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Africanized Honey Bees

Africanized honey bees (AHB) have made their way into the state of Florida. AHBs breed and compete with the European strains of honey bees that normally inhabit our state. Because Florida’s AHB population is increasing, it is important to become familiar with AHBs and their behavior.

Although they are often referred to as killer bees, the correct term is Africanized honey bees. Another common mistake is describing them as aggressive. Their behavior is actually defensive–they react to human invasion of their environment and defend themselves when necessary. Attacks occur when people get too close to a nesting colony of AHBs. The AHBs do not sit around and plot attacks on humans.

Most people probably first hear about Africanized honey bees via B-grade movies such as “Killer Bees” (1974) and “The Swarm” (1978). Labeling AHBs as aggressive killers can provoke unjustified fear and hysteria.
Fortunately, you do not have to learn about Africanized honey bees from bad horror movies or rumors on the Internet. These tips from the Florida IPM Office can help you educate and protect yourself and your family.

Avoiding AHBs & Protecting Yourself

Common AHB Nesting Sites

Be aware of the places where AHBs are likely to nest. Potential sites include:

  • abandoned vehicles
  • empty containers
  • places with holes
  • fences
  • lumber piles
  • manholes
  • water meters
  • utility infrastructures
  • old tires
  • trees
  • garages
  • outbuildings
  • sheds
  • walls
  • chimneys
  • crawl spaces under houses or buildings

Bee-proof Your Property

The best defense is a good offense. Removing or blocking potential nesting sites around your yard and house reduces your risk of encountering Africanized honey bees at home.

  • In order to ‘bee-proof’ a building, remove all potential nesting sites.
  • From March to July (swarming season), inspect your property weekly for unusual bee activity.
  • Seal all gaps larger than 1/8-inch in walls and around chimneys and plumbing.
  • Install screens made of 1/8-inch hardware cloth over other openings, such as rain spouts, vents, cavities of trees and fence posts, water meters, utility boxes, etc.

If you do find bees nesting on your property, contact your county Extension agent or a certified pest control operator. Africanized honey bees can interbreed with European bees, which means that all wild colonies of bees are at risk of being European/African crosses. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services currently recommends that all wild bee hives be exterminated by certified pest control operators.

(Note: Exclusion of entry points is a principle of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and will also keep out other unwanted pests.)

Encountering Defensive Bees

Do not stay in one place and swat the bees as this will cause the bees to sting. Remember, AHBs are trying to defend their nest. When a stinging event happens, you are too close to the nest, and you need to leave the area immediately. Cover your nose and mouth with your shirt as you run. This restricts bees’ access to your airways.

When seeking shelter, do not hide in thick underbrush or water as it may take the bees thirty minutes or longer to leave an area. Look for enclosed locations, such as a building or vehicle. Some bees will probably enter the shelter with you, but most will remain outside.

If you see a swarm around a person, do not go to the victim and try to help. It is better to stand at a safe distance and yell to the person to leave the area as quickly as possible.

If a defensive swarm is encountered, contact emergency personnel or pest control operators, who are trained to deal with AHBs.

What to Do If You Are Stung

Stingers should be scraped (not plucked) out with a blunt object, such as a fingernail or credit card. Doing this as soon as possible will stop the release of venom. Wash the sting with soap and water and apply ice to stop the swelling. Swelling is normal and does not mean the victim is having an allergic reaction.

Some signs of an allergic reaction include:

  • Hives
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness

If an allergic reaction occurs, immediately contact emergency personnel. Use an emergency sting kit if one is available.

Don’t Worry, ‘Bee’ Happy

Africanized honey bees can be frightening. You should respect them, but remember that their “killer bee” image comes from rumors and sci-fi movies, not from facts.
Although the AHB populations are generally more defensive, European bees also display defensive behavior, though at a much reduced level. The European honey bees (EHBs) that beekeepers work with have been bred for docility over hundreds of years.

In South America, where AHB populations have taken over, pollination and honey production experienced a slight dip during the transition period between EHB/AHB hybridization. However, countries in South and Central America are now exporting honey again, and AHBs are being selectively bred to produce more docile bees.
Visit UF/IFAS African Honey Bee Extension and Education to find more information about AHBs, their removal, news and updates, as well as a list of resources.

Adapted and excerpted from:

J. Ellis and A. Ellis, African Honey Bee (ENY-429), Entomology and Nematology Department (rev. 12/2012).

J. Ellis and F. Oi, “Africanized Honey Bees” (pdf), Entomology and Nematology Department (11/2014).

M. O’Malley, J. Ellis, A. Neal, What to Do About African Honey Bees: A Consumer Guide (ENY-141), Entomology and Nematology Department (10/2014).

Photo Credits: Perytskyy/iStock/Thinkstock