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'Killer' bees make killer coffee

Buzz from scientists: Bees improve flavor, crop yields

Coffee yields in some places have fallen during the past half century, perhaps, say experts, because more intense farming has taken away habitat for potential pollinators like "killer" bees.  

By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- If you're grateful each morning for the tasty, eye-opening buzz you get from your coffee, then you might have a "killer" bee to thank.

Coffee plants (coffea arabica) are capable of self-pollination, so for a long time researchers did not think insects made much difference to the crop.

But studies now show that when Africanized bees (or killer bees) pollinate coffee plants, yields can increase by more than 50 percent.

David Roubik of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama details the value of bees to the coffee harvest in this week's edition of the journal, Nature.

"When an insect, like the Africanized bee does the pollen transportation, there's a mixing of genes, a widening of the gene pool," said Roubik. "That gives every plant a greater potential to reproduce, and creates beans that are bigger and better tasting."

African honeybees, often dubbed killer bees, were introduced to southern Brazil in 1956 in an effort to create a better honeybee. The bees prospered and soon colonized all of the tropical Americas.

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Their venom is not more toxic than common honeybees, but Africanized bees do hunt down intruders to their territory in large numbers and for long distances. A few dozen humans have been killed since their introduction in the Americas in the mid-1950s. However, it usually takes hundreds of stings to kill a person or large animal.

By 1997, these bees had become major pollinators in Panama. And while they often get a bad rap for their aggressive behavior, farmers and beekeepers are beginning to realize the advantages of the insects, not only to the coffee crop, but to thousands of other species of flowering plants, said Roubik.

There is something of a natural control group available to compare coffee harvests in Central America to similar crops that are not pollinated by the Africanized bees.

In the Caribbean, big coffee producers Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic have virtually no killer bees, and their coffee yields are only about half that of Central America and Mexico.

Bigger harvest

Coffee yields in some places, including Kenya and Indonesia, have fallen during the past half century, perhaps, says Roubik, because more intense farming has taken away habitat for potential pollinators.

A few dozen humans have been killed by "killer" bees since their introduction in the Americas in the mid-1950s. However, it usually takes hundreds of stings to kill a person or large animal.  

When the coffee craze intensified worldwide a few years ago, many farmers turned to sun grown, or technified coffee, clearcutting land to add more plants. But, says Roubik, those plants require more herbicides more pesticides, and don't have the natural protections of shade trees.

Among coffee lovers and environmental groups, there are now efforts to promote organic, shade-grown, and "bird-friendly" coffee crops. Those coffee plants are grown in forest-like habitats, with different species of shade trees and other native plants in abundance. Migratory birds find shelter there during winter months.

Roubik says some farmers who are protecting the habitat for bees, birds and other pollinators are being rewarded with both a bigger harvest and a higher price they can demand for beans.

Shady beans

Sociologist Christopher London, who spent several years studying the economics and ecology of the coffee industry in Colombia, says especially for the poorer farmers in the region, such designations can help them get into markets they might not otherwise have access to.

When insects like "killer" bees do the pollen transportation of coffee, the result is a bigger and better bean, say scientists.  

"Shade coffee is good for quality, and gives a greater consistency to the beans," said London. "It also protects against environmental ups and downs, like frost or drought."

And, say many coffee connoisseurs, shade slows down the maturation of the beans, resulting in a richer, sweeter cup of coffee.

But eco-friendly coffee may not be enough to enlarge or even sustain shade grown coffee farms, said Robert A. Rice, geographer and policy research expert at Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

"There is incredible overproduction now, especially in Vietnam and Indonesia," said Rice. Coffee prices are so low that some Latin American farmers are abandoning their crops, and selling the trees that shaded their coffee for lumber or firewood.

Killer bee expert Roubik says most people are not aware of all the positive things bees are doing for crops and plants.

"Maintain their habitat, and the bees will work for you," said Roubik.


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