Honey bees get their common name from the sweet yellowish to brownish fluid they make from the nectar of flowers and use as food. Honey bees not only provide honey and wax, but as pollinators are of far greater importance. They are also responsible for a large share of insect stings, although many stings blamed on “bees” are actually done by yellowjackets. Honey bees are worldwide in distribution.
The 2 most commonly encountered kinds/strains of honey bees in the United States are the common and rather docile European honey bee (EHB) and the much more aggressive Africianized honey bee (AHB). The EHB is found throughout most of the United States. The AHB invaded the United States from Mexico in 1990, and by 1/2007 was established in southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, western Louisiana, southern Arkansas, and central and southern Florida.
Adult worker’s body length about 1/2-5/8″ (11-15 mm). Color usually orangish brown to sometimes black, gaster (enlarged rear portion of abdomen) broadly banded with orange and brown or brown and black; with body mostly covered with branched, pale hairs, most dense on thorax. Eyes hairy. First segment of hind tarsus enlarged, flattened. In addition, hind tibiae lack apical spurs; front wing venation with marginal cell narrow, parallel-sided, and 3rd submarginal cell oblique; hind wings with jugal lobe (lobe on rear margin near body). Barbed stinger present.
Queens slightly larger, about 5/8-3/4″ (15-20 mm) long, pointed abdomen extends well beyond wing tips, with smooth stinger. Males or drones robust, about 5/8″ (15-17 mm) long, stinger absent
Africanized honey bees look just like our “domestic” bees except for being slightly smaller. A specialist is required to identify specimens by genetics or measurements.
- Yellowjackets (Vespidae) have abdomen usually banded with yellow and black, hind tarsal 1st segment not enlarged, hind wing lacks a jugal lobe (lobe on rear margin near body).
- Other bees (various families) lack hairy eyes, have apical spurs on hind tibiae, lack having front wing’s marginal cell narrow and parallel-sided and 3rd submarginal cell oblique.
- Some syrphid flies (Diptera: Syrphidae) which resemble honey bees, with 1 pair of wings.
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Honey bees are social insects and live as colonies in hives, with mature colonies of 20,000-80,000 individuals. Adults are represented by workers which are infertile females, a queen or inseminated female, and drones (males) which come from unfertilized eggs.
The entire population overwinters. There is only one egg-laying queen in the hive and she mates only once. She can lay as many as 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day, and may live as long as 5 years. The queen produces many pheromones, mostly from her mandibular glands, which regulate among other things the production of new queens and inhibit development of worker ovaries. The young workers care for the young or brood, build the comb, provide hive ventilation, and guard the hive entrance. Older workers serve as foragers to gather pollen, nectar, and propolis or bee glue. Workers live only about 5 to 7 weeks during the summer but those emerging in the autumn, over winter. Drones (males) appear periodically and are short lived, usually living only a few weeks.
Honey bees swarm primarily when the colony size gets too large for the available hive space or the queen begins to wane or fail. New queens are produced and the old queen leaves with a large number of workers. Our common European honey bee colony usually swarms only once each 12 months. Africianized honey bees swarm as often as once every 6 weeks and can produce 2 swarms each time.
Honey bees are not aggressive, and do not search for something to attack. Instead, they are defensive and will attack only whatever seems to threaten the colony.
Swarms first move to a temporary site such as a tree branch. The swarm will usually remain here for about 24-48 hours until permanent quarters are located, and then moves on. Permanent quarters may consist of a bee hive, hollow tree, hollow wall, attic, etc., typically some place which is sheltered from the weather.
Bees in a swarm are very docile and not likely to sting because they harbor no food stores or young and therefore, have nothing to defend. Likewise, honey bees encountered away from the hive are unlikely to sting unless severely provoked, like stepping on them. However, if the hive entrance is approached, the guard bees can become very aggressive; do not approach hives without proper protection. Worker bees have barbed stingers and when used, the stinger, poison sac, and associated tissue are torn from the body. If the stinger is not removed immediately, muscle contractions will drive the stinger deeper and deeper into the skin and there is greater time for toxin injection. In addition, the stinger gives off a pheromone which attracts other bees and induces an alarm and attack behavior. Therefore, immediate removal with a fingernail or knife blade is recommended; squeezing only forces more venom in. The AHB will pursue the intruder/victim for up to 328 ft (100 m) whereas, the EHB will pursue for only about 33 ft (10 m).
The normal reaction to bee stings is local pain for a few minutes followed by swelling at the sting site which subsides in a few hours. Often itching and heat may last for a few hours. First-aid consists of quickly removing the stinger with a fingernail or knife blade. After stinger removal, do not rub the area because this causes the venom to spread, or scratch the area which may cause secondary infection, but clean it with soap and water followed by an antiseptic. A cold compress will reduce pain and swelling. A topical application of household ammonia cleaner will diminish the pain as well. If one has been stung more than 15 times, or is feeling ill, or if the reaction is more severe than a small welt, consult a physician immediately because death can occur within 15-30 minutes from severe allergic reactions. The USDA/ARS says that the average person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight, which means that although 500 stings can kill a child, the average adult could withstand more than 1100 stings.
Africanized honey bees are much more aggressive than the EHB and are extremely protective of their hive and brood (young). Their colonies are smaller and they use a much wider range of nesting sites. Nesting sites include water meter boxes, utility poles, cement blocks, junk piles, the eave area of houses, abandoned structures, tree limbs, and holes in the ground. Potential sites include mail boxes, overturned flower pots, old tires, mobile home skirts, etc.
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If you live in an area known to have AHB or are within 100 miles of such an area (they are advancing at a rate of up to 100 miles each year), it is not advisable to approach a colony, hive, or swarm of honey bees without first putting on a complete bee suit. Likewise, it is not advisable to get within 100 feet (30 m) of an AHB colony, hive, or swarm unless fully suited up. Schools and day-care facilities should conduct daily surveillance, have an action plan in place, and educate their students and faculty.
Anyone attacked should run quickly until they reach shelter such as a vehicle or building, and then the stingers can be removed. If someone else is observed being attacked, advise them to run to shelter, but don’t go to assist unless properly suited-up because you will also be attacked. Call 911 for rescue help.
Rescue personnel typically use a 1% solution of liquid dishwashing liquid to water (1/2 to 1 cup detergent/gallon of water), which will immediately immobilize honey bees and kill the bees within 60 seconds. Firefighters can accomplish the same results by using water plus a non-toxic wetting agent.
For EHB swarmers in the yard, contact the cooperative extension service or call a local beekeeper or apiculture supply shop for beekeepers interested in removing swarms. These same contacts are worth a try for live removal from walls and attics.
Live removal of EHB is desirable and the preferred method in the case of brick wall construction (more difficult to open up), but it is often impossible to locate anyone willing to do this. Live removal involves trapping the bees out and capturing them with a decoy hive containing a queen and a few bees, killing the queen and the few remaining bees with pyrethrins or resmethrin, and after several days allowing the bees back in to remove the honey. Next, the nest void should be treated with a long-lasting repellent dust to discourage wax moths, dermestid beetles, etc., and then immediately sealed. This whole process may take 3-6 weeks.
If honey bees must be killed in a wall or attic, pesticide application should be made at night using only background light; a bee veil should be worn. Appropriately labeled aerosol pyrethroids are most convenient and effective, with dusts being second choice.
For walls, first locate the entrance/exit(s) being used. Next, the colony’s nest should be located because the nest can be far enough away from the entrance that entryway-applied insecticides will not reach the bees. The nest can best be located at night by tapping on the walls in the area of buzzing and listening for the loudest sound. Also, honey bees keep the center of their nest at about 95°F (35°C) which will warm the wall enough such that it can often be detected with one’s hand.
For walls, first seal any possible entrances to living quarters such as window sashes. Then the insecticide application can be made either directly through the entrance hole or by drilling a small hole (3/32-1/8″ or 2-3mm) through the inside wall, the latter being necessary for nests located some distance from the entrance hole. Seal the application hole immediately after insecticide introduction. For attics, direct application is required.
The next day the dead bees, comb, and honey must be removed or else as the wax deteriorates, there will be a strong honey and dead bee odor, the honey will often seep through the plaster walls, and/or this debris will attract other insects and mice. In the case of a wall, the wall must be opened up. It is suggested that the potential customer be notified in writing of their responsibility in this matter before any contract is signed.
In the residential situation, it may be desirable to discourage foraging bees from coming around the home. This is especially true if small children or allergic people are present. Discouragement consists of the removal or preventing access to any sugar, food, or water which may attract them, such as soda cans, flowers, water dishes, etc. Recommend that flowering vegetation be located away from doorways, decks, sidewalks, mailboxes, and other areas frequented by people. Also, lawns should be kept free of white clover and flowering weeds.