The Truth About Africanized Honeybees

The Truth About Africanized Honeybees

Africanized bees are something that, if you are not a beekeeper and don’t live in Arizona, seem like mythological creatures from a horror film. At least that’s how I thought of them when I lived in Seattle. Honestly I thought they were on par with Sharknado. But when I discovered I was moving to Arizona, I started doing some research and discovered that they were, in fact, real and I was more than a little hesitant to move.  If you have seen my TedX talk (HERE) you’ll get a better idea of my mindset, but suffice it to say,  Killer bees became more of a reality to me than the Coronavirus. 

After living in Phoenix for 10 years Africanized bees stopped being on my radar until I decided to take up beekeeping. Now, Africanized bees are my best friends and my biggest woes.

The Real Story of Africanized Bees

Every year there are stories in the news about someone being attacked and killed by Africanized bees in Arizona. Those are true stories, but then there isn’t a lot of explanation that goes with the story, and even when there is, people don’t really hear it. On Facebook I read all kinds of misinformation about these bees, and many pest control companies, lacking proper information, tell customers that Africanized bees have to be destroyed because they are too dangerous and can’t bee kept in hives. I almost don’t blame them, because without proper experience and training in removing and rehabilitating Africanized colonies, they can be dangerous. But they could just call a beekeeper who can save them. I’ll get into that later, but for now, I want to get some actual facts in your head.

Let me help clear some things up by explaining…

  • What Africanized bees are.
  • Where they come from.
  • Why they are called Killer bees.
  • How they are impacting Arizona and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
  • Can beekeepers safely keep Africanized bees?
  • Are Africanized bees here to stay?

What are Africanized Bees

Technically speaking, Africanized Honeybees are Apis mellifera scutellata and all it’s hybrids when they are found outside of Africa, especially when they are interbred with European honeybees. All of the honeybees from Africa, up through the Mediterranean and Europe, as well as in Australia and the whole Western Hemisphere are Apis Mellifera, But we often refer to them as either African or European. Each of the various regions has it’s own subspecies that have specific characteristics related to its environment, but they can all interbreed. Africa has eleven documented subspecies, but it is Apis meliffera scutellata that was introduced to the Western Hemisphere.

European Honeybees, which were brought to North and South America in the 1600’s, prefer temperate climates and produce very well in them. Parts of South America where it is hot and humid, however are not ideal. That sparked an idea for scientist, Warwick Kerr to find a productive honeybee that thrives in hot climates. Southern Africa seemed the perfect place. Kerr’s goal was to selectively breed African queens to produce offspring with desired qualities of good production and gentle behavior. Unfortunately, he didn’t get to finish his experiments because the bees took the opportunity to swarm when the queen excluders were removed. For the next 30 years the African colonies mated with European honeybees and reproduced their colonies at an alarming rate as they made their way to the US in 1987. As they went, the honeybee’s defensive behavior took the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting people who disturbed the nests. Of course news spread as the bees traveled, and that is how we got the term KILLER BEES.

Traditional African basket hives suspended in a tree.

Characteristics of Apis meliffera, scutellata are:

  1. They aggressively defend their nesting site or hive by deploying hundreds of guard bees rather than tens, as in the case of European bees. They also guard a much larger area. The theory is that the behavior developed because of the way their honey has been harvested for hundreds of years by humans destroying the nest rather than by only removing the honey. Harsh climates and predators also play into that.
  2. Africanized bees reproduce their colonies many more times than European bees. A typical European colony may swarm (create a new queen and send part of the colony away with the old queen to colonize) 1-4 times in a year, while Africanized bees will do that as many as 10 times in a year. This is partly why they have been so successful in dominating the gene pool. Besides swarming, they will also abscond or move their entire colony readily if there is a lack of food in the area.
  3. Hive size and location choice also differs somewhat from European Honeybees. While European Honeybees prefer gated communities and travertine tile…just kidding! They do prefer larger spaces to grow in though. Africanized Honeybees will nest almost anywhere, and in much smaller spaces. This is why bee removals are a steady job for many beekeepers in areas with these bees. Floors, ceilings, walls, valve boxes, compost bins, dresser drawers… you name it, Africanized Honeybees will set up home there.
  4. As far as appearance, Africanized and European Honeybees look the same. Some say the former are slightly smaller, but if so, it is difficult to tell. Only a DNA test can accurately determine the subspecies.

This brings us to the impact that Africanized Honeybees have had in the areas where they dominate the gene pool.

Living in Arizona and being a beekeeper there, I am constantly aware of news and information regarding Africanized Honeybees. Also, the Arizona Backyard Beekeeper Association has many many conversations on social media regarding the management and woes of these bees. Here is what I have seen as an impact on our region.

  1. People are fearful of bees and city ordinances have made backyard beekeeping either unlawful or very restricted.
  2. Many homeowners choose to kill colonies and some pest control “experts” advise that Africanized bees must be destroyed.
  3. There are actual deaths from Africanized Honeybee attacks when their hive is unintentionally or intentionally disturbed.
  4. Beekeeping is challenging because a hive can not be allowed to create its own queen if it is to remain non-Africanized. A queen that hatches will be mated almost entirely with Africanized drones, therefore producing more defensive workers. The cost of ordering queens from out of state is $30-$40 per queen. That is a high price and often leads beekeepers to not requeen, and therefore maintain Africanized hives. This can be more dangerous for neighbors and their animals.
  5. Other beekeeping tasks are much less pleasant than with a European colony. Thicker protective clothing with the added protection of duct taped arms and ankles is often a must. There does seem to be a variance in behavior among the hybrids, but you never know which way that will go.

Final thoughts

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t state that many beekeepers are fine with Africanized Honeybees, and consider them to be superior honey producers, and more importantly, better able to withstand the onslaught of Varroa Mites and the ferocious Arizona Summer. Those are some pretty good qualities, but I have not gone over to that camp yet. I still like to work bees in a summer dress and flip flops.

Arizona beekeepers are working hard to find solutions to the Africanized Honeybee problem. Some are hoping to flood mating areas with European drones, others are working toward rehabilitating feral Africanized colonies through requeening. And most recently, I have heard of some interesting possibilities of breeding Africanized Honeybees with another breed of European Honeybee whose docile genes overpower the African aggressive genes. That is not for me to discuss at this time, but I am excited by the possibilities. The Africanized Honeybee is definitely not going away anytime soon, but our neighbors to the north should be thankful they like warmer climates.

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