Published on 09/27/06

Killer bees loom close to Georgia borders

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Researchers in Georgia are keeping a watchful eye for invaders from the south. Tiny attackers, Apis mellifera scutellata, also known as Africanized honeybees or killer bees, have begun a steady march north and could reach Georgia borders soon.

Fear not, said University of Georgia Cooperative Extension entomologist Keith Delaplane. But do be aware. Know the dangers and how to react to keep as safe as possible.

"If you are outdoors and happen on an Africanized bee colony and the insects attack you, run and get indoors and stay indoors," he said. "Don't stay in one spot and swat the bees or roll on the ground. Run away. React the opposite to if you were on fire."

Staying indoors a key to safety

"If you are attacked and run and jump in your car and 10 bees go in the car with you," Delaplane said, "don't leave the car to escape the 10, because a thousand are waiting for you outside. Stay inside even if a few follow you in."

Avoiding a massive number of stings is the key. "With Africanized bees," Delaplane said, "they can attack in such large numbers that it's possible to receive a toxic dose of venom. This is in contrast to the more familiar allergic reaction in which susceptible individuals can have dangerous reactions to even one sting."

Recognizing an Africanized colony is critical.

"You can't tell by sight," Delaplane said. "One negative backlash to our educational efforts has been oversightings. To look at the bees, you can't tell. They're smaller than European bees. But even the scientific tests we use to differentiate can be inconclusive."

So how do you tell?

"Their behavior is the best key," he said. "Everything (Africanized) bees do, they do it off the chart, pushed to the extreme. If you bump into a regular colony, you might get 20 bees chasing you. But if you bump into an Africanized colony, you may get 1,000 chasing you. It's the same response, just multiplied."

The best defense is avoidance.

"Don't go near a nest," Delaplane advised. "They'll nest in unusual places that European bees won't bother with, like a discarded can or drink bottle. Their unusual nesting habits increase the chance for bee-and-human contact. The nest is central to understanding their behavior. A bee visiting a flower is not a problem. It's only when they're in their nest and perceive it threatened that their defense response is triggered."

If you see a swarm hanging on a limb, call your county UGA Extension agent, a local beekeeper or a professional bee removal service for help.

Delaplane has been busy distributing UGA Extension bulletins and working with local media to educate Georgians about the bees.

First responders

Another target group is emergency responders. "Fire fighters and other first responders will have to deal with mass stinging incidents," Delaplane said. Throughout the year he and his colleagues have been conducting statewide seminars for EMTs, fire fighters and police forces.

Delaplane has been working with beekeepers too. "We've been talking about it for a long time with them," he said. "They're a very important part of this process in many ways. First, the European honeybees they keep are a natural defense against Africanized honeybees taking over."

Some areas have passed zoning rules to eliminate beekeeping to try to stave off the Africanized bees. Delaplane says that's the wrong tactic.

"Beekeepers are friends, not enemies in this process," he said. "Some areas tend to zone out beekeeping, which is ill-advised. If you withdraw the gentle European bees, you've just opened up the environment to allow the Africanized bees to take over. A large local European bee population is the only way to restrict the African variety."

(Faith Peppers is a news editor for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.