Africanized Honey Bees (A.K.A. Killer Bees)

Review Prelude: How to Survive a Killer Bee Attack!

Some Do’s and Dont’s from the experts.

Do:

  • Run. In a straight line (it’s faster than a circle) and into the wind (increased drag slows the bees more than it slows you. Bees only took Physics 1 and they always assume no friction).
  • If possible, find shelter. It’s better to be inside a car with 40 bees than outside seriously regretting your profound oversight.
  • Pull your shirt over your head. Why? Killer bees like to sting you in the face. In fact, it’s the only thing they like to do.

Note: If you don’t think you can run fast with your shirt pulled over your head, then clearly you’ve never been attacked by bees. Rest assured, you can run fast with your shirt pulled over your head. You can run really, really, really fast.

It also turns out that you’re amazing at Parkour.

Don’t:

  • Jump in water (the bees will be waiting for you at the surface, and probably not with a piña colada).
  • Swat at the bees (this only attracts them).
  • Immediately remove your pants and underwear. Just saying don’t do that.

Alright. On to the review.

It is strange and unfortunate that there is not a Nobel Prize for Really Bad Mistakes In Science1. This international award could be presented annually in Stockholm by a sad clown wearing a lab coat and goggles, giving scientists that much more of an incentive to get things right for once. Brazilian geneticist Warwick Estevam Kerr would have made a fine nominee. For it was Mr. Kerr who introduced Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) to the Americas.

Oops. Bring out the clown.

It all started in 1956 when Kerr was contracted by the Brazilian Agriculture Ministry to hybridize aggressive, hardy, African honey bees with their relatively gentle-but-hard-working cousins that we all know and love, the European honey bees2. His goal was to selectively breed a super bee that was friendly and produced lots of honey, but liked the weather in the tropics and spoke fluent Portuguese. Everyone was to get rich. That was until some African queen bees escaped from Kerr’s facility in 1957 using a grappling hook made of cafeteria trays and bed sheets.

The full scope of the blunder was not immediately apparent to Kerr. Being a brilliant geneticist, he brilliantly assumed the African queen fugitives would breed with feral bees — thus diluting their infamous aggression. He was half right. Keep in mind that in the world of genetics, 50% is considered pretty good3.

The sole entry from Warwick Kerr’s lab notebook on the day the bees escaped. To a  fault, the man tended towards optimism.

And breed they did, spreading their dominant genes that coded for fury out into Brazil (where one farmer died from more than 1,000 stings) then South and Central America and Mexico before heading towards the southern United States. Here, the news media was waiting in a full-tilt frenzy that surprised even the killer bees. It was mayhem. So crazy were the major news outlets with killer bee fever that they were routinely putting entomologists on television. Actual entomologists. On television. The hysteria may have culminated in 1978, when Hollywood produced a movie starring Michael Caine called The Swarm. Now we had serious actors playing entomologists. That’s how nuts it was. And this was all fifteen years before the first killer-bee fatality on U.S. soil4 (1993).

‘Sorry, communism, but we’re afraid of these now.’

To be fair, our neurotic preoccupation with killer bees is not entirely without cause. They are certainly terrifying. Whereas normal European honey bees are slow to respond to intrusion and limit their defense to a relatively small area, Africanized honey bees will attack a perceived threat (like, say, a hippie gathering flowers) up to 100 feet from the hive, immediately, in far greater numbers and pursue over a much larger area. Africanized bees will give chase for up to ¼ mile from the hive, and are not above hopping on a Vespa if it means stinging you just a few hundred more times.

Bee rage has been neatly standardized by an experiment in which a little felt flag was briefly waved in front of hives with the help of a mechanical arm. European honey bees typically delivered between zero and ten stings to the flag in 30 seconds. In contrast, Africanized bees stung it between 400 and 500 times in the same interval. That little felt flag later passed away at the East Houston Regional Medical Center.

Furthermore, when honey bees sting, they release – along with their venom – an alarm pheromone5 called iso-amyl acetate that, curiously, smells like bananas.  The pheromone is a chemical signal for other bees to attack. Because if there’s anything killer bees hate more than felt flags, it’s a non-banana that still stinks like a banana. It just makes them completely insane. So then more bees attack, which in turn releases more alarm pheromone in a horrifying fruit-scented positive feedback loop.

‘Is that banana?  I think that’s banana.  If that’s banana I am seriously going to lose it right now.’

The venom of Africanized honey bees is no different than European honey bees, nor do they deliver more of it per sting. It’s just that they’re total jerks. Disturb a hive of Africanized bees and you can expect to be pursued by hundreds or even thousands of apoplectic flying syringes (as opposed to the comfortable 20 to 40 norm). And just FYI, the average non-allergic person can withstand about 7 bee stings per pound of body weight before death becomes a real possibility. If you’re allergic to bees, you can use the same formula — just be sure to enter your weight as 1/7th pound.

This is all bad. But on the bright side, Africanized honey bees pollinate plants and plants are crucial to agriculture production everywhere in the blah, blah, blah, blah.

Grade: F

Warwick Estevam Kerr Grade: F-

1 Past winners might also include American chemist Thomas Midgley, Jr., who gave us tetra-ethyl lead additives for gasoline (it turns out that lead in the air is not too helpful) AND chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) a refrigerant/aerosol propellant that helped keep our drinks cold and our hair styles groovy, but also tended to destroy our planet’s vital ozone layer at an alarming rate. Bring out the clown.

2 These are the normal honey bees you prefer. The ones that sting you less than 2,000 times. They were originally imported from Europe.

3 75% is excellent. And 100% is considered practically a sure thing.

4 They’ve killed about 26 since in the US, the latest in Tivoli, Texas. Killer Bees also inhabit New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Utah. So maybe take “I love camping and the outdoors!!!!” off your online dating profile now.

5 This is why beekeepers employ smoke. It’s thought to mask the effect of the bee’s alarm pheromone. Neat.

21 responses to “Africanized Honey Bees (A.K.A. Killer Bees)

  1. even though we are not in the lands of Shaolin, the Wu Tang was right about the killer bees: protect ya goddamn neck.

  2. Are hippies really “perceived” threats? I always view them as more of an actual threat.

  3. Is the Honey Nut Cheerios bee Africanized? He does seem to wallop rogue hornets or wasps or something.

  4. I find that coating myself in honey tricks the bees into leaving me alone while I frolick near their nests.

    Try it.

  5. Wait, so because they are dangerous they get an F? That doesn’t square at all. I mean- the King Cobra got an A, why not the African Bees. Pandas, yes I get it- complete F. Lllamas, I am with you: F, but killer bees. I mean, they almost seem like an American Dream success story to me: African immigrant destined to be subdued escapes and recruits natives into a revolt. Yes, scary, but a FAILURE? I think not.

  6. I think the Africanized Bees should get an A, possibly an A+ because they totally kick ass. Sure, they are mean little bastards, but so are humans and we like those. African Bees were brought here against their will, but they took those lemons, made lemonade, and kicked our asses. Well done little bugs, well done.

  7. Actually, I think Africanized Honey Bees ought to get an A or a B at least because they’re actually rather conscientious and civilized. Like European Honey Bees they die after stinging you. Unlike European Bees, Africanized Bees will attack in huge swarms consisting of a significant portion of the hive’s population. This is an adaptation to the African environment where they don’t have beekeepers to protect them from things like Honey Badgers. So if they swarm to protect the hive, the hive loses potentially thousands of bees. This is not a very successful evolutionary strategy on it’s own: if every time anything that wanders within 100 ft of the hive they suddenly lose about 5% of the colony. That’s kind of taxing on the whole. Seemingly in response to this, Africanized Bees have evolved a behavior known as “head-butting”. If anything approaches the hive, they will fly straight into it and bounce off, repeatedly. This is a warning sign that they’re about to kick your ass. If you’re walking around in a field or orchard and suddenly bees start flying into you, You ought to turn right around and walk quickly in the other direction. This seems quite civilized to me that they’d warn you before stinging you. So I think an F is probably unfair in light of this. Definitely an F- for Kerr though.

  8. I just found your site after reading npr. This is awesome. Keep it up!

  9. No way an F.

    1) they produce honey. Can you produce honey? Anything that produces something that delicious can not get an F.

    2) they are highly social animals that live in an organized system.

    3) they provide a valuable service to other animals- 2 services: a) they pollinate b) they weed out folks who are too arrogant to pay attention to their surroundings and subsequently die from a thousand stings

    4) How many 1 gram animals instill fear in multi-hundred-pound animals? That’s got to be worth more than an F.

    5) As a population, they are expanding rapidly. Clearly not failing.

  10. Another fun fact about Thomas Midgley Jr: He contracted polio in his fifties, and invented a system of ropes and pulleys to him him move/be moved around his bedroom, and was eventually strangled to death by his own invention.

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  12. Kait Kirkland

    My grandmother, Mary Lindsey lived on her farm in Edcouch Elsa, Texas in June of 1998. She thought that she could handle the few bees that she saw with some spray. She sprayed, and they attacked. She had brought her phone with her and was able to dial 911, but it was too late. She died shortly later. The hospital staff gave up pulling the stingers out of her body when they got to her knees. The stinger count when they stopped was well over 1,000. No matter what “grade” you think they deserve, remember that they’re mean little assholes. Pay for them to be removed by a professional. A horrible, slow and painful death isn’t worth it.

  13. For the “Really Bad Mistakes in Science”, I would like to nominate the dudes who linked autism to vaccines. Other than that, this was an awesome post. I like bees and I’m sad they’re dying, but killer bees is just something else.

  14. I’ve been stung many times before, but never by the african honey bee. That is my biggest concern when trying to capture a swarm, cuz you really can’t tell if they are killer bees or not.

  15. These are good tips. I know that if killer bees are disturbed, even slightly, it can set them into an attack mode. Killer bees are dangerous pest.

  16. Professor Kerr is responsible in large part for the establishment of the study of genetics in Brazil. He was on numerous prestigious committees, including being a director of of the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) from 1975-1979 and a founding member of several genetics departments throughout the country of Brazil (Goncalves 2009). Giving him an F- for this simple mistake is outrageous, especially since many accounts of the incident attribute it to a visiting professor, not Kerr.
    Futhermore, it has been proven that this mistake has actually be beneficial. As cited: “Africanized honeybees in the tropics directly influence 25-30% of the reproductive success of the flora. The flora depends on the bees for pollination, and in turn, flora provide seeds and fruit for their own reproductive success and as food for other organisms. There are two views about the influences that Africanized Honey Bees have on crops. Pollination of crops can continue even if an area has been fully colonized by Africanized bees. The first argument contends that farmers’ costs to produce crops increases because of the required public protection from Africanized bees and the increasing costs of purchasing European Honey Bees for pollination. The other view argues that Africanized honeybees are better pollinators than European honeybees because they emphasize brood rearing and colony growth instead of honey production. The shift in resource management allows Africanized honeybees to forage more for pollen than European bees. Therefore, Africanized bees can be regarded as superior pollinators. In Sinaloa Mexico, Africanized honeybees have invaded the area but have not caused any problems in crop harvests and production.” (Ojar 2002). Yes Killer bees are dangerous, but before you proclaim them as a “Really bad mistake in science” and say that a prominent and influential scientist “get things right for once”, do some research and learn the whole story. Finding this info took me no more than 15-20 minutes using Google.

  17. I was just attacked by africanized bees yesterday. they swarm you like kamakazi’s. i took off running to get inside my customers house. when i went to go out to my truck, bam they found me and chased me out to my truck. they got all up in my hair and stung me 7-8 times on my scalp,5-6 times on the back of my neck, 6 times on my face. one was right on my sinus next to my eye. they even got up inside my gloves an hit 6 times on my wriste. today i woke up and my face was all swollen, headache all night, chills, nausia, vomiting at 4am. this is no bull a very horrible experience. im male 6’2” 220lbs. i work in the pest control industry. bottom line dont f*** with bees

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  19. They are nothing to mess with without a bee suit. There sting is no more potent than a regular honey bee sting but they attack in numbers and are way more aggressive. Good information and a nice article.

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