Killer bees, also scientifically known as Africanized bees, are hybrids of East African lowland honey bees and European honey bees and their subspecies such as Iberian and Italian honey bees. The European honey bee is the most common species of honey bees and can be found worldwide. The East African lowland honey, a relation of the European bee, is native to eastern, central and Africa.
Africanised bees are usually much more defensive than European honey bees, and react to activity near their hives more quickly and with greater numbers than other honey bees. European bees deploy around 10% of the colony to defend their hive. In the case of Africanised bees, the whole hive can be involved in an attack. There are even reports of swarms containing as much as 500,000 to 800,000 bees. With each bee sting, pheromones are released, attracting more bees from the colony that are ready to attack.
Killer Bee Attacks in California
One woman, a cleaner, in Orange County, California was attacked by a swarm of 80,000 Africanised bees that had taken up residence in a drainage pipe, near the home she was working in. The Orange County Fire Department saved her by spraying the swarm with carbon dioxide fire extinguishers and running with her until they were clear of the pursuing swarm of bees. In intensive care, she was assessed as having 200 stings. She was lucky to survive. Around 1,000 stings is the lethal dose of bee venom, easily enough delivered by an 80,000 swarm.
In Pasadena, California, in February 2020, a swarm of 40,000 African killer bees attacked police and firefighters that were called to the roof of the Howard Johnson Inn after reports about people being stung when walking in the boulevard next to the hotel. Two firefighters, two police officers and one civilian ended up at hospital after being stung repeatedly.
Attacks involve Greater Numbers and are more Persistent
Killer bees not only attack in greater numbers, they are also more persistent in their attacks, compared with other bees. European bees will chase you about 50 yards. Africanized honey bees can pursue you over eight times that distance, and they have been known to chase people over a quarter of a mile.
They’re also more aggressive and have killed hundreds of humans, and a good number of animals including horses. Most deaths from killer bee stings have occurred when people are not able to get away from the bees quickly enough. In the case of animal deaths, animals have often been either tethered or fenced-in and unable to flee the attack.
How to escape from an attack by Killer Bees
If bees start circling around you or bump into you, don’t stand still in the hope they’ll go away. If you linger, it gives the bees more time to send alarm chemicals calling for reinforcements, and more bees will arrive to join the attack.
Run away as quickly as you can. A bee can reach speeds of around 12 to 15 mph, but fit humans can outrun them. If you’re not fit, still keep running. Most bees give up the chase after a hundred yards. Africanized honey bees, however, have been known chase people, as we mentioned, for more than 400 yards. So keep running until they give up the chase. If there are small children with you, carry them, moving as fast as you can. If there disabled people present they might need some assistance to move outside of the bee’s range.
As you run, quickly cover exposed areas
If you have a coat, jacket, blanket or a towel, cover your head. Protect your eyes and face if possible. But, make sure you can see, as you need to run from the scene of the attack as quickly as you can.
Don’t swat, wave or flail your arms
Swatting bees makes them feel more threatened and more aggressive. If you swat and kill a bee, it sends out a chemical alarm for more bees to come.
Get indoors as soon as possible
Try to find shelter in a place that has a door, that can be closed, to keep the bees out. Good places to shelter include your house, your car with the windows closed, or any public pavillions with closeable doors.
Don’t jump into a lake or swimming pool
The bees will wait for you to resurface then attack you again.
Once you have reached shelter or have outrun the bees, pull out all the stingers
Forget the old wives’ tales about the need to delicately remove the stinger. There’s a need for speed here, and there’s evidence to suggest that speed of removal is more important than the method of removal. If attacked and stung by killer bees, you don’t have the luxury of time to slowly remove stingers. Pinch or scrape out the stingers, the aim is to remove the stingers as quickly as possible.
Seek medical help
If you have been stung more than 10 times or are feeling sick, or if you have any reason to think that you are allergic to bee stings, seek medical help immediately. The average person can safely withstand 10 stings per pound of their body weight. But around 500 stings can kill a child, and around 1,000 stings can kill an adult.
The Creation of Killer Bees
In 1956, genetic entomologist Dr. Warwick Kerr started a project to hybridize subspecies of the western honey bee, in an effort to increase honey production in his native Brazil. He chose a range of European honey bees (Apis mellifera) and imported African lowland honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata), from Tanzania, to create hybrids.
Kerr tried to combine the best traits of each species to create a new subspecies well suited to the Brazilian climate. He wanted the European honey bees’ higher honey yields along with the African lowland bees’ ability to adapt to tropical climates, but he appeared to have overlooked the aggressive nature of the African bees.
Despite Kerr’s intentions, killer bees are not the genetically modified products of one of his experiments. Their existence owes more to bad luck than design. In 1957, a lab technician in Kerr’s laboratory mistakenly opened up breeding hives and 26 imported African queen bees escaped with their swarms and interbred with local bees. This new hybrid of African and local bees, quickly occupied sites in the rainforest where it thrived.
Since then, this hybrid spread through South America and arrived in Central America in 1985. Hives were found in southern Texas, near the Mexican border, in 1990. In 2014, research scientists studying bees found that Africanized honey bees had spread as far north as San Francisco.