Killer Bees

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Honey bees play an important role in pollination and agriculture but not all honey bees are the same. Among the various types are the Africanized bees known as “killer bees”. Due to their increased level of aggressiveness, there is understandable concern. Here, I will share with you some of the key differences of killer bees vs honey bees (of the common variety). Once you understand more about them, you will be prepared to keep your family safe.

Africanized honey bee worker resting on a leaf and group of bees in hive.

As a Master beekeeper, I know more about different types of honey bees than most people. You may be surprised to learn of the variety in the world of honey bees. But, if you are a beekeeper – you already know that differences are there – even between hives of the same breed.

Africanized Honey Bees – AKA Killer Bees

Let me introduce you to a kind of honey bee that I hope you never meet – Africanized Honey bees – also called – killer bees. Most beekeepers do not intentionally keep these honey bees in hives or manage them for honey.

Origins & History

To understand the true story of Africanized Bees, we must go back to the mid 1950’s. Brazilian scientists and researchers (including Dr. Warwick Kerr) hoped to interbreed African bees with European honey bees.

The European bee (Western Honey Bee) the kind we keep in hives is originally from cool temperate regions-not tropical climates. Honey production was poor in the hot, humid climate of South America.

Due to the way honey bees reproduce – could we create a cross breed? This hybrid would have the vitality of the African bee and hopefully – the calmness and productivity of the European race already in use.

This new hybrid would become known as “Africanized Bees”. Unfortunately, the researchers got more than they bargained for. This breeding project would have undesirable results.

Killer Bees Escape into the Wild

African Honey Bee (Apis mellifera scutelatta Lepeletier) queens were imported to South America for the interbreeding project. Accidentally or on purpose (depending on who you believe) some of them escaped confinement.

This new cross did quite well in the wilds of South America, so well in fact, that they took over the area. In a few years, all of the wild European Honey Bee colonies were wiped out.

And then, they began to expand and migrate northward. In the same way that the German Black Honey Bee spread across America, Africanized bees expanded their territory throughout Latin America.

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

Info chart that compares Africanized honey bees to European honey bees.


Let’s remember that we are still talking about honey bees. “Killer Bees” will share many common honey bee characteristics that appear in other members of the species (Apis mellifera).


While most of us find it easy to identify honey bees, you can not recognize Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) by sight. They are just slightly smaller than their counterparts- precise measurements are needed for identification.

Morphometry is the only way to identify them. These precise measurements of body parts, wing venation etc tell the story of their genetic origin. These characteristics are not discernible in the field but require a lab.

Behavioral Traits

Shared behaviors between Africanized bees and European Honey Bees:

  • both live together in a social family group
  • both collect pollen for protein and nectar to make honey
  • each colony has 1 queen bee larger in size than the workers

Unique differences:

  • Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) are more defensive
  • AHB throw bee swarms more often
  • Africanized bees may be able to deal with varroa mites – needing fewer varroa mite treatments?
  • AHB require special management techniques due to aggression and swarming
Swarm of honey bees in tree naturally spreading across area.

Spread and Distribution

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.

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

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

Degrees of Africanization in Colonies

Because, they can inter-breed with other types of honey bees- further mixing of the genetic material continues.

Italians, Russians, Carniolan bees, Buckfast – all are names familiar to beekeepers. Queens and drone bees from each can mate with the other colonies.

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

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.

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

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

Why They are Called Killer Bees

The major difference between the African honey bee races and the European honey bees is the level of defensiveness (or you can call it aggression). This defensive behavior of the new hybrid earned them the nickname “killer bees“.

Why is this a big deal? Any colony of honey bees will sting for defense. We beekeepers get stung at times when the hive resents our interference into their lives.

Extreme Defensive Response

An Italian bee colony that feels threatened sends out 20 or 30 defenders to chase off the predator (that’s you). If you move away quickly, they 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.

I once attended a beekeepers conference – the speaker said “Africanized Bees will chase you to water and wait for you to come up to breath.” The numerous resulting stings can be dangerous – even fatal.

Like any honey bee, Africanized bees can only sting once. And, no – their venom is not stronger than that of other honey bees. It is the increased number of individuals in the fight that makes them so dangerous.

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

Risks and Threats to Humans

Africanized bees pose a great risk to humans. They are more likely to nest in smaller cavities and are adaptable to a different bee habitats beyond what we expect.

AHB are more likely to nest in water meters, doorways, outside grills – bringing them into closer contact with humans. Finding a killer bee nest in the ground is not that uncommon -regular honey bees are less likely to use these locations.

A swarm or hive of these “killer bees” could live nearby undisturbed for months-without you being aware of them. However, if they are disturbed, their reaction could be deadly.

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

Do Africanized Bees Make Honey?

African Honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) flourished in their home – the hot, humid climate of southern Africa. These “killer bees” do make honey-though not as much as their European counterparts.

They were adapted to the ebb and flow of foraging conditions in their native region. They had no need to obtain large stores of honey for cold weather. It was always warm.

However, in order to survive in their environment, they were much more defensive than European bees. Ready to fight off a diverse number of predators eager to have bees for dinner.

Small swarms or nests of bees that should be approached with caution in areas known to have Africanized honey bees.

Tips for Staying Safe

If you live in a region with Africanized Bees, do not panic. However, you should be extra observant of any bee nests in the area. Treat every situation as if it were a dangerous one.

Be vigilant to notice colonies living near you – look around. If bees get after you, get inside! Better to be in a truck with 50 than outside with 2000. If you can not get inside, run, run and run some more.

Colony Removal

You need to know that removal of this Africanized honey bee nests or swarms is a job for professionals. Call the nearest agricultural office, pest control agency or honey bee removal specialists. In some states, this is law. Do not attempt to remove them yourself.


What happens if you get stung by an Africanized Honey Bee?

A sting by an Africanized bee is not different from that of any other honey bee. The venom is not more powerful. However, due to the defensiveness of the bees you are likely to receive more stings in one event.

Where are Africanized bees in the US?

Africanized bees have naturally spread across many of the southern states of the United States. Isolated populations have popped up in other areas – likely spread with the help of humans.

How can I tell if I have Africanized bees?

Only a lab test can confirm the degree of Africanization in honey bees. There is no true field test to identify them.

Final Thoughts

Only time will tell if Africanized Bees will continue to be a problem for beekeepers. Or perhaps, their aggressive genetics will finally meld with the calm genetics of other calmer colonies. We just don’t know.

The end of this attempt to breed a better bee saga is yet to play out. Researchers had the best intentions but trying to “improve” mother nature has it’s risks. I have never had AHB in my hives to the best of my knowledge but I have had some really mean honey bees before – LOL.


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