, also pollinate, but not with the speed and efficiency of the honeybees. Without the bees our agricultural production would be greatly reduced, and the costs greatly increased.

Not to mention the wax and honey we also would lose.

The murder hornets have spurred the predictable alarm filled reports warning of devastation in our agricultural industry. However, perhaps because of all the threats our bees have survived in the past, we aren’t ready to panic.

Even before the African bee invasion, the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Texas AgriLife Extension Service, which has a Weslaco office, have worked to preserve and protect bees and other beneficial insects while seeking organic ways to fight the invaders.

Beekeepers also have learned to split their hives, each with its own queen, to replenish their numbers.

Most importantly, the bees themselves have shown amazing adaptability — and intelligence. While their natural defenses can’t compete with the hornets’, bees in Japan have learned to surround invading hornets, then flutter their wings rapidly until they raise the temperature enough to kill — essentially bake — the invaders.

The murder hornet, with its scary name, surely warrants concern. Based on their proven resilience, however, our money is on the smart little bees.