Everyone is familiar with the wary sensation that crawls up our backs when we are confronted with a cloud of swarming bees near their hive. While honeybees are a vitally important part of our ecosystem and are typically gentle and mild mannered, killer bees should be taken seriously.
A few unlucky folks have crossed the teeming, industrious insects on purpose or by accident and have been the guest of honor and the reception hosted by the hive’s defenders.
After sustaining several welts and beating feat in the opposite direction, most folks get away not much worse for the wear, the hive being content to let the interloper go, as every sting in defense costs a honey bee its life.
So by and large honeybees are our friends; our most effective pollinators and producers of delicious honey that is easily had with special care. But what if, like a nightmare, you replaced the humble, hardworking honeybee with a clone, one that looked identical in all essential ways to our trusty honey bees, but was suicidally aggressive, had a hair-trigger temper and was so persistent it would chase you for nearly half a mile in response to a perceived offense?
Creatures of that sort are no nightmare: the insects I am referring to are, of course, the Africanized Honey Bee, or as they are commonly known, Killer Bees.
While not a threat everywhere, these insects are a growing concern in large regions of the U.S., and the world, and are a growing and persistent threat, as their migration and reproductive habits far outstrip their common bee cousins.
In this article, we will be taking a deep dive into the genesis, behavior and threat posed by these winged psychos, and discussing ways to both defend yourself against their attacks and deal with infestations.
What are Killer Bees?
Africanized Honey Bees, or Killer Bees, as they are colloquially known for reasons that will soon be clear, are simply a hybrid species of existing honey bee species, namely the African honey bee, and a few different species of European, or Western, honey bees. This chance and nightmarish hookup was no mere happenstance; this tale of crossbreeding reads half like a work of fiction.
In the year of 1956, Brazilian scientists were eager to come up with a better way to get more honey from local bees. Western bees are not very well adapted to tropical climates, and so work began to selectively crossbreed them with imported African bees to create a strain that would produce more honey and synchronize better with the blooming periods of local plants.
It wasn’t all milk and honey, though: the new bees were very productive, they were much easier to provoke than normal honey bees, swarming more readily and in greater numbers to much lesser stimuli. This was obviously of concern to commercial honey farmers, but the experiment was far from over at the time.
Now, like all great horror movies, these experiments were conducted in a laboratory, this one at Rio Claro. Also like all great horror movies, an innocuous mistake led to a visiting beekeeper unfamiliar with the procedures of the lab and test hives housing the hybrid queens to remove a special restriction device keeping them inside. The rest, as they say, is history.
Over 2 dozen swarms of the newly minted Africanized bees immediately escaped, the queens and drones fanning out into the countryside of Brazil where the mingled and mated with the usual honey bees. The cat, rather bee, was out of the bag: killer bees created in a lab were now breeding and reproducing themselves in the wild.
The descendants of these killer bees have been spreading in all directions and multiplying ever since. By 1982, the reached Central America. In 1985, Mexico. Later that year, the first group was noticed in California, but it was not until 1990 that a proper colony was discovered in Texas. This migration was overwhelmingly accomplished by the bees themselves, without the unknowing assistance of humans.
This readiness to relocate and establish themselves quickly led scientists to proclaim them a seriously invasive species. A study conducted in Arizona in 1994, one where entire swarms of bees were trapped and identified, the scientists recorded only about 15% of the bees were “Africanized” i.e. killer bees. The same study protocols were repeated later in 1997. The number of killer bees in the caught swarms now tallied 90%.
The killer bee populations were growing, and right alongside the risks to livestock and humans. Presently their range grows in the U.S. every year, and steadily.
Behavioral Quirks of Killer Bees
Killer bees acquired their grisly nickname with cause: they readily and savagely attack people and animals that are often just inside their set territory radius.
Unlike regular honey bees, killer bees do not need any substantial provocation to sting, and this is especially true around their hives. Garnering even passing notice from the guards of a killer bee hive will see them scramble nearly to the last to ward off an intruder.
Now, it must be stated here that the venom injected by killer bees when they sting is no more potent than a regular bee’s. Indeed the sting is no different at all; killer bees still leave the stinger and attached venom sack in the recipient when they sting, and the bee is doomed to die at that point. The biggest difference in attack methodology is best summed up as follows. Compared to everyday bees, killer bees:
- Attack over incidental trespass or aggravation- sound, motion, presence. You need not disturb the hive to incur their wrath. Even a passing vehicle or vibrations can set them off!
- Swarm more readily and in greater numbers- the stings pile up quickly. While one or two bee stings is nothing to a healthy adult, a couple of dozen or more is a medical emergency.
- Pursue targets farther- killer bees will pursue interlopers as far as 500 meter s or more from their hive. I hope you have been doing your cardio.
- Longer alert status- once perturbed, killer bees may remain on alert (read: stinging anything they can catch) for 24 hours or longer. This means you may very literally become a victim from doing absolutely nothing to them! Yikes.
Killer bees also differ from plain honey bees in ways that are slightly less likely to result in a trip to the ER. For one, they are far more likely to migrate in response to a lowered food supply, and are more prone to relocating their entire hive, queen and all, in response to stressors. This contributes to the rapid expansion and invasive nature of these little monsters.
Killer bees are more likely to live in the ground compared to other bees, making their activity harder to notice, but they also cannot survive nearly as long as other bees when deprived of forage. This means they will likely never become established in areas with harsh winters or very late summers.
That’s where the good news stops, however. Killer bees are not regionally or nationally threatening. Their risk comes from their danger to people and animals at the local level; they still pollinate and produce honey, which means they serve an important role in nature and can still be cultivated for honey by those with the backbone, equipment and expertise to safely handle them.
But on a personal level, a close encounter with a pissed off swarm of these guys could send you to the ER, or the morgue.
Range in the U.S.
Presently, Africanized honey bees are found all throughout the Southwest and are making inroads in the South, especially Georgia and Florida. Hives have been found as far north as upper Utah and Arizona, and isolated colonies have been seen in New England.
They have not replaced standard bees yet, but they are far more common in some areas than others. You should investigate to determine how common and how dense populations are in your area, especially if you live in the Southwest or South.
If you live in an area that endures a harsh winter, you are probably safe: killer bees do not do as well as regular bees in such places.
Dangers of Killer Bees
Based on our info above, the biggest risk to life and limb comes from a large number of stings, many of which will be aimed at your head and face. Any number of stings beyond 12 to 15 will warrant medical attention, or even just one if you are allergic.
Worse, only an expert can tell the difference between killer bees and regular bees by sight. For everyone else, only their ridiculously aggressive behavior will betray them.
The biggest problem rests with how fast and how densely killer bees will swarm their targets compared to regular honey bees. You could get hit multiple times before you have a chance to react, and any stings to your face will quickly hamper your vision and breathing.
You may not even know a hive is nearby, it may not even be nearby, and just for walking the dog or trimming the bushes you’ll be ambushed. Knowing how to minimize exposure and escape if targeted is an important part of dealing with killer bees.
Avoiding and Minimizing Exposure to Killer Bees
You can prevent a lot of grief from these little devils by being alert around your home, property and any place you frequent where bees might be. Bees betray their presence through a variety of signs.
- Keep your eyes open when outdoors. Watch for clumps of bees gathered on surface or entering/leaving a hole in the ground, a tree, building, utility box or other object. Any of the above will indicate a hive.
- Listen for humming and buzzing of a nearby colony, especially one in a wall.
- Bees that are pestering you by doing a “check bump” or jinking rapidly are indications that they are agitated and preparing to attack. Retrace your steps and leave the area as quickly as possible.
- Be cautious when moving anything that has been lying on the ground for a long time. Bees love to nest in and around all kinds of things. Moving a hive is a sure way to trigger a defensive response, and if it happens to be killer bees you are in for a bad time.
- A couple of bees foraging on flowers and plants is nothing to fret over. Even killer bees are usually mild mannered when out and about so long as you do not handle them or are near the hive.
If you are in a known killer bee harboring area, keep the following tips in mind.
- Keep a can of foaming bee and wasp killer handy. If you sight a nest that is about to erupt and swarm you, a quick draw and dose of foam can stall the attack.
- Wear light clothing and keep quiet. Killer bees freak out over dark colors and loud noises or vibrations, the jerks.
- If you see or suspect a hive, do not destroy it unnecessarily. It is risky, and bees are still important, even the Africanized ones. Call a pest control company or even better, a local bee keeper and have them collect it.
- Keep the area in your home and yard free of junk and refuse. Seal cracks, holes and crevices with caulk or another proscribed method of filling.
What to Do if Attacked
One or two stings is a painful nuisance. A swarm is a life-threatening event. Should you earn the wholesale ire of killer bees, you need to react right away and correctly.
The best thing you can do is get into a sealed shelter that will keep the bees out and do so quickly. Once inside, you can dispatch the remaining bees or, worst case scenario, they each pop you one time then die. Don’t forget: bees release attack pheromone when they sting or die, and this will summon other bees to keep up the offensive.
Below are more procedures to help you deal with and survive a killer bee attack.
- Cover Face and Head. Use anything. Bees often target the heads of mammals to good effect, and stings to this area of your body will have far worse effect than your limbs or trunk. Use a coat, towel, or even your own shirt if you have nothing else.
- Run. If you know where the bees are coming from, move away from it by the fastest, safest route possible. The more distance you put between yourself and the hive the better. Getting away quickly enough can prevent a mass of bees from following you. If you cannot run far and fast…
- Take Shelter. Get inside a house, car, tent, any place that you can seal up tightly against the onslaught. Stay out of the water! Bees will loiter waiting for you to surface and keep stinging you.
- Remove Stingers at Once. Bees’ stingers tear out of their butts once they sting you. This kills the bee but that is not going to help the scalding, throbbing pain in your thigh. Remove the stinger and venom sack by scraping it off with anything handy or even pinching it out with your fingernails. Recent research shows that this will not exacerbate the venom delivery compared to leaving the stinger in while you piddle around for a credit card to scrape it out.
- Evaluate Status. Anything more than 12-15 stings is cause for medical intervention, allergic or not. No matter how many times you have been stung, if you feel anything except local pain, itching and swelling seek medical attention.
Stories abound of hikers, landscapers, photographers, gardeners, hunters and other outdoor-types being overtaken by Africanized bees and stung to pieces. The stories usually go the same way: one or two bees “pestering persistently” (the aforementioned “check bumping” pre-attack behavior), a sting and then faster than most can react they are dealing with dozens or hundreds of bees.
That’s freaking dangerous, folks. Many people also tell of a chance bump or knock on a rock, log or other surface in nature resulting in an eruption of bees from a subterranean or unseen hive. If you are moving through any terrain except the most commonly travelled trails, you must be alert for bees when in country where they are found.
A few poor souls and many animals have even lost their lives to these aggressive creatures.
October 2010, Georgia – An elderly man is swarmed and killed by killer bees while cleaning up his property.
June 2013, Texas – An elderly man was swarmed and killed by killer bees he unknowingly agitated in a nearby hive.
May 2014, Colorado – An orchard worker is swarmed and nearly killed by Africanized bees. The hive was located and subsequently destroyed.
While not the most common or widespread threat, killer bees are among the most dangerous insects thanks to their cooperative and rapid attack behavior. You must be vigilant when in an area where they may reside.
Africanized honey bees will only become more and more common as they make their way farther north and displace or take over the hives and territories of Western honey bees.
With their greater prevalence will come more encounters with people and ergo more stings and defensive swarming. Make sure you understand the risks they pose and the likelihood that you’ll encounter them out in the world and have a plan for dealing with them.