Africanized Bee Scientist Dies

Revered as a humanitarian and scientist, Kerr was also blamed for the introduction of aggressive Africanized bees to the Americas.


Brazilian entomologist Warwick Estevam Kerr died on September 15 in São Paulo at age 96. Kerr leaves behind a complicated legacy, on the one hand maligned for the introduction of aggressive Africanized bees in the Americas and on the other revered in his homeland as a humanitarian.

Upon his death, the city of Manaus in the state of Amazonas observed three days of official mourning as a tribute to Kerr’s work in improving the welfare of the people in the rainforest, and the Brazilian media honored his legacy in Brazilian science, research, economy, and education. 

“It’s really interesting to see the important media outlets talking about [Kerr’s] death and how big a loss it is for the country, not just for science,” says Cristiano Menezes of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, a government agency. He was Kerr’s last student at the Federal University of Uberlândia.

“He was a fantastic, high-quality researcher, a fantastic human being, [and] with his personality he would make people around him better citizens,” Menezes tells The Scientist

He was upset and felt responsible, so we began to study the behavior of these bees to better manage them.

—Lionel Segui Gonçalves

Born on September 9, 1922 in São Paulo, Kerr was originally trained as a plant breeder at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ) of the University of São Paulo. His PhD was on a Brazilian native stingless bee species, and after graduating in 1947, he continued his work on those bees until he was awarded a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1951 to work at Colombia University with geneticists Theodosius Dobzhansky and Sewall Wright. Upon returning to ESALQ in 1954 and until he left the institution in 1958 to start a biology department at the State University of São Paulo, Kerr was laying the foundations for his future contributions to the Brazilian agronomy. 

During this time, he was in search of more-productive pollinators because the European bees that were often imported into Brazil from Portugal were not good enough in the Brazilian environment. This led Kerr to Africa. He travelled to Tanzania and South Africa in 1956 and brought back 51 queens of the aggressive African honey bees to cross them with European bees in the hopes that the hybrids would be better honey producers. But in 1957, when one of Kerr’s hive managers accidentally opened excluders that separate queen bees from drone bees, about 26 queens of the aggressive African bees escaped, mated with European bees out in the wild, and produced aggressive offspring.

Eric Mussen, an extension apiculturist at the University of California, Davis, tells The Scientist that Kerr’s intentions were good. Kerr “hoped that the gentler European bees would ‘mellow out’ the African bees’ strong defensive behavior, [but] in this case, he misjudged.” 

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