In the 1978 movie The Swarm, great clouds of angry bees attack entire cities and sting hundreds of people to death. This pure fiction could never happen in nature. But folklore like this has arisen within the last ten years regarding an insect often called the “killer bee.”

The killer bee’s ancestors live throughout Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. Africanized bees, as they are properly called, were accidentally introduced into the wild in the Americas during 1956. Brazilian scientists were attempting to create a new hybrid bee in the hopes of improving honey production. The Africanized bee escaped and began to dominate the native honey bee.

The new hybrid took many years to establish colonies throughout Latin America. It is aggressive, easily agitated, and all in all a bee with a bad attitude. The first Africanized bee was found in in southern Texas in October 1990. This bee is expected to spread across the southern United States, where the winters aren’t so harsh. Some scientists and entomologists believe that Africanized bees will be able to adapt to colder weather and roam as far north as Montana. If this projection is true, it could become a significant problem in the U.S. for a number of reasons.

Taxonomy

Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptra “Membrane Winged” (wasps, ants)
Family: Apidae
Genus and Species: Apis mellifera scutellata (Africanized bee)

Colony Life

The four life stages of a Africanized Bee are egg, larva, pupa and adult. It takes about 21 days for a regular worker to fully develop from an egg, 16 days for a queen, and 24 days for a drone. Drones, which are male, usually live five to ten weeks. Workers, which are all female, usually live 50 days.

Queens live an average of one to three years. However, there is only one surviving queen bee in each colony. She mates over with many drones and may lay 1500 eggs per day.

When the beehive is overpopulated, Africanized bees swarm to a local area to start a new hive. Too much warm or cold weather may cause swarming. When two queens reach the adult stage, they battle to the death for control of the hive. The cycle of swarming continues until the hive is worn out. If you are in the path of a swarm of Africanized bees, you have a 75% percent chance of being in a deadly attack.

What Are the Differences?

European Honey Bees

  • Pollinate flowers and crops
  • Calmed by smoke
  • Swarm only when crowded

Africanized Bees

  • More aggressive
  • Attack in larger groups
  • Make less honey
  • Make less wax
  • Hate high pitched sounds
  • Swarm more often

What Causes Killer Bees to Attack?

Africanized bees react to disturbance around the hive. They can remain provoked for days after being disturbed. If one bee stings, it releases an alarm that smells like bananas. This pheromone causes the other bees, in turn, to become agitated and sting.

The opening video at the top of this site shows a Africanized bee’s stinger entrapped in human skin. Tiny barbs on the stinger penetrate the epidermis. When the bee tries to fly away, it rips its abdomen. As with the honey bee, the usual result is discomfort for the human but death for the bee.

An extremely aggressive Africanized bee colony may attack any perceived threat within 100 feet and pursue for up to a quarter of a mile. Generally, Africanized bees attack:

  • Only when the colony is threatened
  • In the presence of loud noises, strong odors or fragrances, shiny jewelry, and dark clothes
  • The face and ankles

What Should You Do If Attacked?

  • Run away in a straight line, protecting your face. Africanized bees are slow fliers and most healthy people can outrun them.
  • Avoid other people, or they, too, will be attacked.
  • Do not try and hide underwater. The Africanized bee swarm will wait for you to surface.
  • Seek medical attention. Some people are allergic to bee stings, which can cause anaphylactic shock. Since Africanized bees attack and sting in great numbers, it is possible for them to trigger an allergic response.

Maybe You’re Wondering…?

Q: What characteristics distinguish the Africanized bee from their European cousin’s?
They look the same to the casual observer. An Africanized bee is more defensive than a normal honey bee.

Q: How much honey does a European bee colony produce compared to an African bee colony?
A European bee colony produces five times more honey than a Africanized bee colony.

Q: Why is the Africanized bee so defensive?
Color, size, and shape are traits that bees pass along from generation to generation through genes contained in cells. The Africanized bee is a dangerous hybrid, passing down the trait of defensiveness to each offspring.

Q: What is anaphylactic shock?
Most cells release histamine and other biologically active substances. Venom promotes histamine release from mast cells and basophils (especially in sensitized individuals), which, under the right circumstances, can lead to vasodilation and loss of blood pressure. If this response is not reversed within a short time, the person may die of shock.

Q: Why does one third of the U.S. food production depend on bees?
Bees pollinate flowers that turn into fruit, vegetables, plants, and trees.

Q: How does a queen bee control her nest?
She releases a pheromone that identifies her as the queen.

Q: What happened to Brazil’s honey production as a result of the introduction of killer bees?
Brazil went from 4th in world honey production to 27th by the early 1990s.

Attempts to Stop the Africanized Bee

Entomologists in Texas are working hard to monitor the northward spread of Africanized bees. They are tracking them with traps made of cardboard boxes covered with blue protective plastic. These traps are hung in trees and baited with a liquid similar to the pheromone that directs a swarm looking for a home. Over 1,200 bee traps have been set along hundreds of miles of Texan roadway.

Another attempt involves inserting European honey bee sperm into a Africanized queen bee before releasing her into the wild. Scientists hope the injected killer bee queen will produce less aggressive bees and pass the gene to her offspring. So far, not enough queens have been released into the wild to determine if this plan will be successful.

Are U.S. Beekeepers Worried?

The Africanized bee’s aggression, coupled with its ability to dominate a honey bee region and reduce honey production, makes beekeepers anxious. Americans consume about 275 million pounds of honey each year. Beehive products also include polish, candle wax, and floor wax. Scientists disagree on this bee’s ability to adapt to new environments nor how widely it will range. Relocating its hives without causing an angry swarm is another great concern. It seems we have much to learn about Apis mellifera scutellata — the bee with the bad attitude.