In addition to being the most valuable insect species, European honey bees can be medically hazardous due to their aggressive reactions to nest disturbances which can lead to potentially fatal envenomation incidents. In fact, along with wasps, bees are the deadliest insects in the US, but almost all honey bee envenomation fatalities result from severe allergic reactions to a small amount of venom. However, non-native Africanized honey bees, or “killer bees,” are far more dangerous to humans than their European relatives, and they are continuing to expand their invasive habitat farther north in the US.
Just as their common name suggests, Africanized honey bees are native to Africa, but during the 1950s colonies were transported to Brazil to improve beekeeping operations in Latin America. After escaping from the Brazilian lab where they were being held, Africanized bees migrated north, and along the way, they mated with local honey bees to produce hybrid specimens. Today, Africanized honey bees can be found in several southern states including Arizona where all wild honey bees are now “Africanized.” Africanized honey bee nests are frequently found in residential yards, attached to decks, attics, and indoor wall voids. Africanized honey bees are responsible for multiple fatalities annually in Arizona, and most of these deadly envenomation incidents occur in response to homeowners attempting to remove nests from their property without professional intervention.
Surprisingly, a recent nationwide survey of pest control professionals showed that Africanized honey bees were the ninth most commonly managed stinging pests on residential properties during 2016. While around ten percent of European honey bees within a colony will emerge to attack those who disturb nests, Africanized honey bees emerge as an entire colony in response to seemingly insignificant disturbances, including loud noises located more than 100 feet away. Surprisingly, recent research shows that Aricanized honey bees are comparable to European honey bees in terms of aggression toward humans, but the genetic mixing of these two species produces a unique hybrid that demonstrates murderous aggression. This research shows that when European and Africanized honey bees mate, they produce hybrids with unique mutated genes that make them aggressive. These “aggression genes” are only found in hybrids, or “African hybrid honey bees,” as they are commonly known.
Have you ever encountered a honey bee nest?