Africanized bees: What is their real danger?

2013, July 24,  30 000 of Africanized bees violently attacked a couple and their pets in Pantego in north Texas.

Kristen Beauregard, 44 years old, and her husband, were walking their pony “Trump” when suddenly and out of nowhere, a swarm of bees started attacking them.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Kristen Beauregard jumped in the pool with her pony to escape the bees.

“Each time we would get our heads out of the water, they would start immediately to sting”

She could finally run to the house “the bees were chasing us and I could hear the sound of them hitting violently the windows”.

Hopefully, firefighters were there in no time and could help the victims using special anti-bee equipment. They then carried the horses to a near pasture where rescuers and police officers were waiting.

Unfortunately, Chip, a six years old horse succumbed to his injuries. Trump who was dragged to a veterinary clinic died soon after. “It was too much for a 230 lbs. mammal to handle” said the veterinarian who took charge of him. 5 other chickens had a similar fate.

As for Kristen, she survived miraculously after she suffered more than 200 stings. Her husband received “only” 50 stings.

Other similar incidents raised the worry about these Africanized killer bees. In 2015, these bees invaded California, and ecologists said they might replace local bees in the whole south region of the US.

As the matter got more and more serious, several question are raised concerning this aggressive insect. Where did these bees come from? What is their real danger on individuals and communities? How to avoid their attacks? What to do in the case of attack?

Experts are now delving deeper into the subject trying to discover the rights answers.

Origins of Africanized Bees

Africanized bee

In late 50s, Brazil launched an ambitious program aiming to improve the country’s honey production. In order to get a hybrid breed that resists better to tropical diseases, it was decided to import African bees and breed it with honey bees.

Honey bees were introduced in Brazil in 1840 from Spain and Portugal. Many years later, German and Italian honey bees were imported to enrich Brazilian apiculture. In 1950, beehives suffered epidemic diseases that decimated more than 80% of bees. To solve the problem, the Brazilian agriculture ministry decided to launch a national wide research program in order to make bees more resistant. An experimental center headed by geneticist Estevan Kerr was created in São Paulo.

Estevan Kerr went to Africa in 1956 and brought 49 queen bees (Apis mellifera scutellata). The queen bees are impregnated using local drones. Several weeks later, 26 bee swarms were created.

Unfortunately, research would not come to an end as the new hybrid bees escaped in the aftermath of an accident in the experimental center. At that time, researchers didn’t know they let free a serial killer.

Soon after, killer bees attacked a number of beehives killing the queens and destroying the whole swarm in the matter of seconds. In 40 years, they colonized Brazil and reached the US in 90s. For the Brazilian government, the situation was out of control despite all efforts of total eradication.

Of all the poisonous animals, Africanized bees are the record holders for human victims (more than a thousand to this date in the American continent). Not to mention the countless pet victims.

Scientific research results

scientific research

After thorough research, American entomologists discovered the reasons behind the aggressiveness of Africanized bees: The cross-breeding made in the experimental center of São Paulo produced unknown dangerous effects.

The new bees genes allow for a larger number of warrior bees in the hive. Warrior bees’ job is to protect the hive from any kind of danger. The problem is that they tend to overdo it.

Another important difference is that killer bees are more sensitive to danger. They consider a threat any one who intrudes their safety space. For them, this space is a perimeter of 400 yards. For the European bees, the space is only 50 yards.

In fact, while the venom produced by the two kinds of bees in same, the number of stings produced by an Africanized bee swarm when it feels danger is considerably higher (10 times higher). As a result, small doses of European bees’ venom do not kill. If the quantity if venom is 10 times higher, it becomes of course fatal.

How to protect yourself from killer bees?

Now that you are more aware of the danger that Africanized bees present. Let’s see how one can prevent their attacks and what to do in case of attack.

Prevention

In rural areas, always be vigilant.

If you see one or two bees, this is pretty normal. It becomes suspicious if there are 10 or more bees. If you notice that the number and the noisy sound is increasing, then turn back quickly without making much noise. It needs an entomologist to tell if they are killer or European bees, so better do not risk it.

A hat can be of great help as bees tend to sting in the head. Wear bright colors and avoid perfumes, aftershaves and different kinds of creams.

Protection

It is too late and the bees have already launched their attack against you. The solution is pretty straightforward: run for your life!!! Try to do as much zigzags as you can, the colony finds it difficult to make abrupt turns.

Protect you face while looking for a shelter (house, hut…whatever).

Jumping in water is not as good of a solution as it seems. The bees would not get bored easily, they rather would wait for you to reappear.

Do not join other people as the bees would attack them as well.

After the attack, you’ll have some stingers left on your body (hopefully not many). Try to get rid of as many as you can. Pay attention not to press against injured areas, because the venom would probably propagate in your blood.

If you have more than 20 stingers left on your body, call 911.

Bright side

beehive

So far, this article has been worse than a horror movie. But Africanized bees are far from being only pure evil.

Despite the insect’s bad reputation, everything is not negative. As a matter of fact, killer bees produce three times more honey and are very resilient against diseases. For that, a growing number of Brazilian beekeepers are choosing this bee over the “classical” European honey bee. Thanks to its high productivity attributes, honey production in Brazil is 4 times higher than it was 40 years before.

The hardiness of Africanized bees has an upside. The insect protect better his hive from humans (beehive and honey thieves) and from animals. That is, keeping it has some constraints. It has to be far from any kind of human concentration (houses, roads…etc.). Also, beekeepers need to use adapted protection equipment to be safe.

Later, beekeepers succeeded to get less aggressive bees by breeding African drones with European female bees. It seems that the problem appears only when the European drones fertilize African queens.

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