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UF Entomologist Identifies “Killer Bees” At Jacksonville Port

Jessica Taylor

Glenn Hall (352) 392-1901 Ext. 149
Lawrence Cutts (352) 372-3505

GAINESVILLE — Florida agriculture officials are on alert with traps and bait after confirming the first colonies of African honey bees — commonly known as “killer bees” — at the port of Jacksonville.

The most recent colony was found last week, and two others were found in April. All the bees were killed and taken to the University of Florida for identification.

“Until now, the bees have only been found in ships and containers,” said Glenn Hall, a honey bee geneticist at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “This is the first time African colonies have been found in traps or bait hives located around the port.”

Hall said his DNA tests proved the colonies were African and indicated their queens had mated with drones from other African colonies. He said they mated either before hitching a ride on ships or, less likely, in the Jacksonville area, meaning more African bees would be established there.

Whether the African bees will spread or how much of a problem they will become remains uncertain, said Laurence Cutts, apiary inspector for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“Even if they are established at the port of Jacksonville, they still have a ways to go,” Cutts said. “They would need to reach critical mass before becoming a serious problem.”

Hall said African honey bees are more intensely protective of their hives than common European honey bees. Their “killer” reputation comes not from the strength of their sting but because they sting in large numbers.

“Florida has a $20 million honey industry; if African bees become established in the state, the beekeeping industry would be hurt,” Hall said. “African bees are harder to maintain, which would reduce the number of available bees for pollination. This would have an even greater impact on food prices than on the honey industry. Tourism could also be affected, if people are alarmed by stinging incidents.”

Hall and agriculture department inspectors are continuing to search the Jacksonville port area for African bees in flight. The bees will be trapped, and Hall’s lab will identify them with DNA tests. If more colonies are established, inspectors will take further steps to eradicate them.

African bees migrating over land from southern countries into the United States were expected to become a problem in Florida. However, the bees stopped their eastward migration near Houston.

Hall said he once thought African bees coming by ship would not be a major threat. There were too few coming in at a time to reach a critical mass. However, in recent years, an African bee population became established in Puerto Rico from swarms accidentally carried on ships.

State and federal agriculture officials have been successful intercepting bees at ports, but their experience in Puerto Rico has prompted these agencies to install more bait hives. Those efforts allowed officials to find the colonies when they did, probably before they had a chance to spread.