For the Love of Bees

How a Mexican Group Teamed Up with Authorities to Save Bee Populations

Increased killer bee sightings in southern Mexico has resulted in the destruction of many hives and colonies. To help preserve them, an organization has partnered with local government authorities.

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — A loud buzzing drowns out all other sounds as a giant ball comprising more than 3,000 bees moves around a lamppost in a busy plaza.

A crowd of people eyes the bees. Some decide to find shelter. Others stay, waiting for someone to show up and put an end to the danger.

A few adventurous people move closer to the swarm. They discuss options for getting rid of the bees: fire, smoke, insecticide. Ultimately, they decide to call Protección Civil, this area’s civil protection unit.

Once the call is placed, an emergency operator locates María Teresa Ramírez Zárate, a member of the organization Amo y Rescato Abejas. In English, their name means, “I love and rescue bees.”

The situation is serious. The bees must be dealt with before someone is hurt.

Here in southern Mexico, where people fear bees that they say have become bigger and more dangerous in recent years, extermination of colonies and destruction of hives is common.

Worldwide, there’s a well-documented decline among pollinators. Among them are honeybees, the often relatively docile foragers.

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Those aren’t the bees causing fear in southern Mexico. The bees that swarmed the lamppost in San Cristóbal de las Casas are called Africanized bees – also known as killer bees. They are known for aggression and propensity to sting at a much higher rate than European honeybees. Killer bees in attack mode don’t give up: They’re able to chase a human for up to a quarter of a mile.

In San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Amo y Rescato Abejas aims to ensure that those bees aren’t exterminated but instead are safely relocated.

African bees first came to the region in 1956, after researchers from Brazil introduced Apis mellifera scutellata queens – the African honey bee – with the aim of strengthening honey production processes in America, according to reports published in Veterinaria México, the veterinarian studies magazine published by major public research university Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Some of those specimens escaped and formed colonies with bees of European origin. This led to a hybrid form of bee, now commonly known as the killer bee.

Now, the increase in sightings of killer bee populations is connected at least partly to deforestation, as the killer bees are fierce competitors for dwindling resources shared between pollinators, according to research published in the journal Biotropica.

Meanwhile, researchers worry about declining populations of bumblebees and other pollinators – a decline primarily attributed to deforestation.

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Mexico has had a program to control killer bees since 1984. Omar Argüello Nájera, a researcher at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, says the program includes training for beekeepers and civil protection agencies on how to manage bee populations.

Ramírez Zárate was one of the first members of Amo y Rescato Abejas when it formed in 2017. From the start, the group’s goal was to protect bees from extermination by Protección Civil, based on an experience Ramírez Zárate had.

Ramírez Zárate is a therapist and maintains a beehive for apitherapy, or the practice of making medicine from bee products, including honey and venom. She lives in a sparsely-populated part of the city and uses smoke to manage the beehive that she keeps on her balcony.

“One time when we were checking it, a few of them flew away and stung some workers and they called civil protection,” she says. “I was super anxious because I knew they were going to come and they were going to take [the bees] away from me, or they were going to kill them.”

Ramírez Zárate says she spoke with the civil protection agents about her hive, but still had to improve her safety strategies for managing it.

Now, her volunteer team at Amo y Rescato Abejas works closely with the civil protection unit to protect bee populations. They respond to emergency calls that come through the unit when people spot killer bees and work with beekeepers who have experience rescuing colonies and controlling swarms.

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Inti Contreras Escamilla, a Protección Civil member, says her organization doesn’t train its members to manage bees. The group’s alliance with Amo y Rescato Abejas opens the possibility that killer bees can be saved instead of exterminated, Contreras says.

In the past, she says, Protección Civil might have trapped the bees and released them in nearby forests. But those swarms sometimes returned to the same place where they first caused alarm, she adds. Amo y Rescato Abejas takes the bees to beekeepers who know how to keep them long-term.

Octavio Roblero Quiñonez, a beekeeper, says he houses about eight rescued beehives. He says he collaborates closely with Amo y Rescato Abejas.

“It is an exchange and mutual support that is born out of the love of bees,” he says. “I lend them equipment, we have exchanged information, I share rescue techniques and I get rescued bees.”

Amo y Rescato Abejas also has its own apiary where it shelters rescued bees and keeps them out of the city center, where they would likely cause alarm.

“Our principal objective is that people transform the image they have of killer bees,” Ramírez Zárate says. “For us, it’s crucial that people fall in love with bees, that they know all the work bees do, that they know how important they are for maintaining ecosystems, that everyone love and protect bees.”

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.