NC State University

Frequently Asked Questions

Africanized Honey Bees

What exactly are Africanized bees?

Answer: Several mated queens were imported to Brazil from Africa in 1956 to breed a honey bee that was well-suited to a tropical climate. At that time, Brazilian honey production was very low because the European honey bee (EHB) is better adapted to a more temperate environment. The goal was to produce hybrids that exhibited the foraging success of African bees while maintaining the gentleness of European bees. The inadvertent escape of the African queens established a feral population of "Africanized" hybrids that, unfortunately, retained most of the unfavorable traits of their African ancestors. This Africanized honey bee, or AHB, gained its "killer bee" moniker because of its increased defensive behavior, and became known as a serious public health issue in the Americas.

What are some specific characterisitcs of the AHB?

Answer: There are many differences between the EHB and the AHB. Most notably, they have a lower threshold for defensiveness, leading to increased defensive behavior at the individual and colony levels. Moreover, they have a higher propensity to swarm and are smaller morphologically. It is important to note, however, that the AHB is not different from the EHB in their venom; that is, their stings are no more potent than those of their European counterparts. The increased number of individuals that tend to sting is what makes stinging events by the AHB more of a health concern.

What makes them so much more destructive than "regular bees"?

Answer: I wouldn't use the term "destructive", nor would I even use the term "aggressive". Africanized bees, just like their European counterparts, are 'defensive' of their hive and honey stores. The AHB is just more so. Their stings have no more venom and is no more potent than EHB stings, they just react to intruders in greater numbers. Mass stingings certainly grab the attention of the public and are a legitimate concern, but they account for fewer deaths per year than dog bites or even lightning strikes, so it is best to put the "threat" in perspective.

Where and when have you heard of their reports in NC?

Answer: They have yet to make it to NC. They seem to be stalled out in Eastern Texas, although there have been reports of them in LA and FL. There was once a swarm caught in the port of Wilmington from a shipment imported from South America, but it was identified and quickly eradicated.

How long do you think it will be before they are a major problem in NC?

Answer: The jury is still out whether or not they will even reach here. Early predictions, based on average temperatures, suggested that they should be able to exist in the state. But clearly other factors play a huge role in where they will be able to survive here in NC. For example, a study by the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge LA suggests that rainfall may be preventing the spread of the AHB, such that counties with greater than 55 inches of rain per year have no AHB despite being located in highly Africanized areas. They could be in NC in the next few years, or they may never reach our borders; we just don't know at this point.

What are the state and research facilities doing to prevent huge problems?

Answer: The state has an AHB action plan in the event that they reach NC. The committee members consist of members from the NCSU Apiculture Program, the NCDA Apiary Inspectors, and the North Carolina Beekeepers Association. The USDA has several honey bee research labs across the country that are heavily involved in AHB research, particularly the Tucson AZ, Baton Rouge LA, and Weslaco TX labs. You might want to visit their respective web sites for more details. The NCSU Apiculture program is not heavily involved in AHB research, but we have performed some collaborative studies with the USDA Carl Hayden Honey Bee Research Facility in Tucson AZ on the mating biology of AHB queens and drones.

What do you think the public should know about the AHB?

Answer: I think my answer to your previous question is the most important. They are defensive, not aggressive, and their relative threat to public health is not as dramatic as the public perceives it to be.

What can beekeepers do about the Africanized bees?

Answer: First, it is important to note that the U.S. beekeepers are not responsible for the Africanized bee situation and don't want the bees here either. Second, the beekeepers are the primary means of defense against the Africanized bees. The beekeeping industry is well organized and working on methods to reduce the defensive nature of the bees and keep their populations low. North Carolina beekeepers, University personnel, and Government officials are already poised to assist the industry and the public if, and when, Africanized bees reach North Carolina.

For more information, check out the Beekeeping Notes about Africanized honey bees.

More resources

North Carolina AHB Web Site
2006 NC AHB Action Plan (PDF)
Current Distribution of AHB in the United States