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To Bee or Not to Bee

Puerto Rico seemed to hold the key to saving the world’s honeybees—until a giant storm blew hope away

EVOLUTION

COURTESY OF NASA

IT’S A KILLER MYSTERY WITHOUT A KILLER. THE astonishing die-off of honeybees over the past decade is a problem no one knows how to solve, but the key might rest in Puerto Rico, where the so-called “killer bee” spontaneously became gentle. This remarkable evolutionary leap could hold the secret to restoring the global bee population—unless Hurricane Maria kills off these benign “killers.”

The strange story begins around 400 years ago. When European settlers came to the Americas in the 1600s, they brought their bee colonies. Because North America has a temperate climate similar to Europe’s, the bees thrived there. But other settlers—and their bees—went to South America, which has a tropical climate. There, the bees grew weak and became vulnerable to parasites and disease.

For years, beekeepers wondered if a genetic infusion could build a better bee in South America. In the 1950s, Brazilian researchers brought in a tropical bee from Africa that was carefully quarantined and introduced into an experimental breeding program.

The scheme both worked and didn’t. “The catch was that they were tropically adapted and very strong, healthy, vigorous bees—but also very aggressive,” Gene Robinson, director of the Illinois Bee Research Facility, tells Newsweek. “The scientists back then said, ‘Well, we’ll be able to control them, we’ll carefully monitor and contain them and see whether we can diminish the aggression with selective breeding.’”

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