August 16, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Experts Were Wrong About Killer Bees

Another doomsday scenario has been debunked: killer bees have calmed down and become nice. How, and why?

We remember the catastrophic predictions a decade ago: killer bees, those mean-spirited Africanized bees that escaped a lab in Puerto Rico during a hurricane were on the march northward. Deaths would skyrocket from terror swarms of hyperactive “killer bees” attacking people who happened to disturb them innocently. Beekeepers would have tough times controlling them. And as the swarms of killer bees dominated the more docile European bees introduced into America, crops would suffer because of their less effective pollination. Scientists watched helplessly as they migrated north and west at a measurable rate. There was nothing we could do to stop them. North America was doomed.

News of the bees’ advance was intermingled with tales of their legendary aggression. The truth didn’t need much embellishment. When European bees are provoked, about 10 per cent of hive members will attack, but these hybrid bees often retaliate en masse, emptying the hive in swarms of up to 800,000 individuals. They will give chase for up to half a kilometre and are content to wait it out if their target attempts to hide underwater, continuing the barrage of stings when the victim resurfaces for air. Some people have died in such attacks, not because the bees’ venom is particularly potent, but due to the sheer number of stings.

Hollywood followed suit with horror films about killer bees. Here we are, a decade later, and you rarely hear about them. What happened? New Scientist says the “killer bees” evolved into “chiller bees” in just one decade! Therein lies a test case for theories about evolution and design (and expert’s warnings about doomsday scenarios).

Surprised Evolutionists

First, let’s examine the reactions of evolutionists. If this is evolution, it’s not making much of a buzz. For one thing, it happened a lot quicker than a mutation-selection mechanism would expect. For another thing, it represents a reversal to a mean. Africanized bees presumably became aggressive where they lived; multiple environmental factors from other animals threatened their hives, requiring overwhelming response. Once they broke loose in the western hemisphere, threats diminished, and their behavior “evolved” accordingly. Finally, Africanized bees, a subspecies of Apis mellifera (the European honeybee), hybridize easily with European honeybees and are physiologically indistinguishable from them. Some evolution.

Ben Turner writes about the surprise of one bee zoologist (apiarist), Tugrul Giray, who collected Africanized bees in Puerto Rico, expecting the bee version of a terrorism attack:

“The weird thing is that we were going up these trees expecting some kind of a fight on our hands,” he says. “We wanted to collect the baddest bees. But they were really just as sweet as can be.” This wasn’t the exception – Giray kept finding hive after docile hive everywhere he looked. Wondering whether the insects might be remnants of the island’s European bees, he decided to carry out some genetic tests. “Even the nicest colonies turned out to be of mixed African and European descent,” he says. “It was a total surprise.” ….

Giray’s bafflement grew. “We tried to scientifically measure their aggressiveness by kicking the hive or throwing a brick at it,” he says. “Some of them even had zero response. They didn’t want to sting at all.” These insects looked like hybrid bees, but they didn’t act like them. Giray was forced to conclude that, sometime during the decade since their arrival, the once-vicious killers had evolved into bees as docile as their European cousins.

The evolutionists appeal to multiple factors that might have contributed to this rapid evolution: (1) Human selection: people destroyed the most aggressive hives. (2) Hurricane selection: winds favored the bees that didn’t waste time attacking but stayed in the hive. (3) Habitat: with scarcer resources in Puerto Rico, bees had to concentrate on foraging instead of terror.

None of these explanations, singly or in combination, represent Darwinian evolution by mutation and natural selection. One can almost see providence in the outcome, which is so much better than the doomsday predictions:

The likelihood is that all these factors played a part. What is truly amazing is that the bees have evolved incredibly rapidly, yet have retained an enormous amount of genetic variation even though their numbers have crashed on several occasions…. The result is a remarkable creature that isn’t just docile, but resistant to disease and good at producing honey.

That was in Puerto Rico, where the trouble had started. In America, apiarists were struggling with “colony collapse disorder” caused by the varroa mite and its pathogens. Now, Americans wanted to import those chilled-out killer bees from Puerto Rico.

Who knows what the next chapter of this story will bring. But when the protagonist is an insect that has transformed from a killer to a potential saviour in the blink of an evolutionary eye, anything seems possible.

The so-called “killer bees” are still a problem in some areas. A California woman was stung 200 times in 2018, reports CNN. Yet such attacks are significant for their rarity, given the hype from decades ago. Africanized bees are not more venomous than other bees; they just tend to attack in larger numbers with more persistence. Given the experience in Puerto Rico, it appears that through hybridization and environmental differences, the behavior of this strain will quiet down in due time.

Darwin Storytelling

For the remainder of the article, Ben Turner struggles with various explanations for the unexpected rapid evolution of the killer bee. Hybridization with more docile bees is certainly a factor, but that ran contrary to predictions. The killer bee trait was supposed to be dominant.

This combination of haplodiploidy and high mutation rates creates enormous genetic diversity in colonial insects. It is this that allows the colony to respond rapidly, and with nuance, to subtle alterations in the environment – as if it were a single organism. In Puerto Rico, the environment seems to have favoured active foragers over aggressive individuals and the drive to change was so strong that it happened in just a few years.

Those interested in learning about the “haplodiploid” sex “strategy” for surviving can read Turner’s explanation. But any explanation dependent on the Stuff Happens Law turns into a case of special pleading: things turned out the way they did because evolution works in a variety of ways (see Darwin Flubber). Turner turns the environment into an intelligent agent and ratches up the perhapsimaybecouldness index: “the environment seems to have favoured active foragers,” he says. And in this special case, “the drive was so strong that it happened in just a few years.” In short, evolution is fast, except when it is slow. The environment is a selector, except when it drives a species extinct.

Engineered Adaptability

Randy Guliuzza has another idea. In his series on “Engineered Adaptability” at ICR, he has been developing design arguments from engineering principles. A good engineer, he argues, plans ahead for unforeseen eventualities. A good part of robotics involves planning for contingencies. If you build a Mars rover, for instance, you want it to be able to keep its solar panels aimed at the sun if it gets turned around or goes into shadow. The rover needs to recognize cliffs and avoid them, and so on. In countless ways, plants and animals encounter environmental changes that, if not planned for ahead of time, would drive them extinct.

The environment has no power to “select” random mutations so that an animal or plant can adapt to a change, Guliuzza explains. That ability needs to be preprogrammed by a guiding intelligence. Guliuzza gives many examples in addition to modeling theoretically how this could be done, drawing on well-known engineering principles such as optimization and robustness. His series uses strictly arguments from intelligent design, although it works well with Biblical creationism.

In a related vein, Dr Marcos Eberlin, a Brazilian chemist and world expert on mass spectrometry, identifies numerous examples throughout nature, from the fine-tuning of molecules to human physiology that show evidence of foresight and planning. One example that sounds gross—diarrhea—can actually be seen as a “power wash” of the intestines when invaded by bad bacteria. That system had to be designed in advance for a situation likely to happen in a changing environment. But a consequence of diarrhea is that good bacteria get flushed out, too. That was foreseen also with the design of the appendix, which resupplies the gut with good bacteria required for digestion. His book Foresight: How the Chemistry of Life Reveals Planning and Purpose, explains the thesis as an argument for intelligent design, with many examples.

The design arguments of Guliuzza and Eberlin can account for many adaptations visible in the world through design, not natural selection. It explains why similar flowers have different colors or traits depending on elevation. It accounts for pattern changes on butterflies, coat colors and fur lengths on mammals, and sizes and shapes of similar animals. Probably most of the animals alive today don’t look exactly like the created kinds (many, in fact, are smaller). Michael Behe argues in his new book Darwin Devolves, however, that adaptable changes appear limited to the genus and species; the “edge of evolution” (the limit to what it can accomplish) is at the family level. That’s “small change,” he argues, compared to the massive changes Darwinism would have to account for on the march from bacteria to man. He compares genus and species changes to the cents columns in transactions of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the IRS, he quips, allows you to round off the cents. So don’t be surprised at variations at the genus and species level. The real hard work for Darwinism is evolving the higher levels: family, order, class, phylum, kingdom and domain.

Published March 1, 2019


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