The name “Killer Bee” has painted the Africanized Honey Bee as a bloodthirsty killer. The portrayal of these insects as killers, flying around hunting for their next victim is great for Hollywood or the media but not so great for the bee.
The introduction of the Africanized Honey Bee in North and South America is the result of an experiment gone wrong. African honey bee queens were brought to Brazil in the 1950s by a geneticist who wanted to create a superior honey bee that was gentle and would fair better in the tropics than the European Honey Bee. But, like the storyline of a sci-fi horror movie, bees from the 26 experimental colonies swarmed near Sao Paulo and interbred with European Honey Bees in the wild. This hybrid is what we call the Africanized Honey Bee.
The Africanized Honey Bee has spread rapidly and is now found throughout South and Central America as well as the Southern United States. They spread at a rate of about 200 miles a year. There is very little difference between the Africanized and European Honey Bees - only experts can tell and must use a microscope.
Africanized Honey Bees have different behavioral characteristics than their European counterparts. They are easily provoked and much more aggressive. If they feel threatened, these bees will pursue an animal or person up to 328 feet compared to the 33 feet of the European Honey Bee. This aggressive behavior is where the “killer” label or “abeja asesina” in Spanish, which means the assassin bee, came from. Africanized Honey Bees also respond much quicker to threats and in larger numbers.
The sting of an Africanized Honey Bee is no more painful than their counterparts. The stingers of both species are barbed and are left in the victim along with their venom sac, and, yes, they will die after if that makes you feel any better.
What kind of impact has this had on beekeeping and the environment? Africanized Honey Bees are harder for beekeepers to manage because they swarm more frequently, leaving their hives in search for new homes. They also produce less honey. Africanized Honey Bees compete with European Honey Bees for food sources like flowers, sometimes pushing European Honey Bees out of their habitat.
In spite of the abovementioned, this has not deterred geneticists from trying to create the perfect honey bee - one that is less agressive. As they say in Hollywood, the story continues.