Southern Arizona is home to more than 1,000 native pollinators making it one of the most pollinator dense regions in the entire world. However, the honeybee is not one of those 1,000 native pollinators. In addition, researchers from the University of Arizona now believe that 99% of all wild (feral) honeybees in Southern Arizona are Africanized honeybees. So what is an Africanized honeybee and what makes it different from traditional honeybees and our other native pollinators?
Africanized honeybees as we know them today were developed in Brazil in 1950 in an attempt to increase honey production. The goal was to cross-breed African honeybees, which were known to be sturdier, but more aggressive due to the climates from which they evolved, with the less aggressive and domesticated European honeybees. However, after an error by a research assistant, 26 African queen bees were accidently released in 1957 and began to produce new hybrid populations with feral bees in Brazil. Since that time, they have aggressively spread throughout South America, Central America and into the southern U.S. in 1990. They made their first appearance in Arizona in 1993 have traveled an estimated 100-200 miles per year, gradually overtaking the wild honeybee population in Arizona. Researchers now suggest that all wild honeybees be considered Africanized bees.
Africanized honeybees get their nickname, Killer Bees, due to their aggressive behavior. Just like European honeybees, Africanized honeybees can only sting once, however, they tend to attack in much greater numbers with victims often receiving 10 times as many stings than from European honeybees. Africanized honeybees are also disturbed more easily and respond to those disturbances at a faster rate than European honeybees. They have also been known to pursue a perceived threat for more than a quarter mile flying as fast as 15 mph.
Africanized honeybees pollinate with similar efficiency as European honeybees, however, they’ve been found to be more aggressive in their approach in terms of both their treatment of the plant as well as toward other pollinators. Researchers have found that in general solitary bees – which comprise the majority of our native pollinators – are better pollinators per capita than Africanized honeybees. In addition, native pollinators are better suited for pollinating our native plant species and in some cases certain crops. In addition, wild Africanized honeybees tend to cross-breed with European honeybee hives kept by professionals and make them more aggressive to the beekeepers. The process of “re-queening” these hives to make them less aggressive can be costly and difficult, negatively impacting the agriculture industry in Arizona as well as throughout the country as many of these hives are transported throughout the U.S.
Precautions & Control
Due to the aggressive nature of Africanized honeybees, extreme caution should be used when swarms and hives are spotted. Generally speaking, Africanized honeybees seen pollinating flowers and plants are not a risk to people and pets, however, when they are balled up on trees, walls, or seen flying in and out of voids in structures or trees the area should be avoided and professionals should be contacted to evaluate the situation. If Africanized bees attack, it’s important to try to run in a straight line while covering your head and face to the nearest place of shelter inside a car or building. If possible, avoid trying to swat the bees or running toward other people or animals and never try to jump into a pool or other body of water. Africanized honeybees will wait above the water for you to resurface and begin their attack. Medical attention should be sought immediately if you receive several stings or begin to experience symptoms of allergic reaction.
For more information on Africanized bees and Southern Arizona’s native pollinators, visit our website or give us a call today.