Africanized Honeybees - October 3, 2007
Jeff Schalau, Associate Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources, Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County
Humans have benefitted from honey bees since prehistoric times. They provide honey, pollen, and royal jelly that humans harvest from bee hives. Honeybees also pollinate flowers of many crop plants. One-third of the food Americans eat comes directly from the pollination honey bees and other insects perform. Honey bees belong to the genus Apis which comes from the word for beekeeping, apiculture, and the word for a bee yard, apiary. Apis mellifera, which means honey carrier, is the species of honey bee found in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. The African subspecies of honey bee is Apis mellifera var. scutellata.
Entomologists believe that the African subspecies developed their aggressive nature through the process of natural selection. African bees developed in a tropical climate with frequent droughts and unpredictable weather. They also have dealt with a wide array of predators including humans. Conversely, European bees developed in a colder climate having four distinct seasons, abundant water, and a dependable forage base. In addition, they have been domesticated for many years and were purposefully bred to have a calmer attitude.
Africanized honey bees have been in the United States (Texas) since 1990. They were first seen in Arizona in 1993 and killed several dogs, two horses, two emus, and countless fowl and small animals in that year. In October 1995, an 88 year-old Apache Junction woman was stung approximately 1,000 times and became the first human AHB fatality in Arizona. The bees were disturbed after she closed an open door on a vacant building.
Africanized honey bees have been in Yavapai County since 1997 and have been recorded statewide. It is highly likely that any wild bee you come in contact should be considered an AHB. Do you need to be afraid of them? No. Do you need to be aware of them and know what to do when you come upon a colony? Yes. It's much like being aware of poisonous snakes or scorpions when in their habitat.
Africanized honey bees pose the greatest threat to people who must work outdoors: farmers, construction workers, rangers, landscapers and yard maintenance workers, and even pest control workers. Like European honey bees, AHBs can sting only once. It is their sheer numbers that create the threat. While foraging, bees are usually not aggressive. They get most feisty when their nest is threatened. Most cases of AHB attacks have been traced back to disturbance of the hive: a lawnmower, weed eater, tractor, or other threatening conditions.
The first sign of a potential attack is often a preliminary defense behavior such as flying at your face or buzzing over your head. This is a signal that you have entered their area and are seen as a threat. If bees become agitated, the most important thing to do is get away as soon as possible. Do not wait for them to calm down, try to retrieve belongings, or wave your arms to get them off you. A bee can fly at speeds from 12 to 15 miles per hour and most healthy humans can outrun them. So, RUN and KEEP RUNNING! AHBs have been known to follow people for more than a quarter mile.
Any covering for your head and face will help you escape. People that have been attacked say the worst part is being stung in the face and eyes. Once this occurs, your vision will be obscured and your chance of escape substantially lowered. If you have nothing else, pull your shirt up over your face. Take refuge in a house, tent, or car as soon as possible. The bees will find any opening, so make sure all possible entrances are sealed. Do not jump into water. The bees will wait for you to surface.
This article is not meant to scare you, only to better inform you. More people die of lightning strikes than insect stings. So, while reasonable precautions should be taken, the risk of serious injury or death from AHBs will remain low when compared to other threats present in everyday life.
The University of Arizona Cooperative Extension has publications and information on gardening and pest control. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener line in the Cottonwood office at 646-9113 ext. 14 or E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to include your address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or submit column ideas at the Backyard Gardener web site: http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.
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