Behavior and Background of Africanized Honeybees

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In May 2013, when Tucson resident Steven Wallace Johnson failed to turn up to work on Monday morning after a weekend of hiking, his coworkers were naturally concerned and quickly notified the authorities. After a short search, his body was found, still in his rappelling gear on a mountain south of Tucson, Arizona. However, authorities were surprised to find his body was covered in bee stings. The culprit? The Africanized honeybee.

Background of the Africanized Honeybee

Although deaths like Johnson’s are rare, Africanized honeybees, otherwise known as “killer bees,” have caused a number of fatalities and serious injuries in the U.S. This bee is actually a hybrid species, which was produced in the crossbreeding of the African honeybees with a number of other European bee species. According to the University of California, these bees were first introduced into the U.S. in 1990, and they have quickly spread to establish themselves in a number of southern states, including Arizona and Texas.

Africanized Honeybee Behavior

Africanized honeybees differ from other types of honeybees in both appearance and behavior. They are far more aggressive when defending their hive than European bees and have a larger alarm radius around their hive. They also use a higher proportion of guard bees within the hive, and they tend to deploy more bees for defensive purposes. In addition, the Africanized honeybee tends to follow perceived threats for longer distances from the hive. The aggressive behavior of the Africanized honeybee is thought to be the result of the harsher conditions in the African environment, where the honeybees would face other threats such as honey badgers and even humans, forcing them to become more aggressive to ensure their survival.

Africanized Honeybee Precautions

Although Africanized honeybees are more aggressive than normal honeybees, it is important not to overreact or overstate the threat that they may pose to the general population. With April being National Honeybee Awareness Month, here are a few precautions on how to stay safe from Africanized honeybees:

  • When operating machinery near Africanized honeybees, take special care. According to the San Diego Natural History Museum, these bees are easily disturbed by the vibration or exhaust that comes from machinery such as lawn mowers or leaf blowers.
  • When doing yard work, look for signs of bees or beehives before turning over rocks, trees or other types of debris that could be hiding a bee’s nest.
  • Africanized honeybees tend to prefer cavities such as holes in the ground, crevices, hollow trees and water meters. Be alert as to possible nests and stay away as much as possible. If you do find a nest in your home or yard, call a professional to remove it.
  • Dark clothing attracts these bees. When hiking or engaging in activities that may lead you to run into Africanized bees, wear as much light clothing as possible. Also, try to stay away from perfumes or other strong fragrances that may also attract these bees.
  • If you do happen to unexpectedly encounter a nest or swarm, walk away slowly and avoid excessive motion such as wild waving of arms.

What to Do in Case of Attack

In the unfortunate case that you are attacked, your first priority should be to run away as quickly and as far as possible until the bees stop following you. Cover the sensitive areas of around your eyes and head as much as you can. If possible, get inside an enclosed area where the bees can no longer follow you. After being stung, remove the bee stingers promptly with a blunt object (like carefully scraping a credit card or butter knife over the area to scrape off the singer, for example). Avoid using your fingers or tweezers, as this may inject more venom. Use soap and water on the areas stung to prevent infection, and apply ice to help reduce pain and swelling. If you do receive many stings or have an allergic reaction, seek immediate medical attention.

Although the Africanized honeybee is not native to the United States, it seems that there are here to stay. By following reasonable precautions and being aware of your surroundings, you, too, can neutralize the threat of the Africanized honeybee.