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Killer Bee vs Honey Bee: How They Differ

Killer bee vs honey bee – what is the difference? Both are members of the honey bee family but Africanized bees have been dubbed “killer bees” by the media. In many ways, they are not a lot different than other types of honey bees. However, for people living in a location where they are found – caution is certainly necessary. Learn what you need to know to keep your family safe.

Origin of Africanized or Killer Bees

Africanized honey bee worker resting on a leaf image.

Brazilian scientists and bee researchers (including Dr. Warwick Kerr) hoped to interbreed African bees (suitable to a hot climate) with European bees.

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The European bee (also called the Western Honey Bee) is the type of bee kept by most beekeepers. They are originally from temperate regions not tropical climates.

They came from a cooler region, and did not thrive in South America. Honey production was poor in the hot, humid climate.

The goal was to create a hybrid that would have the vitality of the African bee. But it would keep 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

In the mid 1950s, African Honey Bee (Apis mellifera scutelatta Lepeletier) queens were imported to South America for interbreeding. Accidentally or on purpose (depending on who you believe) some of them escaped confinement.

They 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. 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.

Killer honey bee swarm living in the hole of a tree image.

Why They are Called Killer Bees

So really, what is the big deal? The older worker bee is the defender of a colony. They take their job seriously using their barbed stingers to repel enemies. Of course, any colony can respond in force when threatened.

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The major difference between the African Races and the European Races is the level of defensiveness. This defensive behavior of the new hybrid earned them the nickname “killer bees”.

Extreme Defensive Response

An Italian (most common bee for beekeepers) 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. The numerous resulting bee stings can be dangerous.

The Africanized bee (like any honey bee) can only sting once. And their stingers do not contain stronger venom. However, the increased number of individuals in the fight creates the increased danger.

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.

Danger to Humans From Africanized Bees

Africanized bees are more likely to nest in smaller cavities than others in America. Also, they are very adaptable to a different habitat.

They are more likely to nest in water meters, doorways, outside grills – these tendencies bring 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.

Africanized bees 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.

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 their genetics.

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.

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

Do You Have Killer Bee Genetics in Your Hives?

They can inter-breed with other types of honey bees. Further mixing of the genetic material continues. Italians, Russians, Carniolan, Buckfast – all are names familiar to beekeepers. Queens and drone bees from each can mate with the other colonies.

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

How to Identify Africanized Honey Bees

While honey bees are easy to identify, you can not identify Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) by sight. Even though AHB are slightly smaller than their counterparts- precise measurements are needed for identification.

Morphometry is the only way to identify them. Precise measurements of body parts, wing venation etc tell the story of their 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.

Comparing Honey Bees to Killer Bees

Because they are all honey bees, naturally they share many common characteristics.

  • both live together in a social group
  • each colony has 1 queen bee
  • look very similar – Africanized bees are slightly larger

The unique differences cause the hybrids to be challenging to manage:

  • Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) are more defensive than European Bees
  • AHB swarm more often
  • the hybrid may be able to deal with varroa mites slightly better
  • can be kept in hives by beekeepers using special management techniques

Staying Safe in Regions with Killer Bees

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.

Stay away from known bee colonies. 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.

Removing Killer Bee Colonies

You need to know that removal of this type of nest site is a job for professionals. Call the nearest pest control agency or honey bee removal specialists. In some states, this is law. Do not attempt to remove them yourself. Even if you are a beekeeper, seek help from others with experience.

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 determine their genetic profile.

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 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.

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