Published on 02/03/06

'Killer bees' nearing Georgia (don't panic)

By Keith S. Delaplane
University of Georgia

Africanized bees probably won't delay their arrival in Georgia much longer. But don't panic. Don't think of them as "killer bees" but as one more snake or fire ant nest to think about when you're outdoors.

East of the Mississippi River, beekeepers enjoyed an unexpectedly long delay in the arrival of these intruders. Introduced into Brazil in the 1950s, Africanized bees have been moving slowly north ever since.

They arrived in the United States in October 1990. For the next 15 years, their range was limited largely to the Southwestern states, California and southern Nevada.

Coming soon

Unfortunately, the reprieve seems near an end in the Southeast. Established populations of Africanized bees were formally announced in Florida last summer. It's prudent for Georgia beekeepers and property owners to learn about this new invader now, before it arrives in our state.

Compared to the familiar honeybee established here centuries ago by European settlers, the African variety is much more defensive. Large numbers of them sometimes sting people and livestock with little provocation.

Because of this behavior, the media widely calls these insects "killer bees." Despite the alarm that surrounds their arrival, though, Africanized bees don't cause widespread and permanent chaos. Dramatic stinging incidents do happen. But for most people, the quality of life is unaffected.

Don't panic

If and when Africanized bees reach your area, don't panic. However, just as you should look out for fire ants and poisonous snakes, stay alert for wild bee colonies when you're outdoors.

Remember these points:

  • Never knowingly approach an occupied bee nest. During daylight hours, bees can be seen flying to and from their entrance.

  • Don't disturb a swarm of bees. Call a professional bee removal service or your county University of Georgia Cooperative Extension agent for help in removing a swarm.

  • Never climb a tree, kick a log or stump or move trash until you first check to see whether bees are flying in and out.

  • Be sure the walls of your house and outbuildings don't have cracks or holes where a colony of bees could enter and form a nest.

  • Keep an escape route in mind. Never crawl into an enclosed place from which you can't quickly exit.

  • Operators of open-cab tractors are especially at risk from hidden in-ground colonies. Keeping a beekeeper's veil on hand is a good safety precaution.
If you are attacked, run away or get indoors as fast as possible. Never stand in one spot and swat. This only aggravates bees further and increases the number of stings you may get.

When you run, the bees may follow you for hundreds of yards. But most people can run faster than bees can fly. Don't stop running to try to hide under water or anything else or a crevice, because bees are likely to find you and inflict many stings.

The single most important thing is to get away from the colony.

After you've safely escaped the bees, remove the stingers from your skin by scraping or brushing them out. A single Africanized bee's sting is no more toxic than a European bee's. (In fact, it's a little less.)

The difference is a matter of dose. Instead of a dozen or so stings, victims of Africanized bees can sustain stings in the hundreds.

Most people can tolerate 15 to 25 stings without requiring special medical treatment. It's normal to have pain, redness and swelling at a sting site, and this isn't an allergic reaction.

However, if you have a history of systemic allergic reactions (fainting, trouble breathing), always carry an emergency kit of injectable epinephrine. If you're stung, use it quickly and then immediately see a physician.

Anyone who gets more than 25 stings seek medical help for possible delayed systemic complications.

(Keith Delaplane is a professor of entomology and a Cooperative Extension bee specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Keith Delaplane is a professor and Cooperative Extension bee specialist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.