Q: Are African honey bees here? Are they dangerous?
A: According to Dr. Jamie Ellis, entomologist at the University of Florida, approximately eight out of ten wild honey bee colonies in Florida south of a line from Tampa to Daytona are the African honey bees, often referred to as the killer bees.
No honey bees are native to North or South America. European settlers brought a temperate European subspecies with them when they colonized the Western hemisphere, and that species is the common honey bee. The African honey bee was first imported to Brazil in the 1970s by a beekeeper hoping that using a tropical subspecies from Africa would provide more productive honey producers in tropical Brazil.
Escaped queens enabled the subspecies to spread across South America, Central America, and the southern and southwestern United States in just 30 years. It is the most biological successful invasive species.
There are no visual differences between the European and African honey bees. The African honey bee is slightly smaller and has slightly less venom, but the two are so close that the only way to distinguish them individually is to send a sample to the University of Florida’s
lab for dissection.
Both subspecies defend the territory around their colonies, which is the only time the bees will be aggressive as a group. But when a European colony is disturbed, on average only 10-15 bees attack. When an African colony is disturbed, 10,000-12,000 bees attack.
Bees in a colony can detect vibrations in the ground up to 50 feet away from the actual colony, and the African bees can detect vibrations from heavy machinery such as tractors up to 100 feet away. However, colonies located more than 30 feet above the ground do not
usually pose any sort of risk.
When bees attack, it is always to defend the colony. Dr. Ellis said that the ONLY defense is to run away as fast as possible. Once out of the bees’ territory, the attack stops. Several dozen stings will be painful but not lethal.
Running is the only defense, and most people can outrun a bee. Do not stay and swat! The colony is probably close and attacking bees are attracted to movement, so swatting just attracts more bees. Don’t hide in underbrush because the bees can fit in there too, and don’t jump in water. Bees may stay agitated for up to 30 minutes after the colony is
disturbed, which is a lot longer than people can hold their breath under water.
If an attack occurs, survival is the only concern. It takes 5-10 stings per pound of body weight before the attack may be lethal, so barring allergies to bee stings, a 100-pound person could survive up to 1,000 stings.
Seek shelter in a building or vehicle. Some stinging bees may make it in too, but the number will be limited and once they sting, they die. If you see someone else being attacked, yell at them to RUN. If they don’t, do not try a rescue yourself because then there would be two
victims instead of one. Call 911.