The Science and Spectacle of the Swarm

How a bee got marked a killer in the crisscrossing narratives of species and the social

Even as we barrel toward ecological crisis, at least we will still have flowers bordering our path. And we’ve got bees to thank for pollinating those flowers! Everyone loves bees! In memetic forms, we’re reminded that they’re “dying at an alarming rate.” Because they’re tiny creatures that give and sustain plant life, our ecosystems could neither flourish nor even survive without bees. More specifically, the western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera) is threatened) and, because of its sweetness (and the sweetness it produces), we enthusiastically advocate for its protection.

Oh, but the “killer bee.” The “killer bee” is a hybridized species created through the crossbreeding of the African honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) with different European bees, like the Italian bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) and the Iberian bee (Apis mellifera iberiensis). Unlike with humans, there are actually multiple races of bees; that is to say, there are taxonomic differences beyond the species level. Races include Italian bees (lighter in color), Russian bees (darker in color), Cordovan bees (a bright-yellow subset of Italian bees), Caucasian bees (a cold-tolerant race with silver-gray or dark-brown coloring), Carniolan bees (a gentle and pliable race that is favorable to beekeepers), Buckfast bees (the archetypal fat, fuzzy honeybee), and a number of others, including, of course, the Africanized bee (which tends to be smaller than the western honeybee but still looks very similar).

Race is a biological reality for some nonhuman animal species in a way that it unequivocally is not for humans. This incongruence arises from efforts to use classifications of the natural world to codify cultural and phenotypical variation amongst humans. While genetic distinction is a biological reality among humans, the color-based racial regime to which the world has become accustomed is an imperial fabrication, a hierarchy imposed through colonial attempts to justify domination and consolidate power. (The white/Black color line in Europe and the United States, for example, was concretized through and used as a means of justifying African chattel slavery.) The reality of human variation is used to claim that race is caused by our DNA—but difference/variation is not race. Our continued investment in the naturalization of race reveals a broader investment in stratification, power, and colonial epistemologies.

It’s colonial experimentation that “Africanized” the western bee. The African honeybee was introduced to the Americas in 1956. The ones that exist in the Western Hemisphere are descendants of the hives kept by Warwick E. Kerr, a geneticist and entomologist who sought to breed bees that would be more efficient honey producers and better suited to the warmer tropical climates of Brazil than European honeybees. Kerr, a white Brazilian scientist of Scottish descent, imported the African subspecies because of its superior capacity for labor and productivity. But the result of this bee husbandry—a facilitated interbreeding not unlike a forced miscegenation—was a hybrid that could not be contained. His apicultural experiment was ruined when 26 African queen bees from Tanzania escaped from his hives in Rio Claro in southeast Brazil and bred with European worker swarms that had also escaped.

Domestication in the context of bees is related to a general Western practice of attempting to enclose, subdue, and harness the natural world to our own symbiotic/selfish ends. The honeybee, with its dutiful devotion to its hive and its familiar division of labor, is “emblematic of domesticity” and lends itself to a natural comparison to humans. “To ‘domesticate’ an animal,” says anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, “is to bring it into the orbit of the human family” and so to anthropomorphize and assign legible humanlike characteristics, behaviors, and intentionality to that animal (beyond clearly evidenced sentience and species’ intelligence). Dogs and cats are also nonhuman animals that exist within Western familial structures: They are humanized animals that we love and so refuse to eat, unlike chickens and pigs and cows. Within European models of domestication and husbandry, “domestication” denotes a nonhuman animal reliance upon humans for survival and reproduction. The notoriously independent bee has the opposite problem: It is an animal that must be tamed, and, even in the human harnessing of its labor for foodstuff production, it is still a bit unpredictable and presents the potential to harm with its sting.

The 26 queen bees from Tanzania are the progenitors of all Africanized bees in the Western hemisphere. The African subject (a Black/blackened subject) breeds and populates the world with more Black subjects. In English civil code, partus sequitur ventrem (“that which is brought forth follows the womb”) defined enslavement as following the status of the mother. If your mother was a slave, then you are a slave; partus designated blackness as an unavoidably hereditary and specifically matrilineal thing. “Africanized” speaks not only to the transatlantic transport and introduction of African species to European hives (and the introduction writ large of the nonindigenous to the New World bee via European colonization) but to an ontological transformation best evidenced by a change in temperament.

In other words, Africanized hybrids are notoriously aggressive: They are quicker to react to hive disturbances, are more likely to sting, and have been known to pursue perceived aggressors up to a quarter of a mile. Their migration northward was not knowingly facilitated by humans, nor did it occur by overland flight; they arrived in the United States in 1985 by hiding in oil-drilling equipment shipped from South America. This migration is the invasive Africanized/racialized swarm your imperial border regime warned you about. This is the northward-ascending migrant-caravan-cum-“ragged, growing army” of Central Americans attempting to illegally cross the southern border of the United States. Such twisted racist immigration discourses are what make the Mediterranean Sea both barrier against and watery graveyard for the African migrants invading Europe. The threat to whiteness is transnational: Fortress Europe, Fortress America, it must all be protected.

Our fears of these bees were canonized by movies like Killer Bees (2002), or The Swarm (1978) before that, and most recently the needlessly sensational headlines when bees “besieged,” “swarmed,” “descended on,” and “took over” a hot-dog stand in Times Square. White fears of displacement manifest as the mythologies about white genocide that traveled from the whitest corners of overwhelmingly Black South Africa to the sympathetic ears and Twitter fingers of the President of the United States. These bees are demographic anxieties and economic anxieties come to [nonhuman animal] life, anxieties only mediated by the reassertion of control over one’s environment. (In such practices as urban beekeeping, this control can come dressed in the assertion of proper stewardship, while also harnessing the power and labor of bees. Industrialized apicultural practice has developed technologies and labor structures, like the so-called “ smart hive,” that allow for bees to be more easily surveilled and managed.)

Images of “the swarm” are singularly focused on the unique terror posed by the Afro-descendancy of the bees as opposed to legitimate interrogation around human-driven ecological manipulation. This is similar to how Bill Gates continues to sell Malthusian rhetorics in Africa disguised as “family planning” and “poverty alleviation” (altogether culling the population of impoverished people through birth prevention) as a means of curbing climate-change-associated resource use. These breeding practices—the subjecting of racialized lesser peoples to practices common to animal husbandry—unite relatively new neoliberal and very old eugenicist impulses of species maximizations and artificial selection with the age-old Western desire to assert full, godlike dominion over land and nature. State enclosure, the evolution of property law, and the concept of private property cannot be delinked from colonial structures that delineate some liberal subjects as property-owning citizens and exclude other subjects from ownership while designating them as objects to be chattelized and disciplined.

In actuality, Africanized bees are no more venomous than traditional European honeybees; they are simply defensive of their hives and their queens. They can be superior honey producers when domesticated and seem to be more resilient to a number of parasites and fungal diseases that have been driving the mass extinction of bees in the United States, including colony-collapse disorder. The reactionary fear of these marginally unique bees has been galvanized by white fictions and paranoid rumors because of the apparent inability to fully bring nature to heel—the analogy is entirely too on the nose.

Continual attempts to defend the biological reality of race reveal the failings of contemporary scientists to reflexively note the geneses of their work. We should object to not simply genetic ancestry tests being exploited by white nationalists to verify their whiteness but rather the entire project that tethers genetic identity to racial identity and to the nation-state (as exemplified and further popularized by the projects of, 23andMe, and even Spotify, which curates a playlist based on the results of your genetic test). We can dissonantly condemn these ethnonationalists while still essentializing racial categories in talking about health outcomes and uncritically report findings of studies that, for example, claim DNA can be used to predict one’s years of formal education—all without juxtaposition alongside the racist history of standardized testing or the eugenicist and prejudicial politics of Charles Murray’s bell curve. The deepest flaw in biologism’s attempt to transpose the ordering logics of the natural world onto human socialities is that so-called scientific objectivity is informed by Eurocentric motivations. To be critical of man’s dominion over nature is also to be critical of man’s attempt to dominate nature and subordinate some humans to the animal-adjacent status of “nonhuman.”

Perhaps this criticism even demands we attempt to understand ourselves beyond the exceptional designations of man and human, which are defined by whiteness and the exiling of otherness(es) to the margins. Beyond practical considerations about how we exploit finite natural resources, this moment of ecological crisis also demands a move beyond the arrogant colonial construct of the “human”: it demands an examination of man’s dominating and environmentally annihilating existence as socially positioned, self-fashioned, and continually reinscribed, as opposed to naturally occurring. We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction. The previous five were the result of natural calamities, and despite the truth than no species is forever, this present extinction is being accelerated almost entirely by the violent colonization that undergirds and coheres industrialization and Western “modernity”/“civilization.” By most climatological accounts, we’ve either reached the “point of no return” for inevitable climate catastrophe or are bounding toward it at what seems like an increasing pace. With these mass species extinctions come the sweeping deaths of pollinators, who are responsible for not only the existence of wild flora but also most of the world’s food crop life. Bees will not survive us, and at this sustained rate, we will not survive ourselves.