By BILL MCKELL
African honey bees, also called Africanized bees or killer bees, are descendants of southern African bees imported in 1956 by Brazilian scientists attempting to breed a honey bee better adapted to the South American tropics. When some of these bees escaped quarantine in 1957, they began breeding with local Brazilian honey bees, quickly multiplying and extending their range throughout South and Central America at a rate greater than 200 miles per year. By the early 1990s, populations of these Africanized bees had begun to move into the United States via the southern regions of Texas.
These Africanized bees are highly adaptive and can nest in varying locations, including places where folks live. When natural nesting locations are unavailable they will nest in empty boxes, old vehicles and tires, trees, garages, underground, and outside of buildings.
“Beekeeping” (management of honey bee colonies by humans) is more common in Europe, where the native bees have been bred for gentleness and ease of management. In contrast, “honey hunting” (near-complete destruction of hive to harvest contents) is more common in Africa, resulting in a bee that is more defensive of its nest.
European and Africanized honey bees resemble one another (only pros are able to discern the differences), but their habits and behaviors differ. The Africanized bee is more aggressive and, because of this, have earned the popular nickname “killer bees”. They are known to respond to slight disturbances within a wide range of their hives. They swarm around their nests, attack in large numbers when threatened and have been known to chase perceived enemies for over a mile. They seem particularly sensitive to noise and vibration and can be instigated to attack just by the slightest movements.
It’s common to see large groups of Africanized honey bees around their hives and they tend to swarm more often than other species. While the venom of these bees is no more poisonous than that of domesticated honey bees, because they attack in large numbers, an attack can cause severe injuries or death due to the large number of stings. If attacked, a victim should run away from the area using his shirt to cover his head, especially his airways. The victim should not stand and swat at the bees. It’s important that the victim get cover in a bee-proof vehicle or structure if either is available.
Should rescue personnel be required, the conventional heavy gear worn by most firefighters, plus a veil and rubber/plastic gloves is ideal. Bees are easily immobilized and killed by wetting agents (surfactants), including commercial liquid dish washing detergent and fire control chemicals. Rescuers wearing protective gear can then carry a victim into a house, vehicle, or ambulance for treatment and transport. Many bees, however, will follow to continue their attack.
Once the victim is protected, remove stings as quickly as possible. Otherwise, the white, translucent sac (with its nerves and muscles attached) will continue to pump venom into the wound for a minute or more. Removing the victim’s outer clothing may help because stingers embedded in the fabric will be discharged in the process. The best way to remove stingers is to simply scrape them away with a finger nail, credit card, or similar instrument. Never pinch, tweeze or otherwise attempt to pull stingers out, as this will inject the remaining contents of the venom sacs. IV fluids and various medications may well be indicated.
Dr. William McKell is a Northsider.