"Killer" Bees

One case where the Myth certainly is larger than the Truth is with respect to the so-called "Killer Bee". Prior to its arrival in the United States in 1990 this aggressive strain of our common Honeybee was known to be moving closer and closer to the U.S. in its northerly expansion. Hollywood made the most of it, creating many movies that depicted the alleged horrors this bee would cause, as it laid waste to entire towns and killed hundreds of people. While these movies in no way were meant to reflect accuracy with respect to this bee, it became very easy for the American Public to believe what they saw, and a great deal of unwarranted fear was generated.d


The more appropriate name for the "killer" bee is the Africanized Honey Bee, abbreviated AHB, which we can use throughout this article. When I talk to classes of school children on the subject of insects I usually am asked if I have a "Killer Bee" in my displays, and it is expected by these children that the bee surely must be of Godzilla proportions to support all the terrible things they have heard about it. In fact, the AHB is the same species as our common "European" honeybee, that busy little backyard pollinator of our flowers, and the two kinds look exactly alike. They can be distinguished with certainty only by experts who are able to dissect the bees and examine internal organs.

This article is meant to tell you the truth about the AHB, and help you to understand how you should deal with it should it eventually be encountered in the environment where you live. At the time this is written, in early 2004, the AHB is a resident in the United States in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. It is a tropical variety that does best in warm climates, and may not be able to permanently occupy the more northern states where winters are so cold. It is projected that it may be able to migrate northward during the warmer summer months, but be killed off each winter. It certainly also could be carried by commerce and movement of materials in vehicles, appearing suddenly in a location well away from other known colonies of it. The bees, you see, make their hives in many possible places, including vehicles and those things we transport on them.

The familiar European Honeybee, which we have always used for our benefit in pollination of food crops and for production of honey, is not a native insect in North America. It was brought to the U.S. by early settlers from Europe, who wanted to continue to receive the benefits this useful insect provides. We can save space and refer to this strain as the EHB, and it is known as a relatively docile variety of the bee. About the only time we really are at risk of being stung by one or more of the workers is when we venture too close to the hive, for the workers are very protective of the hive, the larvae they tend within it, and the queen they protect with their lives. Generally speaking, an attack in defense of the hive of a EHB involves just a few bees, and we can end that attack by running away a few feet further.

The problem with the AHB, on the other hand, is that it is much, much more aggressive about protecting its hive. While the workers are out foraging on flowers for food we are at no more risk of being stung than we would be from the EHB, but when you get too close to the hive of the Africanized variety……watch out!! Hundreds or thousands of the workers will fly out of the hive to attack anyone or anything they perceive as a threat to their hive. As a worker stings you it leaves behind odors that draw more bees to you and get them angry as well, and it is very common for swarms of the bees to continue to chase you up to a quarter of a mile or further as you attempt to run away. With the EHB the attack ends within a minute or two as the workers calm down, but the hive of the AHB may stay agitated and angry for much longer, perhaps over an hour. Even 8 hours later the workers in the hive of the Africanized Honey Bee may still be agitated.

Each sting from an AHB is no worse than a single sting from a EHB. In fact, the stinger of either of these bees is pulled from the body of the bee as it stings human skin, resulting in the death of the bee. The problem is the sheer numbers of bees that will go after you and continue to pursue you as you flee. Running away, however, is the best response you have if you are attacked. You need to put as much distance as possible between you and the hive, as quickly as you can. Do NOT jump into a swimming pool or pond, thinking this will save you, for the bees will continue to mill around the water's surface and immediately attack you again when you come up for air. If there is a car nearby get into it and close the doors and windows. This will reduce the number of bees that can get to you. If you can get inside a home or some other building do so immediately and close the doors. Those bees that do get inside often become disoriented once inside a structure, and may break off the attack.

For any honeybee sting, AHB or EHB, another immediate response you should have is to remove the stinger from your skin. As the stinger is pulled from the body of the bee it also pulls out the sac that holds all the venom, and this continues to pump the full dose into you. The faster you can grasp that stinger and remove it the lower the dose of venom you will receive. In the past the recommendation has been to avoid squeezing the stinger with your fingers, believing this would push all the venom into you. However, newer research has shown that this is the best way to get the stinger out quickly, as squeezing it does not force any excess venom through the tiny channel the venom needs to travel through to get to the skin.

The AHB originated in Africa, where it has lived apart from its European ancestors for many thousands of years. It has adapted to this warmer, damper environment, but also developed the much more aggressive behavior, perhaps in response to greater threats to the hive from marauding animals that would attempt to get to the honey or the tasty larvae in the hive. Very early settlers to North America brought the well-behaved European strain of the bee with them, and over time this bee made its way to South America, either by its own movements and migration or perhaps from deliberate transport by European settlers in Brazil and Argentina. However, the EHB did not survive well in this new, tropical environment, and the use of honeybees for honey and pollination never became widespread in South America.

In 1956 a colony of the AHB was taken to South America in the belief that it would survive and propagate better, since it already was adapted to the more tropical habitats in Africa. It was also hoped that its aggressiveness could be eliminated by cross-breeding it with the EHB, resulting in a honeybee that would be manageable and also survive well in the tropics. They were deliberately spread throughout Brazil to many beekeepers, but unfortunately never changed their violent behavior. Year after year through the 1970's and 1980's their movement was tracked further and further north, through Central America and Mexico, until they finally were discovered to have settled into Texas in 1990. They are known to spread about 300 miles each year, and reached southern California late in 1994.

One other area in which the AHB will cause a serious impact to our lives is an economic one. We rely on honeybees for the pollination and production of a great many of our food crops, and beekeepers rely on being able to move their hives to those agricultural areas. In the states where the AHB now lives there may be quarantines in place that prohibit the movement of any bee hives out of the state, or perhaps even to other areas of the same state where the AHB is not currently a resident. The livelihood of the beekeepers is at risk, along with the potential for a more difficult time getting bees to crops when the pollination is needed.

A few more facts about the AHB may help you to understand them, and perhaps deal with them if you are attacked. First, they are drawn to dark colors. Studies with black and white flags waved near them have shown far greater numbers of stings in the black area of the flag. Wearing lighter colored clothing places you at a lower risk. They are drawn to many odors including, possibly, perfumes. And, once some workers have stung a perceived threat they leave behind odors that enable other workers to zero in on that unfortunate victim. The AHB breeds readily with colonies of the EHB, but unfortunately this hybridization does not seem to be taking any of the aggressive behavior out of the offspring of that marriage.

Other activities that may trigger the defensive reaction by the AHB include loud noises and vibrations near their nest. This has happened frequently from lawnmowers or power leaf-blowers used nearby, but even loud voices and other normal play activity could be enough. The AHB colonies often are much smaller than those of the EHB, and they are more likely to move the colony to stay near food supplies. The result of this is that many more colonies of the AHB may be found in a smaller area.

How do you avoid getting attacked and stung by the AHB? The only real way is to avoid getting too close to their colonies. It is common in the spring for honeybees to migrate, with a queen leaving a hive, along with a large consort of workers, and moving to a new location to set up a new hive. You may have seen this activity in the form of a large ball of bees on a fence or in a tree or bush. During this activity there is very little risk of being stung by the bees unless you directly attack the swarm. This could be by swatting at them or from trying to move them along with a jet of water from the garden hose. These are bad ideas. You should either leave them alone and hope they leave in a day or two to become someone else's concern, or contact a licensed beekeeper or pest control company to have the swarm removed.

If you happen to notice bees flying in and out of a hole in a tree, a gap in the outside wall of a structure, a cave, or some other natural opening, you should STAY AWAY!! In those areas where the AHB now resides it must be assumed that these could be the AHB, and getting too close could easily trigger that defensive response by the bees. It would be a very bad idea to try to throw rocks or other objects at a hive of bees, for this will most certainly trigger a defensive response by the workers. If you see someone else who is being attacked by the AHB do NOT go to their aid, as this is most likely to result in two victims needing help instead of just one. Instead, immediately call 9-1-1 to get emergency help there quickly. And, if you are attacked by bees turn and run as quickly as you can and don't stop. Remember, the AHB will chase you for a very long distance. Your decision on whether or not to attempt to go to the aid of another person who is being attacked by the AHB must be yours to make, however experts on this bee and on the emergency steps you should take have made this recommendation.

You can also take steps to prevent a colony of either strain of honeybees from setting up their home on your property. In particular it is important to keep them out of your home, because once inside the walls of a structure they immediately begin to construct their wax hives and begin filling it with honey. Even if the bees are later killed or removed this hive must also be removed or serious damage and other problems will result, and this removal can be expensive and disrupting. You can "bee-proof" your home by taking the time to carefully inspect the outside of it and close off any small openings that would allow the bees to enter to the inside. In the yard you can fill holes in trees, keep shrubbery trimmed back so it does not create dense patches, and remove debris such as boxes or old tires that would provide cavities for the bees to nest in.

Finally then, to summarize the important points of this important insect, the Africanized Honey Bee is in the United States to stay, and where it has colonized we must learn to live with it. We must recognize the highly aggressive nature of the AHB and its ability to quickly become defensive of its hive, and avoid activities around known bee hives that might initiate this response. Avoid approaching openings where bees are noticed, avoid wearing dark clothing if the bees are in your area, and if you are attacked by bees……RUN!!!….and don't stop running. If you are stung only once or twice and are not experiencing the serious reactions, such as difficulty in breathing or major swelling at the site of the sting, then you should remove the stinger quickly, wash the area with soap and water, and apply an ice pack for a few minutes to relieve swelling and pain. A general rule of thumb for a healthy adult is that 15 stings would normally suggest that the victim seek medical care.