VERDE VALLEY – Spring has sprung, and love – and possibly buzzing – is in the air.
Types of bees
According a University of Arizona publication titled ‘Bee Management’, there are two types of bees: social (live in colonies and collectively defend a nest) and nonsocial (solitary individuals).
Nonsocial bees are less aggressive and generally have milder stings.
“A nonsocial bee has no comrades ready to come to her aid should you inadvertently provoke her,” stated the publication.
More than 90 percent of all bee species are nonsocial in nature.
“Social bees, like honeybees, are more likely to sting in defense of their colony, and in particular their brood (baby bees),” stated UofA.
When one bee stings, pheromones are released which cause other defensive bees to sting.
Honey bees are a social bee brought to North America from Europe by colonists, stated the publication.
No honey bees are native to North America.
In 1957, 26 Tanzanian queen bees were accidentally released by a beekeeper in Brazil, according to UofA. In the early 1990s, the European honey bees in the U.S. began hybridizing with African honey bees that had migrated into the southern states. The hybridized offspring are referred to as Africanized Honey Bees (AHB).
Bee life and hive makeup
All honey bees are about 2/3” long, and have a hairy body that is yellowish orange in color with black transverse bands on the abdomen, according to UofA.
There are three types of honey bees in a colony: the queen (there is only one), drones (approximately 200), and workers (20,000 to 200,000).
A typical colony has about 20,000 honey bees, stated the publication.
The drones are fast fliers adapted for mating only, after which they die.
Workers are sterile females who have a variety of jobs: to build and protect the hive, gather nectar from plants, feed the larvae, drones and queen, and clean and repair cracks in the hive, explained UofA.
Workers will sting perceived intruders.
The stinger is uniquely barbed in honey bees, making it difficult to extract and often causing a ruptured abdomen resulting in bee death, stated the publication.
“Swarming occurs many times a year for the AHB (typically one-three times a year for non-Africanized) when a newly hatched queen emerges for her nuptial flight in search of a new hive,” explained the publication.
A swarm is a bunch of bees on the move; they will temporary stop-over to allow the queen to rest, said UofA.
“They form a visible cluster of bees (hundreds to thousands). They are always exposed and open, and there is no comb present. They are very rarely defensive, and are usually quiet and demonstrate little flight activity. None of the bees are pollen-laden,” stated the publication.
Swarms are generally not defensive and usually move on of their own accord within one-four days, said UofA.
“When a new queen bee is produced, the old queen sets out in search of a new hive location. Approximately 70 percent of mostly the younger workers go with her; the remaining 30 percent remain at the old hive and establish a new colony with the young queen,” explained the publication. The AHB is not particular about hive location, leading to more common encounters between it and humans, said UofA.
Colonies can be present for weeks, months, or years, stated the publication. The bees move in and out of holes, walls, hollow trees, junk piles, pots, etc., explained UofA. Most of the bees are not visible because most are inside a cavity - if the bees are exposed the comb is visible, stated the publication.
“There is constant bee activity, and pollenladen bees can be observed arriving with yellow/orange pollen in pollen baskets,” stated UofA.
Cottonwood Fire Chief Mike Kuykendall said spring kicks up the bee season, which usually last through early summer. On accession, it could extend into winter, he said.
“With this past year being so wet, there are already signs that this year could offer a bumper crop of Africanized bees,” said Bella Donna, a Lake Montezuma beekeeper and Holistic Healthcare Practitioner.
All wild honey bees in Arizona presumed to be Africanized
It is estimated that over 90 percent of wild bee colonies in Arizona are Africanized Honey Bees (AHB), according to a publication from the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.
For this reason, all wild honey bees in Arizona are presumed to be Africanized.
“According to research done at the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, all bees that have been genetically tested in the state of Arizona show positive genetics of Africanization, anywhere from 1 percent to 100 percent,” said Donna.
Other genetic bees are brought into the state for backyard beekeepers, such as Italian, Buckfast, Russian, and Carniolians, said Donna.
These are calmer, nicer bees.
“But they don’t stay calm and nice for very long, it seems with the proliferation of AHB,” said Donna.
AHB are more aggressive, and they have a tendency to find milder hives and take them over, she said, adding that such behavior would be unusual for other bee varieties.
“I have had them do this to me in a matter of a couple of hours, taking over all of my other hives,” said Donna.
Donna’s list of common AHB characteristics
1) They infiltrate other hives, taking over and killing mild queens and instantly changing a hive from a gentle grouping of bees to aggressive, defensive, ‘killer’ bees.
2) They have a larger band of ‘guard’ bees that make initial attacks more severe and unexpected.
3) They gang together with other Africanized swarms. A person might think there is one swarm in a tree or a building wall, when in actually there could be multiple swarms, each with their own queen.
4) They set up hives in unusual places, such as intertwined fences or even openly in a tree.
5) They produce larger swarms than other varieties. When called for swarm removal, Donna will ask if the swarm is the size of a grapefruit, football, or small child.
6) They can, given proper conditions, swarm six to 10 times more than other honey bee varieties, which can impact the bee population, small beekeepers, the community, and public safety, said Donna.
Donna said southern U.S. states – except Arizona - have strict policies on catching and keeping AHB. For this reason the population of aggressive bees in the state continues to increase, she explained.
“I have been told numerous times that AHB produce a lot of honey and faster,” said Donna.
“I haven’t found this to be true because another characteristic of them is that they don’t like being boxed up. So at a whim, or given an opportunity, they will take off on me after a relocation. There are some management methods to providing some workability with the AHB that some beekeepers are having some success with. Bottom line on this is that since Arizona has no management practices or policies, understanding of their behavior is important,” said Donna.
Being from Africa, it was assumed that AHB would not be able to acclimate to cold climates.
“Since AHB have been identified in all states except Hawaii, this is now known to be untrue,” said Donna.
AHB are extremely adaptable.
“One thing good about the AHB bees is that they are somewhat indestructible so they manage through winters in Arizona better than most other varieties. They are not susceptible to the mites, beetle and other insects that can wipe out a hive in a matter of days. Skunks nor mice seem to want to mess with aggressive hives of bees,” explained Donna.
“When AHB do stick around long enough, usually a year to establish themselves, they can pump out some nice, thick, delicious honey very quickly,” she added.
“They are also good bees to steal bee pollen from which is useful in my healing honey blends. With other honey bee varieties, this would slow down production. But nothing seems to slow down production, determination, proliferation and sustainability of the Africanized Honey Bee,” said Donna.
Chief Kuykendall said his department normally responds to 20-50 bee-related calls a year
He said the worst bee attack he’s responded to happened two years ago, with two patients being transported to the hospital.
Fire departments will respond to an active attack and use a dish soap-like foam to control the bees. However, a beekeeper must be contacted to remove the queen, and subsequently, the bees. “My first choice is always to save the bees,” said Donna.
“They can go through a requeening process which is neither fun nor cheap, but it is a way to slow down the genetics and use the Africanized bees for honey production. Above all else though is public safety and sometimes larger, aggressive hives do need killed. I always encourage this without poisons. All of the local fire departments use a soapy, sudsy form that is non-toxic to the environment. Knowledgeable beekeepers also use this method as a last resort,” explained Donna.
Chief Kuykendall referred to some points to take note of should you encounter a hive or swarm of bees:
- Do not panic. Seven out of 10 deaths related to bee attacks (not involving bee allergy incidents) are due to folks panicking and literally causing their own death by running off cliffs, in front of cars, drowning, etc. Being hit by cars and drowning are the two most common.
- Though their venom is no more or less toxic, the AHB tends to sting in greater numbers and is more easily provoked than the European honey bee. Therefore, do not try to remove a colony yourself. Call the experts.
- If you are being chased: run away in a straight line and find shelter inside (car, house, etc.). Africanized bees are slow fliers and most healthy people can out run them.
- Avoid other people, or they too will be attacked. Once stung, you are a “marked” target. Bee stings are delivered with a pheromone which labels you as a threat.
- Scrape stings off as soon as you get to an indoor safe place.
- Do not hide underwater, as the swarm will simply wait for you to surface.
- Seek medical attention, in case of anaphylactic shock.
- If a person sustains more than 50 stings they should be treated in a hospital emergency room.
(From “Pest Press” a publication of the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, April 2005)
Chief Kuykendall advises people to check around the house and yard at least once a month to see if there are any signs of bees taking up residence. If a swarm or colony is found, leave it alone and keep family and pets away. Find a local beekeeper or a pest control company to deal with the bees.
“To help prevent honey bees from building a colony in your house or yard, fill all cracks and crevices in walls with steel wool and caulk. Remove piles of junk. Honey bees will nest in an old soda can or an overturned flower pot. Fill holes in the ground, and cover the hole in your water valve box,” according to a UofA publication.
“The best safety advice is to avoid an encounter with unfriendly honey bees. Be alert for danger. Remember that honey bees sting to defend their colony, so be on the lookout for honey bee swarms and colonies. Be alert for bees coming in and out of an opening such as a crack in a wall, or the hole in a water meter box. Listen for the hum of an active bee colony. Look for bees in holes in the ground, holes in trees or cacti, and in sheds. Be extra careful when moving junk or debris that has been lying around,” stated the UofA publication.
“Be alert for bees that are acting strangely. Quite often bees will display some preliminary defensive behavior before going into a full-fledged attack. They may fly at your face or buzz around over your head. These warning signs should be heeded, since the bees may be telling you that you have come into their area and are too close to their colony for comfort both theirs and yours,” said the UofA publication.
The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences offers more information at http://ag.arizona.edu/pubs/insects/ahb/.