The name sounds dangerous but killer bees, while more aggressive than other bees, aren’t deadlier. Killer bees, formally known as Africanized honey bees, were first discovered in the United States in Texas in 1990. Understanding the facts about Africanized honey bees can help you understand the true dangers of these bees.
Geneticist Warwick Kerr brought African honey bees to Brazil in 1956 with the intention of introducing a new breed of honey bee by breeding African and European specimens. The new breed of bees was kept in hive boxes while Kerr conducted his breeding program, but some of the queen bees escaped and began reproducing in the wild. The Africanized honey bees began moving north, eventually reaching Hidalgo, Texas. Since then, they’ve also been found in California, New Mexico, Arizona, Louisiana, Arkansas, Florida, Nevada, Utah and Oklahoma.
Africanized honey bees are very aggressive if they feel threatened and remain agitated for as long as 24 hours after they attack an animal or person. The Utah County Beekeepers Association reports that the bees sense a threat from people or animals 50 or more feet from their nests and might chase a victim for a half-mile. Loud sounds or vibrations from lawn mowers, motor boats, tractors or other equipment can agitate Africanized honey bees and prompt an attack. Although a greater percentage of an Africanized honey bee swarm might sting you, the venom isn’t stronger than that of European honey bees, and each bee can only sting once. As of 2007, 23 deaths had been attributed to Africanized honey bees in the U.S., reports the Mississippi Forestry Commission.
If a swarm of bees heads toward you, the best way to avoid injury is to get indoors as soon as possible. If you aren’t near shelter, run as fast as you can. Although Africanized honey bees can chase you for up to half a mile, they only fly about 12 mph and can be outrun. If you are stung and show any signs of a severe allergic reaction -- such as hives, pale or flushed skin, itching, trouble breathing, swelling in the tongue and throat, fainting, dizziness, vomiting, weak pulse, diarrhea, nausea or rapid pulse -- seek emergency medical care immediately. The Mayo Clinic website notes that being stung by 12 or more bees increases your chances of experiencing a toxic allergic reaction to the venom.
The best way to avoid being stung is to avoid areas in which you notice swarms of bees or hives. If you must walk through or work in these areas, avoid wearing dark clothing. Bees might be less likely to attack if you wear white or light-colored clothes. Don’t wear strong fragrances, such as perfume, cologne or aftershave. Strong odors can agitate honey bees and trigger an attack. If bees begin circling you, leave the area immediately. The activity can be a warning of an imminent attack.
- Utah County Beekeepers Association: Africanized Honey Bees
- Mayo Clinic: Bee Stings
- Clemson University Cooperative Extension: The Africanized Honey Bee in The United States
- National Atlas of the United States: Spread of Africanized Honey Bees in the United States
- Mississippi Forestry Commission: Africanized Honey Bees (Killer Bees)
- George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images