Nature Notes: Understanding the Risks and Realities of Africanized Bees

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Africanized honeybees on a prickly pear cactus flower. Visually, africanized bees are indistinguishable from more docile European honeybees. But the genetic strain is fierce, and persistent, in its response to a perceived threat.

Photo by Jessie Eastland

It sounds like science fiction. Africanized honeybees were bred in a lab. These hybrids were superior honey producers – but also proved ferocious toward perceived threats. They escaped quarantine in Brazil in 1957. By the 80s, they’d reached the United States.

There was alarm at their arrival. But africanized bees are now embedded in our natural environment, and our economy.

A majority of honeybees in West Texas are likely africanized. And, along with non-africanized honeybees, they’re critical crop pollinators.

What sets africanized bees apart? What should we know about the risks they pose?

Africanized bee stings typically kill one or two a people a year. Our region hasn’t been spared tragic encounters.

On July 7, 2015, Roger William Kinzie, of Fort Davis, was operating a bulldozer near Marathon when he was stung hundreds of times. He died two days later. A Carlsbad woman was killed in 2000. In June 2016, bees killed two dogs, and injured a homeowner, in Midland. And in July 2017, two people were swarmed and stung near Blue Mountain, in Jeff Davis County, in a frightening but non-fatal incident.

These encounters are often described as “attacks.” But they’re triggered by a bee colony’s impulse to defense – of its young, and its honey reserves. Africanized bees stand out in their defensive zeal.

Michael Nickell is the Sibley Center’s museum scientist.

“They are particularly easily excitable,” Nickell said. “They will reach that threshold of threat perception a lot quicker. They will defend the colony much more aggressively and in greater numbers and at a greater distance, too.”

Short of DNA testing, it’s impossible to distinguish africanized bees. But aggression is a good indicator.

Late in life, a queen bee will leave her hive, and – with half the colony’s worker bees – set out to establish a new home. A roiling cloud of bees is spooky. But bees are actually at their least aggressive in these swarms.

Danger arises in the vicinity of a hive. Texas’ native bees are solitary, and rarely sting. Hive-dwelling honeybees are imports, and they act as a “super-organism.” A colony will sacrifice members to defend its brood and the honey reserves it needs for winter.

Hives can be almost anywhere – a hollow tree, beneath a car hood, between walls of a home. There’s little reason to fear a bee swarm – even if it lingers for several days. But you don’t want a hive near your home.

The “africanized” genetic strain has expanded naturally. Early in life, a virgin queen bee takes a series of mating flights. She mates with drones – male bees – on the wing. With sperm from this brief period, she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day for the rest of her life. If an africanized drone was among her partners, her young will have that genetic strain.

It natural settings, basic mindfulness is key, Nickell said.

“Unplug from your devices and use your senses,” he said. “Become environmentally aware. Use your eyes, use your nose, use your ears, all of your senses, your common senses. It’s not to say that there’s an Africanized bee colony around every corner, but you just don’t know where they could be.”

Bees are sensitive to electrical currents. Cellphones can agitate them.

Bee colonies send out “scouts.” If you find yourself harassed, you may be approaching a hive.

“That’s a signal – back off,” Nickell said. “And the Africanized bees, their scouts tend to be even more persistent than non-Africanized bees. If you’ve got two or three scouts that are flying around your face and bumping you a little bit, you really need to make an exit.”

If you do agitate a colony, the best option is to get inside a car or building as quickly as possible. You can’t outrun the bees, and you can’t wait them out in a body of water.

There’s one way to avoid escalating a bee encounter – and it’s easier said than done: Don’t crush a bee that stings you. When they sting, bees release chemicals announcing a potential threat.

“That’s going to alert other bees to come and investigate and aid in the defense,” Nickell said. “And if that bee is swatted and killed in a violent manner, the response in pheromones is even greater.”

Honeybees, africanized among them, pollinate a third of U.S. crops. Their social relations are fascinating. Awareness and understanding can help reduce the risks they pose.

Nature Notes is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.