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Are Killer Bees Really Killers?

What To Do If You Are Chased By Bees

May contain: animal, bee, honey bee, insect, invertebrate, and apidae

Boxing champ Mohamed Ali famously said he would, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee". It's the threat of a bee's sting that sends shivers through most folks and so the mere thought of something called a "killer bee" can only amp up the anxiety. But the pop culture name really does a disservice to the Africanized Honey Bee (AHB) that has called California its home since 1994. Despite Hollywood's monster portrayal of  "killer" bees, we can learn to live with them.

Back in 1950, researchers in Brazil bred African honey bees with European honey bees (EHB) in an effort to make a "super bee" capable of surviving better and making more honey in tropical climates. Thus, the AHB was born. But, when some of those bees escaped the lab in 1957, they naturally mated with other bees. Today, researchers say AHB are established as far north as the southwestern United States where they coexist with people and animals pollinating, making honey, and contributing to the environment.

There are differences between the two varieties of bees. Both spread in swarms, but AHB do so more often and further in distance than European bees. They tend to be more protective of their queen, sending more bees to guard a hive, and they are less successful at surviving in areas with very cold winters that create a prolonged lack of food. It's their shorter fuse that differentiates them from their European cousins. Both will act to defend their hives from a threat; however, studies show that AHB are more protective of their hives. When swarming, both varieties tend to be non-aggressive as they do not have a hive filled with food and larvae to defend at that time. Africanized bees are more likely to react defensively to loud noises like those made by lawn mowers and power tools.

Experts say it's best to treat all bees with respect. In other words, don't poke a swarm with a stick. But if you suddenly find bees in hot pursuit-run. Do your best to run in a straight line and find shelter inside a building or car. Don't stop running until you've reached safety because AHB are known to chase people up to ¼ mile. Also, don't jump into water or crawl into a hole or cave where there is only one way out. AHB will wait for people to emerge in these instances. Their agitation levels far exceed intensity and duration of the EHB variety. Also, bees frequently sting people on the head or face so cover your head with a shirt or blanket if possible.


Like all honey bees, AHB will only sting once and then die; however, because they have that overprotective instinct toward their queen, larger numbers of AHB may sting at one time. The venom from either bee variety is the same. The reason people or animals die from AHB stings is largely due to the number of stings---hundreds or thousands. Most of the victims of bee attacks have been dogs that were tied up and couldn't run away. And some people can suffer a serious allergic reaction from bee stings.

In essence, all bees are more aggressive when they feel that their hive is being threatened. But bees, even Africanized bees, out foraging on flowers are just looking to gather food and are not interested in stinging anyone unless they are threatened or swatted. Be calm and just carry on.

If you are stung by any bee, once you are safely away from bees that are chasing you, use a fingernail or credit card to scrape any stingers out of your skin. Do not use tweezers or fingers because pinching the stinger releases more venom into the skin. Those with allergies to bee stings should seek medical attention immediately.

The thing to remember about AHB is they don't look noticeably different from the typical European honey bees. It actually takes DNA testing to tell the difference, so use caution when approaching any bee. Africanized bees have existed in many California communities for decades. By using caution to avoid them, we give them the best chance to continue to pollinate plants and make honey---a benefit to our environment from a bug with a bad reputation.

October, 2015