You’re Killing My Vibe: What’s the Deal with Killer Bees?

Learn how the Africanized honeybee got its rough reputation and what you can do as a beekeeper to stop it from taking over other bee populations.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Daniel Plumer/Flickr

Chances are you’ve heard references to the Africanized honeybee, a hybrid species that is the result of a 1950s experiment gone terribly wrong. It’s a creature of legend now—the so-called “killer bees”—and the stuff of nightmares for bee-phobic people and new beekeepers alike. But what exactly is the risk? Who is in danger and what threat do these bees pose?

The Africanized honeybee is responsible for more deaths than the European honeybee, a fact that gives the species its nickname. These bees’ venom is not any more powerful than that of European honeybees, yet they have killed more than 1,000 humans as well as horses and other livestock since their introduction almost 70 years ago. What sets the Africanized bee apart? It is greatly adaptable, more aggressive and more likely to sting in greater numbers than its European counterpart, posing a significant threat.

Given that, how likely are you to encounter this “killer” bee? And where is it having its greatest impact?

You might be surprised to learn that killer bees are more dangerous to the rainforest than to your typical hobby beekeeper. Entomologist David Roubik studied the impact on the Africanized honeybee on the Amazon rainforest. He found that the killer bee has taken resources available not only to other bees but also butterflies, bats and birds. The Africanized bee has infiltrated every inch of what we consider wild rainforest territory, and it’s leaving its mark wherever it goes. It’s an invasive species, and it’s not going away.

The real question is whether native South American honeybees can survive the invasion of these hybrid counterparts, which are living in a part of the world they do not belong—entirely because of human meddling.

As Africanized honeybees make their way into the southern United States and part of California, beekeepers and scientists are working together to control the population of killer bees by keeping the species’ aggressive genes out of their apiaries. One method includes requeening frequently, to ensure the genetics within a given hive are known and controlled. Another method, with a similar goal, is called “drone-flooding,” which ensures large numbers of European drones exist in mating congregation areas for virgin queens.

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It’s unclear how to resolve the current problem of the invasive Africanized honeybee, but one thing is clear: We have a responsibility as beekeepers, and humans, to do whatever we can to clean up the mistakes that have been made. As hobby beekeepers, our role is to monitor our hives carefully, requeen as necessary, track and make notes of genetics and the temperaments of our hives, and report any suspicious or overly aggressive behavior to our state inspectors.

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