Africanized Honeybees: An Occupational Safety & Health Threat

Safety Tips - July 2007

The American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) 30,000+ occupational safety, health and environmental (SH&E) members are concerned about the rapid growth of the dangerous Africanized Honey Bees (AHBs) in the U.S. and their negative impact on European Honey Bees (EHBs) and agriculture. First found in the U.S. in southern Texas in 1990, AHBs are now found in much of the south, the southeast and the southwest, including California. AHBs are more aggressive than EHBs and garden bees and can be more dangerous to people and animals.

ASSE members are getting the word out to members around the U.S. and worldwide in an effort to help prevent injuries and to limit the negative impact the spread of AHBs could have on the economy.

Over the last several years, numerous attacks have been reported in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Florida and Texas. Emergency response agencies in these states have implemented first responder training programs as well as public education efforts.

According to reports, the Africanized (hybrid) bees were created in the mid-1950s when a researcher brought African bees to Brazil and bred them with European honey bees, with the intent to produce hybrid bees that could tolerate tropical environments. These hybrids, along with African queens, were then accidentally released into the wild the next year. The hybrid bees freely interbred with local bees, with the Africanized genetics preferentially retained over time, eventually dominating bee populations. The AHB trait rapidly spread throughout South and Central America, reaching Texas in 1990.

As noted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), honeybees are beneficial insects because they are important to agriculture. A large amount of our daily diet comes from crops pollinated by honeybees. Without the pollen honeybees transport, many plants can't produce fruits, vegetables and seeds.

As the AHBs mate with the EHBs already in Florida and other southern states, the hybrid bees that are created display the aggressive behavior of the Africanized bees. The sting from an AHB is no more harmful than one from the common garden bee or EHB, but they are known as the "killer bees" because they defend their nests more aggressively, and attack with less provocation, and in larger numbers than the EHB, so there is a much greater chance of being quickly stung multiple times..

ASSE members are concerned about the growth in the AHB population because:

  • Their potential to negatively impact the economy

  • Their threat to public safety

  • They are not easily discernable from other less dangerous bees

  • Homeowners are not aware of these dangers and do not know how to react to the dangers of the AHB

  • The need to train emergency personnel, municipal workers, SH&E practitioners

  • It can cost several hundreds of dollars to have a professional remove an AHB hive

  • Without the correct protective equipment and training, the potential rescuer may become an additional victim

  • AHB attack more aggressively under less provocation than do EHBs

  • AHBs swarm more often then EHBs, thus AHB populations increase much more rapidly

What you can do:

  • Be attuned and alert to buzzing in your environment – this may indicate a nest or swarm of bees

  • Use care when entering sheds or outbuildings where bees may nest

  • Examine work areas before using power equipment such as lawn mowers, weed cutters, and chain saws --- as the noise excites the bees

  • Be alert when engaged in all outdoor activities

  • Discuss with a doctor bee sting kits and procedures if sensitive to bee stings

  • Pet safety – do not tie or tether animals near known bee hives or nests

  • Be careful when using machinery that produces sound vibrations or loud noises as that alarms bees

  • Stay away from honeybee colonies

  • Do look regularly for bee colonies around your property – if you find a colony of bees contact a beekeeper or pest control operators who can remove it for you

  • Do not try to eliminate bee colonies with homeowner pest sprays (you will likely fail and get stung and create a hazard for everyone around you)

  • Wear appropriate clothing around the bee hives, personal protection equipment (PPE)

  • Avoid wearing scents when hiking or working outside

  • If attacked by aggressive bees, run as fast as possible to a safe sheltered area (including a car) – aggressive AHBs may pursue for up to ¼ of a mile

  • If attacked, protect face and neck as these areas are sensitive to stings

If stung, officials recommend:

  • Remove the stingers by scraping – use a flicking action with a finger nail or credit card, because if you squeeze the stinger, you may simply pump more venom into your body

  • Apply ice and a paste of baking soda, take acetaminophen for pain relief

  • Seek medical attention immediately if breathing becomes labored

Employers, if you anticipate that your personnel could be exposed to AHBs:

  • Perform a risk assessment

  • Provide properly fitting personal protective equipment for your employees such as – full length "bee suits", protective veils, hats and gloves with sleeve length extensions

For more information please go to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service at www.ars.usda.gov/Research/docs.htm?docid=11059&page=3 and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services at http://www.doacs.state.fl.us/pi/planginsp/apiary/apiary.html.