A Bad Buzz From Brazil

Don't tell the hundreds of people in Latin America who have been attacked by Africanized ("killer") bees, but some entomologists think the hysteria surrounding the bees' arrival in Texas last October is a lot of buzz over nothing. The bees are fugitives from a 1956 experiment. In that year, scientist Warwick Kerr imported 132 queen bees from Africa to Brazil in an attempt to boost honey production. Some escaped, and their progeny have been spreading north ever since. But while the Africanized bees are "unquestionably more aggressive" than the standard European honeybee, says entomologist Roger Morse of Cornell University, "their venom is no different and they're certainly no more deadly." The bum rap comes from a press release issued by the Brazilian military 34 years ago. To discredit Kerr, who criticized their human-rights abuses, the military called the escapees "killer bees," and the phrase stuck.

Africanized bees may actually be good business. In Brazil, hybrids formed by crossing them with standard bees produce more honey than their wimpish European cousins. And since they're resistant to a mite-borne bee disease that almost wiped out the American industry in the 1980s, Morse says it makes sense to bring more to the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn't convinced. In Texas, its agents have been killing all they find.