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African killer bees killing Africans

The real threat is to the honey business

The Africanized variety will dog you for half a mile or so.
  • The Africanized variety will dog you for half a mile or so.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Dear Matt, My question is about killer bees. If these bees came from Africa originally, why is it we never heard about thousands of Africans being killed by them before they got over here? It seems to me that's something we would have heard about. — C.J., San Diego

Personally, I think killer bees are more likely to aggravate us to death from the unending hype than to sting us into submission. The Buttafuocos and Bobbitts of entomology. But back in the 1950s, the native honeybee of Africa, Apis mellifera scutellata, would have made an unlikely media darling in America.

The African honeybee is in most ways not so different from its local counterpart (A. mellifera). Mostly, it’s different in its behavior, which has been shaped by the harsher conditions in which it lives. At least, that’s the bugmen’s theory. A. m. scutellata is more beset by predators and has to battle harder for scant resources. This has made them scrappy and streetwise. A disturbance to any honeybees’ hive will rally the troops to attack the invader. California’s honeybees send out maybe 100 or so, the so-called Africanized bees can send out 1000. If you happen to get them on a bad day and they’re really touchy, they’ll “abscond,” as the bugmen put it, and leave the hive en masse. Eventually they’ll set up housekeeping elsewhere.

The venom in the Africanized bees’ sting isn’t more potent than that of a regular honeybee, it’s the quantity a victim can receive that makes the sting more life-threatening. The difference between being hit by a Schwinn and a truck. And Africanized bees are harder to shake. It’s actually possible for a human to outrun an ordinary honeybee, which will only chase you for a few yards. The Africanized variety will dog you for half a mile or so, though it doesn’t fly any faster than the common type.

The biggest risk to the U.S. from Africanized bees is to the honey industry. The Africanized variety will actually raid the hives of our common honeybees and kick out the queen in a kind of apian coup d’etat. They install their own queen and take over the hive. And because they’re more aggressive, they also mate more successfully and infiltrate their genes into the local strain in that way, too.

So what’s the deal? Well, the deal is, bee sting deaths in Africa weren’t likely to make headlines, even in Africa. If “thousands” of people, as you say, were killed in a single incident or even in a year by the bees, maybe something would have been said about it, but in fact, no such thing has happened. Africans know how to live with them as with any other hazardous insect. Sting deaths occur, but not at any alarming rate. Africanized bees have been in Brazil since 1957, and we don’t hear anything about mass deaths there either. According to recent counts, about 17 people in the U.S. die from bee stings each year, fewer than are killed by lightning; about 40 die annually from all insect stings combined. “Killer” bee invasions will raise that number, but few can predict how high. One expert offered 100 as a likely figure, but that’s pure speculation. (Your risk from a traffic accident or homicide is certainly greater.) When Africanized bees are collecting nectar or just generally flying around, they pose little danger. It’s when you disturb the hive that they get rude.

From a media point of view, the bees just happen to be arriving at a time when other migrants from the south are also a hot topic, so you’ll have to forgive the opportunistic headline writers for selling papers and hyping TV shows with lines like, “Killers Mass on U.S. Border.” Journalists are not always a moderate lot.

San Diego County’s agricultural extension service has its own Africanized honeybee hotline. I tried calling last week, but it had been invaded by termites or something and wasn’t working. I was assured the glitch was temporary, so you might try calling 1-800-200-BEES (2337) to record your questions or request an information booklet on the subject.

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