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Agricultural Review

Africanized honeybees pose greater threat to European bees and livestock

Albert Einstein once said, "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years left to live."

According to an article in the March 2000 issue of Bee Culture magazine, honeybees are responsible for one-third of everything that people eat every day. North Carolina's bee-dependent crops include apples, blueberries, cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, strawberries and watermelons.

That puts a lot of pressure on beekeepers who are already battling a mysterious illness that is killing some of the honeybee population. Now the African honeybee is entering into the mix. African honeybees, often sensationalized as "killer bees," are spreading from Florida and Texas to neighboring states such as Louisiana and Arkansas.

"The fact that they have invaded Arkansas, which shares similar environmental conditions to North Carolina, demonstrates their ability to adapt to conditions here," said Don Hopkins, state apiarist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences.

State bee specialists such as Hopkins say there is no cause for alarm in North Carolina yet. But informing the public and beekeepers about the benefits of the European honeybee and the relatively low risk of deaths from African honeybee stings is a proactive way to address this problem.

Yearly death rates from bee stings are far lower than from lightning strikes, yet public fear of bee attacks is pervasive. This suggests that the Africanized bee "threat" is more perceived than real.

When they do arrive in North Carolina, the state's frontline defense lies with bee experts such as Hopkins and beekeepers who manage the genetics of their colonies to create a genetic buffer between humans and the feral African honeybee population. The N.C. Africanized Honey Bee Task Force is working on a comprehensive response plan consisting of education, quarantine and research components. The initial action plan available on the Web at

Unlike the European honeybee, African bees are indiscriminate in their nesting sites. "Any small cavity that would be not much larger than a gallon is ideal. An old bucket, a tree cavity or water meter boxes are a favorite around homes. Anything with a cavity of up to 3 liters or larger," Hopkins said.

Spring is the prime time for honeybees to test potential sites. "If you have a hole in the wall or tree cavity that looks inviting to a colony and you see that kind of 'snooping' activity near the area, seal it up with duct tape, insulating foam or a screen to make that area unavailable," Hopkins said.

"If someone notices a colony being established, then do something sooner rather than later," he said. "The best advice to give people who suspect they have a colony of African honeybees on their property is to call a bee specialist or the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences Plant Industry Division at (919) 233-8214. "Avoid dealing with the bees. Most people who have been attacked by African bees were aware that a colony existed on their property for several weeks," Hopkins said.

The greater threat is to the existing European honeybee population. Hopkins said the potential of African honeybees usurping European honeybee nests and potentially overtaking the region is real. The Africanized honeybee has managed to spread throughout the lower part of the United States since 1990.

The only way to detect African honeybee colonization is through morphological and genetic screening. African honeybees are smaller in size and wing span, but these differences cannot be detected with the naked eye. DNA analyses provide valuable genetic information, but morphometric analyses are commonly used for testing African honeybee colonization.

NCDA&CS Public Affairs Division, Andrea Ashby, Director
Mailing Address:1001 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1001
Physical Address: 2 West Edenton Street, Raleigh NC 27601
Phone: (919) 707-3001; FAX: (919) 733-5047

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