When my husband first showed interest in beekeeping, one of my biggest fears is that we would accidentally end up with a “Killer Bee” colony. I had heard rumors of Killer Bee colonies coming up from states like Florida to the north. Images of bee swarms chasing us in angry pursuit and thousands of deadly bee stings fed my anxiety of my husband’ss desire to have honey. This fear came from ignorance, and once I learned more about the nature of bees, I soon realized that there was little to fear, especially since we live in the northern state of Michigan.
First, let’s clear up the different species.
African Honeybee a species of bee known to be highly aggressive. They are responsible for killing over 1000 people and will also kill horses and other animals.
The European Honeybee is the domesticated bee that we all know. The United States has no native honey bee. Even wild colonies are feral European colonies that have escaped domestication at some point in their heritage. The honeybee came over from Europe in the 1600s. This bee can include Russian, Italian and many other more gentle strains highly hybridized. The European Honey bee is a more docile species.
Africanized Bees are a hybrid of African bees and European bees. They were created in 1957 by biologist Warwick E. Kerr in Brazil in an attempt to create a bee that would be a prolific honey producer and also flourish in a warm climate. In true Jurassic Park-style, the bees escaped the lab hives when a queen excluder was accidentally removed and began interbreeding with wild and local bees spreading the aggressive genes.
Why are Africanized bees so deadly?
Can they sting more than once?
No, just like a domesticated honeybee, the Africanized Honeybee stings its victim then the stinger is pulled from it’s abdomen resulting in death for the bee.
Is their venom more potent?
No, their venom is similar in strength to a domesticated honeybee
The reason killer bees are so deadly is in their aggressiveness. In a European hive when the hive is disturbed you will have less bees sent out in defense. In an especially angry hive you may get a small swarm (about 10% of the hive). You may get a good many bee stings to make you unhappy about the experience, but it is usually not deadly unless you have an allergy. European strains do not sting to kill only to warn potential predators. When a bee stings it releases a pheromone to alert the colony to watch for future attacks.
With killer bees, the entire colony attacks. This results in tens of thousands of bees stinging to defend the hive. With this concentration of venom, the victim will die if they can’t get away.
Africanized bees are also perturbed much easier which makes them much more dangerous. Even coming too close to a hive can summon an attack.
You can’t tell an Africanized bee from a European bee just by looking at it. Africanized bees do not look different from other honeybees. So it’s not like we can simply remove the colonies as they appear.
So how does this affect all of us in the United States?
The Africanized bees made their way north and hit the United States borders around 1990. The first fatal attacks were reported in 2011 in Arizona and Texas. As the bee population spread attacks were then reported shortly after in Florida and Southern California.
Though the killer bee population is spreading across the southern United States, bee attacks are still rather rare.
As African bees are interbreeding with European strains some of the aggressive behavior is getting watered down.
How does this affect the backyard beekeeper?
Even if you start with a docile, European colony, when the queen leaves to mate with feral drones they could be bringing Africanized genes into your hive. The subsequent generations could hold the aggressive strain. It is thought that there is a small amount of African genes in all feral hives due to interbreeding. You may find over the years your hive’s personality may change.
If you live in the north you have less to worry about as the Africanized bees cannot survive our winters. However, that does not mean that you can’t get an Africanized colony if you’re ordering packaged bees from the south.
In my next post, I will talk about how to identify and deal with a defensive colony.