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The buzz on killer bees

Saturday, March 6, 2004 - Page F8

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The scariness of bees is generally a function of how much they sting. This explains the shock/horror generated by the announcement that hordes of Africanized honey bees, accidentally released in Brazil in the 1950s, had made their way to the southern United States by 1990.

Not only did these aggressive insects elbow out long-established varieties, but they also attacked without provocation and pursued potential victims over long distances.

Would "killer bees" quickly take over all of North America as the European honey bee had done a few hundred years before? Apparently not. The inevitable march northward seems to have stalled. Today, the bees are found only in Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas.

While winter is probably one reason, another barrier seems to be rainfall. A recent U.S. study suggests that, for reasons not well understood, when an area receives about 1,400 millimetres of rain over the year, the African bees don't move into it.

While this may be good news, other research has cast a pall on what was hoped to be the equivalent of a genetic Berlin Wall to the bees' spread. Scientists reasoned that if Africanized bees mated with the far more numerous European bees, the bees' aggressive traits would be diluted out of existence.

This has not proved to be the case, and one reason seems to be that European honey bee queens appear to be partial to Africanized bee sperm. If a European queen bee mates at the same time with an African bee and one of her own kind, within a generation 80 to 90 per cent of her offspring are Africanized.

Add to this fact that the African bees are particularly adept at moving into the hives of European bees and replacing the queen with one of their own, and you are left with one of nature's ever-present contradictions. Thus, the killer bees seem to be simultaneously staying put and taking over.

In the news

U.S. scientists say they have found that the use of an edible, invisible, antimicrobial film coated over chickens significantly reduces the number of certain microbes that cause food poisoning.

A jellyfish gene has been inserted into an African butterfly to create the world's first transgenic butterfly. The idea is not to produce a franken-flying-insect, but to tag various butterfly genes with the gene that produces the jellyfish's fluorescent light. One hope is that the light marker will make clearer the obscure relationship between butterfly genetics and their dazzling wing colours.

A study of the groundwater lying underneath the Sahara indicates that it isn't staying still but is flowing northward at a rate of one to two metres a year. The same study says it was laid down 200,000 to a million years ago.

On the Web

Last week's front-page account in The Globe and Mail of how confused 164 Canadian college students were about the definition of sex brought to mind the groundbreaking sexual studies of Alfred Kinsey's in the 1940s and 50s. Regardless of what people thought about what they were doing, Dr. Kinsey put a nakedly statistical face on the then-taboo subject.

At{tilde}kinsey/research/ak-data.html#Scope, highlights from Dr. Kinsey's surveys of more than 11,000 men and women are featured. While 40 per cent of men preferred to have a light on while having sex, only 19 per cent of women were sexually visually oriented. Dr. Kinsey reported that there was virtually no part of the human body that wasn't a turn-on to some section of the population. There are linkages at the site to later sexual studies, including one that tells you what you always suspected but never quite believed. More than half the men surveyed in 1994 fantasized about having sex once a day or several times a day. The comparable figure is 19 per cent in women.

There's no indication whether anyone considered thinking about having sex the same thing as actually having sex.

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