The man who created the killer bees


September 9 marks 95 years of Warwick Estevem Kerr , the man who created the Africanized bees , better known as "killer bees." Like its bees, Kerr comes from the hot, tropical lands of Brazil. And, like his bees, Dr. Kerr unfairly slandered and misunderstood in the popular press. But Kerr did probably help his country’s agriculture more than any other person.

When we first learned about Africanized honey bees in the 1970s, they were described as killer bees (in Brazil they were called assassins). The man who brought African honeybees to South America was turned into a mysterious demon who "disappeared from public view" after he "freed the killer bees". He really disappeared for a while. He was in prison. But not for the reason you are thinking about. But first, let's find out the background.

What was the crime of Kerr?

Dr. Warwick Kerr brought Africanized genetic material to South America in 1956. From today's point of view, the import of a foreign creature from another continent seems terribly reckless. But in those days there was nothing surprising in the import of bees from Africa. Honeybees living in the Americas are already imported from other places. They were not in the western hemisphere. Secondly, Kerr did not bring a new look. The African bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) is a close relative of the common European honeybee, Apis mellifera iberiensis, already living in Brazil at the time of the arrival of the African queen bee. The importation by Kerr of 26 queen bees from Tanzania can be compared to the importation of the Clydesdale horse-carrying heavy horse long after the Arab and Morgan breeds were formed. Kerr wanted to improve non-tropic honey bees used by farmers in Brazil. He correctly assumed that tropical genetic material would fit better into the atmosphere of a tropical country.

The spoiled reputation of Warwick Kerr is indebted to the Brazilian government. Although he was a geneticist and at first he was entrusted with the creation of improved bees for Brazilian farmers, the country's military dictatorship went against Kerr's civil rights. He was imprisoned in 1964 when he publicly fought against government corruption. In 1969, he was again arrested, this time for a protest related to the fact that Brazilian soldiers who allegedly raped and tortured a nun, went unpunished. Sister Maurina Borges, who ran the Ribeirão Preto orphanage, was an activist. Soldiers belonged to a military dictatorship and committed crimes promoted by the Brazilian government. For the most part, the Western press did not bother to investigate the reasons why the Brazilian government rejected Kerr's work, as well as questions about his qualifications and his conclusions.

Clown making

All this does not care about people writing on this topic. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a blog advertising the book Animal Review: Reporting. The writer calls Dr. Kerr a clown:
It is strange and regrettable that there is no Nobel Prize in science for very big mistakes. Such an international award could be presented annually in Stockholm by a sad clown in a bathrobe and goggles, encouraging scientists to do something at least once. Brazilian geneticist Warwick Estevem Kerr would be great for this nomination. It was Mr Kerr who introduced Africanized honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) to the Americas. Oops. Enter the clowns.

Dr. Kerr did not immediately realize the full depth of the slip. He was a brilliant geneticist, and therefore ingeniously suggested that the queen bee fled from Africa will interbreed with wild bees and dilute their notorious aggressiveness.

But from the advantages it can be noted that Africanized honey bees pollinate plants, and these plants are extremely important for agriculture, etc. etc.

Warwick Estevam Kerr, score - 1 point

Practically everything that is written in this story was not so, but I added it to illustrate how the popular press treated Dr. Kerr - as a clown deserving of 1 point. But it is precisely the lazy journalists who deserve a big and fat 1 point.

Another example: National Geographic’s blunders, portraying Dr. Kerr in his 2006 documentary film The Killer Bee Attack. "It is incredible that the origin of nearly a trillion killer bees can be traced back in time to one person." NG said that in Africa Kerr “chose the best representatives of the species, but noticed something unpleasant” (at this moment the actor playing Kerr portrays that he was bitten by a bee's finger and shouts “Oh!”. “Dr. Kerr was wrong. Seriously wrong. And the western hemisphere is still paying an exorbitant price for it. ” Convincing text, despite the fact that it does not correspond to reality.

Also in this fantasy from NG there are evil Africans selling Kerr "deadly" bees - a terrible racism on the part of NG, but this is a topic for another story. I attached a video to the article. In the 3rd minute, Kerr prepares to leave Africa. But don't watch this movie for more than a couple of minutes.

Killer bees

Warwick Kerr is responsible for transferring African genetic material to Brazil in 1956. He was a geneticist and wanted to improve the health and endurance of the European honeybee that arrived to them from Portugal in 1834. The European breed was poorly adapted to the tropics, so in the 1880s Italian honeybees (Apis mellifera ligustica) were imported there, but this did not improve the situation much. Some of these weak bees were kept by farmers, as well as monks, in order to collect wax for church candles.

In 1956, European bees produced only 7 million kg of honey in Brazil annually. Brazilian agriculture expanded, and it needed a tropical honeybee to pollinate and produce honey. After the arrival of African bees, honey production increased to 50 million kg. In the list of world producers of honey, Brazil has moved from 43rd to 7th place. By 1994, the LA Times wrote: "Honey production in Brazil took off after evil invaders settled in the hives there." Today, most of the world's honey is produced by Africanized honeybees in remote forests of Brazil. This honey is twice organic - it is produced in places untouched by pesticides, and is produced by Africanized hives with natural immunity to varro mites, therefore the chemicals from the mites in these colonies are not used.

Honeybees with African genes are more aggressive than European ones. Beekeepers in Brazil had to learn the appropriate technology to work with them. And although their poison is no different, in case of danger to the colony, more bees go on the attack. There have been deaths of people from a large number of bites. These deaths are sad, and the story of Dr. Kerr should not diminish personal tragedies. Some properties of Africanized bees that made them exceptional pollinators (improved sense of smell, accelerated movements, the ability to fly in bad weather, improved navigation abilities) increase the chance of a bite on their part. However, farmers and beekeepers can manage them. Bees can not be called random killers.

Deciphering the floor of the stingless bees

First, Warwick Kerr worked with melipons , stingless bees, instead of honeybees. Some Brazilian poor and aborigines collected wild honey - they are called Meleira. The municipality of Meleiro is located in an isolated rural area, and is named after meleir, which in turn is named after the honey trees where melipons live. The population of Meleir is 7,000 people, but their risky occupation, which includes raids on the homes of Melipon, worried Dr. Kerr in the 1940s. He hoped that his work would draw attention to the importance of conserving the melipons, their habitats, and the people who fed on their honey. Kerr realized that if he could understand and help the melipon, then this would help the melirams.

Melipona quadrifasciata

Melipona quadrifasciata are eusocial boneless bees originating from the southeastern coast of Brazil. Meleira call them "Mandachay", which means "excellent guard", because the narrow entrance to the colony is always protected by bee guards. Brazilian melipons build mud hives inside hollow trees. They make narrow passages through which only one bee can crawl. These stingless bees can bite painfully, but their complex system of passages protects them from predators.

Kerr's first influential work, The Genetic Definition of Melipon Castes, of 1949, described the production of male and female, as well as working individuals, in Brazilian ruthless bees. Kerr discovered that their caste development was different from that of honey bees. In both species, the drones are haploid , but the female melipons are a bit more complicated.
In Apis mellifera, “the larva grows into the uterus or into the worker, depending on the food it receives. The Melipon caste is determined genetically. Fertile females (uterus) are heterozygous , and some individuals have two, and sometimes three pairs of genes, and homozygosity makes them individual workers. ”
- Kerr, 1949

In exotic Melipona quadrifasciata alleles (half of the gene that controls heredity, say, 'b' in the 'Bb' gene) determine the caste. Drones are haploid and possess one set of chromosomes; diplomas uteri and workers (two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent), but uterus have specific specific heterozygous alleles (for example, AaBb), and workers have identical, homozygous genes that determine caste (AABB, AAbb, aaBB or aabb ). If it's hard for you to perceive, imagine how difficult it was with the technologies of the 1940s.


Real Warwick Kerr

Kerr was born in Sao Paulo in 1922 into a middle-class family with Scottish roots. He received a degree in agricultural engineering, and then began to specialize in genetics. For decades he worked as an entomologist, and his research included the genetics of honeybees and local Brazilian bees.

Over his doctoral thesis, Warwick Ker worked at the University of California, Davis (1951), and then at Columbia University in New York, under the guidance of the famous Soviet and American genetics of Russian origin, Theodosius G. Dobrzhansky . One of the influential works of Kerr "Experimental study of the frequency distribution of gene occurrence in extremely small populations of fruit flies " quotes Dobrzhansky as an adviser and co-author. This study of fruit flies was conducted in 1954, and the work of one of the first to deal with the emerging field of genetic statistics. As a result, Kerr has already published 620 research papers in his 60-year career.

Warwick Kerr is mainly responsible for initiating genetic research in Brazil. He was director of the National Institute of Amazonia Research and worked at the University of São Paulo. Later, in the Maranyansk State University, he established a department of biology and worked as a dean of the university.

Warwick Kerr says that his most important work was the training of institute staff, technicians, teachers and researchers. At the University of São Paulo, he created a department of genetics dealing with entomological and human genetics and using mathematical biology and biostatistics. Kerr is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences (formerly the Third World Academy of Sciences) and the US National Academy of Sciences.

I'll finish with a small video shot four years ago. It shows that the interests of Kerr have shifted toward botany. The language of the film is Portuguese, but even if you don't know it, you can get a general idea of ​​the enthusiasm and curiosity of Warwick Kerr.


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