The origin story of the “killer bee” is like something straight out of a low-budget disaster movie. It started as a humble attempt to increase honey production during the 1950s and ended in thousands of newly-created killer bees accidentally escaping, amounting in a trail of bee-stung bodies across the Americas.
It all began in a lab near Rio Claro in Brazil around 1957. Biologist Warwick E Kerr was commissioned by the Brazilian government to create a species of bee that produced more honey. European species of honey bees had been introduced to South America but unfortunately, they proved to be fairly unproductive in the sleepy heat of Brazil.
“The European honey bees just sat in the hammock all day drinking lemonade,” Eric Mussen, Emeritus Extension Apiculturist at UC Davis, told IFLScience. “Not having much experience with animal breeding, he [Dr Kerr] thought that if he could introduce into European honey bees some African genes, the result would be a hybrid that would work better at collecting honey in a tropical setting than the temperate-climate European honey bees.”
Kerr and his team eventually created Africanized honey bees, now colloquially known as "killer bees”, through selective breeding of the African honey bee with various European honey bees. Initially, it was a success as the new hybrids seemed to do a much better job of producing honey. There was one big downside, though – they also adopted some extreme colony defense instincts.
Then came the decisive moment. Somehow, under hazy circumstances, thousands of these bees managed to escape.