The so called killer bees, more accurately the Africanized bees (or AHB) have received much publicity over the last few years, much of it very sensational. The media is entirely responsible for the emotive name and for most if not all of the hysteria surrounding the subject.There have been cases of people dying after being stung by killer bees. My question would be, might these people have died after just one or two stings? Some people are deathly allergic to bee stings. The general public quickly assume that the sting of a ‘killer bee’, sorry Africanized bee, is somehow much more potent than the sting of a regular European honey bee, which just isn’t the case.
The Africanized bee is very similar to the European bee in most respects, they even look the same. The only sure way to determine whether a honeybee or bee colony has any African heritage is to test its DNA.
It’s probably impossible to get a strictly accurate account of something like that from media sources. It’s often said that if you ask 5 beekeepers about something, they’ll give you at least 6 opinions. What chance is there of getting accuracy after the press have taken those accounts and injected a good measure of sensationalism? It’s obviously much better for viewer ratings or newspaper and magazine sales to scream about the, "Menace of the Killer Bees sweeping across America!" than calmly discuss "The Africanized bee problem".
Maybe it’s the cynic in me but whenever I’ve had some personal knowledge of a news event, the account I’ve seen in the press or seen on TV doesn’t really agree too closely. There have been many instances of people being badly stung by bees, but I often wonder whether there were some factors that weren’t reported. If I was a teenage boy and I’d been attacked and badly stung by a colony of bees which had made their nest in a hollow tree. When the TV cameras turned up, I’m very likely not to mention that I threw rocks at the hive before they attacked me.
It all started in 1956 when some colonies of a species of African honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, were imported from south Africa with the idea of breeding them with various European honey bees such as the Italian bee A. m. ligustica and A. m. iberiensis. The object was to develop a strain of bee which was better adapted to a tropic climate with the ultimate aim of increasing honey production.
The imported bees where found to be more defensive, or aggressive, depending on the way you look at it. It’s worth remembering that bees sting only to defend their colonies against intruders, stinging anything which seems to be a threat to protect the whole hive. The temperament of a colony of bees changes from day to day to some extent and according to many factors such as the weather, the time of year, overhead power lines, interference by animals or teenage boys and even chemicals or smells in the locality.
It’s clear to a beekeeper who has a number of hives in an apiary that some will be inherently more defensive than others. I have some bee hives which you can open without the use of smoke, remove and inspect frames without gloves or veil and not receive any stings. I have other hives from which the workers will fly out to see what you’re up to as son as you approach the hive, they’ll sting you as soon as look at you, and they’ll follow you for ¼ mile down the road, bouncing of your suit veil.
Some of the imported bee were accidentally released by a replacement bee-keeper in 1957 near Rio Claro, São Paulo State in the southeast of Brazil. The hives from which the bees were released had special excluder grates which were in place to prevent the larger queen bees from getting out but to allow the drones free access to mate with the queen. Unfortunately, following the accidental release, the African queens eventually mated with local drones, and their descendants have since spread throughout the Americas, and the killer bees phenomenon was born.
It was feared that the killer bees would take over from the European honeybee and beekeeping as we know it would be finished. I have a strong feeling that although there are a few highly aggressive bee colonies around, it isn’t the huge problem which we were expecting. California has apparently had Africanized bees since about 1998 in some places.
I deal with wild bee colonies in San Diego on a daily basis and I can say that the number of very aggressive bee colonies which I have encountered I could count on the fingers of one hand. I’ve never had them tested, but if bees from a colony come and sting me without provocation and many more follow me for a good distance from the hive, they’re probably Africanized. Even if they passed a DNA test and proved to be European bees, if they’re that aggressive, they need to bee dealt with, one way or another. Fortunately I have an excellent bee suit for such situations.