Africanized bees (sometimes sensationalized as “killer bees”) are the type of honey bees which have migrated from South America into some of the lower United States. Honey bees are not native to the Americas; prior to 1956, the only honey bees found in North and South America were European honey bees, which were brought to the New World as early as the late 1500s. As the name suggests, European bees are native to Europe and are adapted to temperate climates. In 1956, some honey bees were brought from Africa to Brazil as part of a breeding experiment to produce a honey bee which was well adapted to tropical areas. Some of those African bees escaped from their apiaries and crossbred with the populations of gentle European bees found in Brazil. The resulting cross between those bees is the Africanized honey bee, or AHB, which retained the highly defensive behavior of the African strain.
At the present time, the Africanized honey bees have spread through parts of the southwestern states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and into California. The AHB moved into Texas from Mexico in October 1990, and migration since then has been through southern Texas and westward into New Mexico (11/93), Arizona (7/93), California (11/94), Nevada (8/98), and Utah (1999). The AHB also moved into the US Virgin Islands (3/95) and Puerto Rico (9/94). Since 2005, the AHB has been found in several counties in central Florida. It should also be noted that there have been isolated reports of AHB being found at various United States ports, but those bees have been destroyed.
Yes, swarms of Africanized honey bees have been found and destroyed at the North Carolina ports of Morehead City (1989) and Wilmington (1991). Those swarms of AHB “hitchhiked” rides on ships that entered those ports from areas that had Africanized honey bees. The bees were detected and destroyed by the joint efforts of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) and the customs agents working for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The United States Department of Agriculture, through one of its agencies (APHIS), has a policy in cooperation with various state governments to monitor the movement of the Africanized bees into United States ports and to destroy such bees upon arrival. In North Carolina, the NCDA&CS and NC State University have worked with the APHIS inspectors at the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City so that they are prepared to deal with the arrival of bees at those ports. In addition, both of those port areas have been declared “bee-free” zones and trap nests have been established to attract and monitor any bee swarms at the ports. Such bees will be destroyed and then examined to determine if they were Africanized.
Earlier estimates predicted that the AHB would reach North Carolina by 1995. However, the tropical bee’s progress slowed greatly since reaching the United States through Texas. The recent discovery of the AHB in Florida greatly increases the possibility that they may enter the state in the next few years, but it is difficult to predict their movement or when they may arrive. Experts suggest that the bees may arrive sooner by hitchhiking through the trucking system than by migration.
No. Africanized bees are closely related to European bees and detailed diagnostic techniques are used to identify them in the laboratory. If anything, they are slightly smaller than our common European bee.
No. The sting and venom of an Africanized honey bee is nearly identical to that of a European bee. The venom from any honey bee may cause swelling, irritation, and temporary pain, but it is not fatal unless the person is allergic to honey bees. A small percentage of humans are allergic to various insect stings and for those individuals one sting may result in death if prompt medical attention is not received. The greater danger from Africanized bees results from the greater likelihood of receiving numerous stings by many bees.
The Africanized bees are more defensive than European bees; that is, their response in protecting their hive after being disturbed or threatened is much greater than that of the European honey bee. However, this defensiveness is only a problem in certain situations. Swarm clusters and individual Africanized bees foraging on flower blossoms are really no more dangerous than European bees. It is only near a nest or hive that the defensiveness becomes a problem. Reported deaths have been limited to situations where animals or humans have disturbed an established hive.
The primary value of honey bees to the nation’s and the state’s economy is crop pollination and not honey production. In the United States, 90 cultivated crops with the value of more than $20 billion benefit from honey bee pollination. In North Carolina, the commercial production of such crops as cucumbers, apples, watermelons, squash, and berries would not be possible without honey bees.
First, it is important to note that United States beekeepers are not responsible for the Africanized bee situation and don’t want the bees here either. Second, the beekeepers are the primary resource against the Africanized bees. The beekeeping industry is well organized and working on methods to reduce the aggressive nature of the bees and keep their populations low. North Carolina beekeepers, University personnel, and government officials are already poised to assist the industry and the public if, and when, Africanized bees reach North Carolina.
It is important to note that Africanized bees do not live in beehives but rather in natural or man-made cavities. If you locate a suspect colony of honey bees, keep your distance and do not disturb the nest. Immediately contact your local NCDA&CS Apiary Inspector (919-233-8214), call the North Carolina AHB Information Line (800-206-9333), or contact a licensed Pest Control Operator in your area.
For more information on beekeeping, visit the Beekeeping Notes website.
David R. Tarpy
Jennifer J. Keller
Publication date: Feb. 5, 2015
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