24 April 1998

"Mean Gene" Found In Killer Bees

When swarms of killer bees sent shivers down the spines of a whole generation of 1970's movie-goers, they weren't being nasty on purpose. It's just that such bees are genetically programmed to be mean, says a group of scientists at three institutions. The discovery of an "aggressive gene", reported in the March issue of the journal Genetics, explains why Africanized honey bees tend to attack a visual stimulus twenty times faster than European honey bees, depositing about eight times as many stingers in the first thirty seconds.

The discovery "may help us reduce the occurrence of Africanized bees and prevent the spread of the gene to other bee colonies," says Greg Hunt, a bee specialist with the Purdue University Department of Entomology and principal investigator on the research project.

Yet entomologists are keen to stick up for the dreaded killer bees, saying that they are more misunderstood than evil. "It seems like aggression when a bee stings you, but we call it defensive behaviour," says Hunt. "Different insects use various methods to protect themselves from predators. Bee stings are a response to predation by mammals - bee venom is specialised for causing pain in vertebrates."