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Africanized Bees – What You Need to Know

Africanized bees are honey bees. In many ways they are not a lot different than other honey bees. However, they had been dubbed “killer bees” by the media-even before they arrived in the United States. But what are these bees? How are they different than other honey bees? And, what do you need to know to keep your family safe.

Africanized honey bee worker resting on a leaf image.

What are Africanized Bees?

Africanized bees are a hybrid. The result of honey bee breeders working in Brazil to develop a new cross. Research scientists were hoping to cross bees from Africa with European Honey Bees.

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The European Honey Bees being kept in the region were not producing honey well in the hot, humid climate. They came from a cooler region, and did not thrive in South America.

This created a productivity problem for beekeepers keeping bees to produce honey local to the region.

Origin of Africanized Honey Bees

In the mid-60’s, 50 African Honey Bee (Apis mellifera scutelatta Lepeletier) queens were imported to South America.

Brazilian scientists and bee researchers (including Dr. Warwick Kerr) hoped to interbreed African and European bees.

The goal was to create a hybrid honey bee. One that would be able to produce honey and thrive in the hot humid climate of South America.

The hope was to breed in the vitality of the African bee and keep the calmness and productivity of European bees. The new bee became known as “Africanized Bees”.

Accidentally or on purpose (depending on who you believe) some of the bees escaped confinement.

And this new bee did quite well in the wilds of South America, so well in fact, that they took over the area. In a few years, any feral European Honey Bee colonies were wiped out.

And then, the hybrid bees began to expand and migrate northward. Over the next few years, they moved slowly north and expanded their territory throughout Latin America.

Northward migration continued at the rate of 200 – 300 miles per year. These Africanized bees arrived at the southern United States border in 1990. The first confirmed swarm of was found in Texas in October of that year.

Where are Africanized Bees Found in the US?

As of 2012, Africanized Honey Bees were found in most of the southern states of the United States. These states were: Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida.

The rate of expansion has slowed in the United States. This is most likely due to the cooler climate being not as suitable to bees with African genetics.

Experienced beekeeper inspecting a hive of killer bees with protective gear and smoker image.

Do Africanized Bees Make Honey?

African Honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) flourished in their home – the hot, humid climate of southern Africa. They too made honey though not as much as the European Honey Bees.

These bees were adapted to the ebb and flow of foraging conditions. They had no need to obtain large stores of honey for cold weather.

However, in order to survive in their environment, African Bees were much more defensive than European bees.

Killer Bees – Extreme Defensive Behavior in Bees

Any honey bee colony will fight to defend the hive. Older worker bees are the defenders of the hive. Even a colony of Italian Honey Bees (known for being docile) can respond in force when threatened.

The major difference between Africanized Honey Bees and the European Races is the level of defensiveness.

An Italian colony that feels threatened sends out 20 or 30 defenders to chase off the predator (that’s you). If you move away quickly, the bees will not chase you very far.

Disturbance of an Africanized bee colony, results in thousands of defenders-pouring out of the hive to attack. And, they will chase you for a long distance.

Because of the massive defensive response and the fact that it takes less disturbance to trigger the response, these bees have killed people and pets. Hence the name “killer bees” was attached to them.

Danger to Humans From Africanized Bees

Africanized bees are more likely to nest in smaller cavities than other bees in America. Water meters, doorways, outside grills – these tendencies bring them into closer contact with humans.

They are recognized as an invasive species in North America. When they enter a region, they out-compete other honey bees. Before too long, all the colonies in the area become Africanized.

A swarm or hive of these “killer bees” is no more dangerous than any other hive on a regular basis. They could live there undisturbed for months without you being aware of them. However, if they are disturbed, their reaction could be deadly.

Swarm of Africanized or Killer bee swarm in a tree image.

Do You Have Killer Bee Genetics in Your Hives?

These honey bees can inter-breed with other types of honey bees. Further mixing of the genetic material continues.

Local bee populations on the “fringe” area likely do have some African genetics. This makes it more difficult to draw a firm line of exactly where their range ends.

Any colony may have a certain percentage of African genetics without being classified as true “Africanized.”

How far north will these bees extend? We do not know but it is hoped that cold Winter weather will limit migration.

Sporadic cases of Africanized bees have been found in a couple of states farther north. However, these are believed to be isolated incidents where the bees were moved by humans.

How to Identify Africanized Honey Bees

You can not identify Africanized Honey Bees by sight. Even though AHB are slightly smaller than European Bees, precise measurements are needed.

Morphometry is the only way to identify the bees. Precise measurements of body parts, wing venation etc tell the story of the bees’ genetic origin. These characteristics are not discernible in the field.

Some experienced beekeepers do manage Africanized Honey bees but it is not recommended for the average beekeeper.

Interesting Facts About Africanized Bees

  • live together in a social group with one queen like other honey bees
  • their venom is not stronger than other honey bee venom
  • Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) are more defensive than European Bees
  • they swarm more often
  • can not be identified by sight alone
  • can be kept by beekeepers using special management techniques
  • are able to deal with varroa mites better than some other bees

If you live in a region with Africanized Bees, you need to know that removal of this type of bee is a job for professionals.

Do not attempt to remove the bees yourself. Even if you are a beekeeper, seek help from others with experience.

Stay away from known bee colonies. Be vigilant to notice new bees living near you – look around.

If bees get after you, get inside! Better to be in a truck with 50 bees than outside with 2000. If you can not get inside, run, run and run some more.

Beekeepers are one of the first lines of defense again the invasion of this defensive bee. Any colony displaying extra defensive traits can be tested to monitor the range of the bees.

Only time will tell if the Killer Bees will continue to be a problem for beekeepers. Or perhaps, their aggressive genetics will finally meld with the calm genetics of the bees they are breeding with – we just don’t know.

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