Warning: Africanized "killer" honey bees found in GA

By Laura Ann Sills - bioemail

ATLANTA (WTVM) –  State entomologists have confirmed Africanized honeybees were responsible for the death of an elderly man in Dougherty County, GA last week.

[Read: GA man dies in bee attack]

Reports say the man accidentally disturbed a feral colony of bees with his bulldozer and that he received more than 100 stings.

"This is the first record of Africanized honeybees in Georgia," said Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

Scientists say Africanized honeybees are a hybrid of African and European honeybees.  They are sometimes called "killer bees" because of their defensive nature.

We are told honeybees are less predictable and more defensive than European honeybees and look almost identical. They are more likely to defend around our next and respond faster and in greater numbers than European honeybees.

Africanized honeybees first appeared in the U.S. in Texas in 1990.  Since then they have spread to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida and now Georgia.

Entomologists and beekeepers have been expecting the arrival of these bees in Georgia for several years.  There has been an established breeding population in Florida since 2005.

"Georgia beekeepers are our first and best line of defense against these invaders. They are the ones who will be able to monitor and detect any changes in bee activity," said Commissioner Irvin.

Africanized honeybees are the result of an experiment that went awry in Brazil in the 1950s.  Researchers were trying to create a honeybee better suited to tropic conditions.

A few of the African bees escaped and began hybridizing with European honeybees.

The hybrid "Africanized" honeybees (so named because they get their extremely defensive nature from the African honeybee) began colonizing South America and Central America, then Mexico and the U.S.

Additional facts about Africanized Honeybees

  • Are very defensive of their nest (also referred to as a colony or hive).
  • Respond quickly and sting in large numbers.
  • Can sense a threat from people or animals 50 feet or more from nest.
  • Sense vibrations from power equipment 100 feet or more from nest.
  • Will pursue a perceived enemy ¼ mile or more.
  • Swarm frequently to establish new nests.
  • Nest in small cavities and sheltered areas.

Possible nest sites may include empty boxes, cans, buckets, or other containers; old tires; infrequently used vehicles; lumber piles; holes and cavities in fences, trees, or the ground; sheds, garages and other outbuildings; and low decks or spaces under buildings.

General Precautions

  • Be careful wherever bees may be found.
  • Listen for buzzing – indicating a nest or swarm of bees.
  • Use care when entering sheds or outbuildings where bees may nest.
  • Examine work area before using lawn mowers and other power equipment.
  • Examine areas before penning pets or livestock.
  • Be alert when participating in all outdoor sports and activities.
  • Don't disturb a nest or swarm – contact a pest control company or your Cooperative Extension office.
  • Teach children to respect all bees.
  • Check with a doctor about bee sting kits and procedures if sensitive to bee stings.
  • Remove possible nest sites around home and seal openings larger than 1/8" in walls and around chimneys and plumbing.

As a general rule, stay away from all honeybee swarms and colonies.  If bees are encountered, get away quickly.  Do not stand and swat as this will only invite more stings.

If you are stung, try to protect your face and eyes as much as possible and run away from the area. 

Take shelter in a car or building, and do not worry if a few bees follow you inside.  It is better to have a few in the car with you than the thousands waiting outside.  Hiding in water or thick brush does not offer enough protection.

What to Do if Stung

  • First, go quickly to a safe area.
  • Scrape – do not pull – stingers from skin as soon as possible.  The stinger pumps out most of the venom during the first minute.  Pulling the stinger out will likely cause more venom to be injected into the skin.
  • Wash sting area with soap and water like any other wound.
  • Apply an ice pack for a few minutes to relieve pain and swelling.
  • Seek medical attention if breathing is troubled, if stung numerous times or if allergic to bee stings.

Don't Forget!

Hives of European honeybees managed by beekeepers play an important role in our lives.  These bees are necessary for the pollination of many crops.  One-third of our diet relies on honeybee pollination.

People can coexist with the Africanized honeybee by learning about the bee and its habits, supporting beekeeping efforts and taking a few precautions.

If you would like more information on bee keeping, click here.

Georgia Department of Agriculture contributed to this report.