Is It a Killer Bee?

Posted under Bees, Home gardening advice, Home gardening tips, Insects | No Comment

Now that the weather is warming up again, our friendly neighborhood bees are starting to wander by our yards, helping to pollinate our plants. 

Or is it a friendly neighborhood bee?  What if it’s a killer bee?  How do you tell?

There are estimated to be about 20,000 species of bees. They are 4-winged flying insects with branched body hair, making them ‘fuzzy.’  Virtually all bees feed on flowers, using the pollen for protein and the nectar as an oily/fat resource.  (Their ‘fuzziness’ is what makes them so good at it – pollen sticks to them like Velcro.)  However, in their little bee trips from blossom to blossom, a little pollen falls off along the way, providing plants with needed ‘cross-fertilization’ in order to fruit.  (Very important these little insects are! – without them, we’d probably have to hand-fertilize every plant in our gardens and neighborhoods with little brushes!  Aaack!)

Bees are found just about everywhere on the planet, except in the coldest polar regions, a few isolated islands and very high altitudes, making them one of the most useful insects around.  However, most bees prefer warm, arid or semi-arid climates, like you find in the lower half of America down to Mexico.  While most of us are familiar with the stereotypical yellow and black striped bee (commonly known as the European honey bee), they also come in red, metallic green and even blue!  Some bees are solitary in nature, while others like to hang around in hives.

So, with all these bees buzzing around, which ones are the "nice" ones and which ones are the "killers"?  (Well, actually all bees with stingers can kill you if you’re allergic or if you get stung by enough at one time, however, they aren’t all called "killer bees".)  It seems that killer bees are originally from Brazil, of all places.  Back in the 1950s, some scientists there were trying to come up with a honey bee that would be happy in the more tropical climates.  They decided to cross European honey bees with African honey bees.  Unfortunately, what they came up with was an extremely territorial insect that breeds rapidly, loves to swarm, really doesn’t care to keep too much honey around, can survive on sparse supplies of pollen and nectar and will attack anything or anyone that it perceives as a threat.  (Ooops.)  Then, to make matters worse, they accidentally let them escape.  (Really big oops.)

Since killer bees have no natural enemies, and breed so rapidly, they managed to spread up to Central America by the 1980s, and they reached the southern US states, like Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, by the 1990s.  Because they were bred for tropical climates, they aren’t expected to go too far north due to the cooler temps.  (That means if you’re in Washington, North Dakota, Wisconsin or Maine, it probably isn’t a killer bee! However, as of 2009, a few had snuck up as far as places in Utah, so you still may have to try to figure out which one is visting you…)  By the way, Brazil has found a way to breed a more "gentle" killer bee, I mean, Africanized bee, so they’re hoping they can ‘re-domesticate’ the little critters.

Picture of European and African Honey BeesBecause the current killer bees wandering the Americas are a cross between 2 types of honey bees, unfortunately, at first glance, they look just like your friendly neighborhood useful bee.  The bee in the picture with the pink dot is a European queen honey bee – all the others, giving her the eye, are Africanized killer bees – hard to tell apart, other than very slightly darker stripes, aren’t they? (And unless you’ve got a bunch of them in one place to compare stripes, odds aren’t good that you’ll be able to tell by looking…)

The only really good way to tell if you’ve been visited by killer bees is to watch their behavior – but don’t get too close.  Remember, they react very badly to being ‘threatened.’  If you’re still unsure and worried about your little visitors, try to catch one using a bee trap, and take it to your local agriculture office.  They can help you identify what you have. 

But, please, if your bees aren’t bothering you, don’t kill them – our crops need all the bees they can get! In fact, one way to help prevent killer bee infestations is to keep colonies of European bees around.  Some have found that bringing new European queen honey bees into an area helps drive out the Africanized queens…


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