|United States Department of Agriculture|
Africanized honey bees were accidentally released from a research laboratory in Brazil in 1956. They crossbred with more docile European honey bees (Apis mellifera) and began to migrate north. In 1990 they reached the southern United States. Africanized honey bees are not the “killer bees” portrayed by movies and television, actively looking for victims. While there have been deaths, people can and do successfully coexist with Africanized honey bees. However, due to the aggressive nature of these bees, you need to know a few facts to work safely in areas where they are found.
Honey bee colonies of European descent defend themselves by stationing guard bees at the colony entrance. The guard bees attack and protect the colony against intruders in the immediate vicinity of the entrance. European honey bees have been selected and bred for a number of traits, including gentleness.
Recent research has shown that Africanized guard bees appear to aggressively patrol and defend territories extending 30 meters or more beyond the nest entrance. These territories expand and contract in response to frequency of disturbance. Patrolling bees maintain their territory by head butting intruders to drive them away. When butting, individual bees buzz their wings at sound frequencies above those of normal flight and fly directly at the target with their legs extended behind them. Since butting is an easily recognized characteristic of highly defensive bee colonies, anyone encountering bees that head butt should quickly retreat.
|Figure 1–Africanized honey bee colony found in|
the cabinets of an unused mobile home.
While a single sting may not be dangerous, the bee has marked you as a target for other bees. Africanized honey bees aggressively attack the target in large numbers until the target ceases to be a threat or leaves the area. The area the Africanized honey bees defends may be much larger than the area defended by European honey bees.
In addition to being more aggressive about defending their colonies, Africanized honey bees are not as particular about where they nest as European honey bees. Africanized honey bee colonies can be found just about anywhere: in upside-down flower pots, inside the walls of houses (Figure 1), in tires, latrines, hollow trees and logs, bushes, and holes in the ground.
|Figure 2-Africanized honey bee colony|
in a rock crevice.
If you do become aware of a colony, slowly leave the area and keep coworkers away. Do not shoot the colony, throw rocks at it, or try to burn or smoke it out. This will disturb the bees. If the colony’s location makes it a threat to others, inform your supervisor or local authorities even if the bees appear to be docile. Honey bee behavior varies over time, especially with changes in colony age and the seasons. Small or young colonies are less likely to be defensive than larger, older colonies. You may pass the same colony for weeks without incident, and provoke them unexpectedly one day. “Swarming” bees, or bees traveling together in large groups (Figure 3), are less likely to attack. They are in the process of finding a new home and are not protecting an area.
|Figure 3-When bees swarm, most of the bees surround the queen in the top of a tree while others search for a|
suitable place to begin a colony.
Wear appropriate clothing. When hiking, wear light-colored clothing, including socks. Avoid wearing leather. When defending their nests, honey bees target objects that resemble their natural predators (such as bears and skunks), so they tend to go after dark, furry objects, or leather. Bees see the color red as black. Fluorescent orange is a better choice than red for work clothing.
Avoid wearing scents of any kind. Bees communicate by scent and are very sensitive to odors. Avoid strongly scented shampoo, soaps, perfumes, after-shaves, heavily scented gum, and so forth. If horseback riding, avoid using “lemony” or citrus-based fly-control products on your horse. Such scents have been known to provoke an attack. Bees may also be disturbed by strong natural smells, such as the odor of freshly cut grass.
Be extremely careful using any machinery that produces vibrations or loud noises, such as chain saws, weed eaters, lawn mowers, tractors, or electric generators. Check your environment before you begin operating noisy equipment.
Keep your dog on a leash or under close control when hiking. A large animal bounding through the brush will disturb colonies of Africanized honey bees. When the animal returns to its master, the attacking bees will come with it. Be careful not to tie or pen animals near honey bee colonies. Even the mild-mannered European honey bees have been known to attack animals tied near their colonies. Animals that are penned or tied can’t escape the bees. If your animals or pets are being attacked, try to release them without endangering yourself.
As you are running, pull your shirt up over your head or use a coat or blanket to protect your face. Do not slow down. If you have an emergency bee hood, put it on while you are leaving. The hood will minimize the stings around the sensitive areas of your head. Bees will crawl into clothing to attack, and can sting through light clothing. If you are wearing the Forest Service yellow fire shirts and green fire jeans, you are marginally protected as long as your shirt sleeves are down and fastened around the wrist. You should leave the area as fast as it is safely possible to do so.
Keep Running! Do not stop running until you believe you have left the bees’ defensive area or you have reached protection, such as a vehicle or building. Do not jump into water, the bees will wait for you to come up for air. Africanized honey bees may chase their victim for more than a quarter mile. If you are trapped, cover up with clothes, blanket, sleeping bag, or whatever is handy.
Do not swat at the bees or flail your arms. Bees are attracted to movement. Crushed bees emit a smell that will attract and anger more bees.
Once you have reached shelter or have outrun the bees, remove all the stingers that are embedded in your skin. Poison sacs attached to the stingers continue pumping poison for up to 10 minutes. Experts now suggest grasping the stinger with your fingers or tweezers and pulling the stinger out immediately rather than scraping it out with a card. It is more important to remove the stinger quickly than to worry about how it is removed.
If you see persons being attacked who are capable of helping themselves, encourage them to run away and seek shelter. Do not attempt to rescue them yourself. You will only increase the chances that you will become a victim. Call 911, the local emergency number, or your dispatch to report a serious attack. If your area is known to have Africanized honey bee colonies, emergency response personnel in your area have probably been trained to handle bee attacks.
If you have been stung more than 15 times, are feeling ill, or find it difficult to get a deep breath, seek medical attention immediately. The average person can safely tolerate five stings per pound of body weight. While 250 stings could kill a child, an average, healthy adult could withstand as many as 550 stings. These estimates do not apply to persons who are abnormally sensitive to bee stings, less than 1 percent of the population. For these persons, a single sting may be life threatening.
Identify the emergency responders that may be called. Determine ahead of time whether they can deal effectively with an attack. Ask what they recommend doing in the event of an attack. Ask them if they are aware of any known colonies in the area.
Identify a bee professional who can be called to move or eliminate a colony. They can be found in the telephone book’s Yellow Pages or by contacting the County or State health departments.
Make sure all employees have a first-aid kit available. Persons who know they are allergic to bee stings should carry their own emergency sting kit (such as the Ana-Kit or Epi-Pen) and be familiar with its use.
For further information, contact:
University of Arizona
Education and Technologies (ECAT)
College of Agriculture
Tucson, AZ 85719-1111
Texas A&M University
Department of Agriculture
Room 201 Reed McDonald Building
College Station, TX 77843-2112
Carl Hayden Bee Research Center
USDA Agricultural Research Service
2000 E. Allen Road
Tucson, AZ 85719
Agriculture Research Station
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Beltsville, MD 20705
Dennis Davis is the specifications engineer for firefighting equipment with the Missoula Technology and Development Center in Missoula, MT. He is a volunteer firefighter/emergency medical technician and a battalion chief for the Frenchtown Rural Fire Department in Frenchtown, MT.
Additional single copies of this document can be ordered from:
USDA Forest Service
Missoula Technology and Development Center
Building 1, Fort Missoula
Missoula, MT 59804-7294
For further technical information, please contact Dennis Davis at the address above.
Lotus Notes: Dennis Davis/WO/USDAFS@fs.fed.us
This page last modified July 17, 2000
Visitor since July 17, 2000