Killer Bee
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0.5 to 0.6 inches (12 to 15 mm)
Length
less than a tenth of a gram
Weight

About

#Insect

The term “Killer Bee” commonly refers to a subspecies of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) known as Africanized honey bees or Africanized bees. These bees have gained notoriety due to their aggressive defensive behavior when provoked, and they are often misunderstood as highly dangerous.

Africanized honey bees are a subspecies within the Animal Kingdom’s Class Insecta and Order Hymenoptera. They belong to the family Apidae, which includes all honey bees and bumblebees. Africanized honey bees originated in Brazil in the mid-20th century as a result of hybridization between European honey bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) and African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata). This hybridization introduced the defensive behavior and swarming tendencies of African honey bees into the European honey bee population.

Africanized honey bees have since spread through parts of the Americas, including regions of the United States, where they’ve established colonies. Despite their reputation, it’s important to note that their stings are not more venomous than those of European honey bees. However, they are known for being more aggressive in defending their nests and are more likely to pursue perceived threats for longer distances, making them potentially hazardous to humans and animals if disturbed. Understanding their behavior and taking appropriate precautions is essential when coexisting with these bees.

Conservation Concerns

Africanized honey bees are not individually listed on the IUCN Red List, as they are considered a subspecies of the Western honey bee. However, their presence can have significant ecological and economic impacts, particularly in regions where they outcompete native bee species and pose risks to human safety.

Efforts to manage and mitigate the spread of Killer Bees often involve monitoring their populations, educating the public about safety measures, and implementing measures to control feral colonies.

Threatened:
Extinct
Critically Endangered
Endangered
Vulnerable
Near Threatened
Least Concern

Physical Characteristics

Africanized honey bees, often referred to as “killer bees,” share physical characteristics with other honey bee subspecies. Here are their key physical features:

Physical Appearance:

  • Size: The average worker bee is about 0.5 to 0.6 inches (12 to 15 millimeters) in length.
  • Coloration: Africanized honey bees, like other honey bees, have a distinctive coloration. They are covered in dense, fine hairs, giving them a fuzzy appearance. Their coloration varies but typically includes bands of golden-yellow or light brown and bands of brown or black on their abdomen.
  • Wings: They have two pairs of translucent wings that are shorter than their body length.
  • Antennae: Africanized honey bees, like all honey bees, have elbowed antennae consisting of multiple segments.
  • Stinger: Like other honey bees, Africanized honey bees have a barbed stinger that can remain embedded in the skin after stinging, leading to the bee’s death.

Size and Weight:

  • Size: The size of a single bee is measured in millimeters.
  • Weight: The weight of a single bee is measured in milligrams, typically less than a tenth of a gram.

It’s important to note that the physical characteristics of Africanized honey bees are very similar to those of European honey bees, which are the more common honey bee subspecies found in many regions around the world. The primary difference between Africanized honey bees and other honey bees lies in their behavior, particularly their defensive response to perceived threats. Africanized honey bees are known for being more aggressive in defending their colonies and are more likely to swarm and pursue intruders for longer distances when provoked.

Reproduction

The reproductive cycle of Africanized honey bees, often referred to as “killer bees,” is similar to that of other honey bee subspecies. It involves a complex social structure within the colony, including the roles of queens, workers, and drones. Here is an overview of their reproductive cycle:

1. Queen Development:

  • A young worker bee can become a queen through a process called “queen rearing.” When the colony decides it needs a new queen, workers select a larva and feed it a special diet called “royal jelly.” This diet triggers the development of reproductive organs in the chosen larva.

2. Mating and Egg Laying:

  • Once mature, a queen leaves the colony in search of drones (male bees) from other colonies for mating. During mating flights, she may mate with multiple drones.
  • After mating, the queen returns to the colony and begins laying eggs. She can lay both fertilized eggs, which develop into worker bees and potential new queens, and unfertilized eggs, which develop into male drones.

3. Worker and Drone Development:

  • Fertilized eggs develop into female worker bees. Worker bees perform various tasks within the colony, such as foraging, nursing larvae, and defending the hive.
  • Unfertilized eggs develop into male drones. Drones have no stingers and are solely responsible for mating with queens from other colonies.

4. Swarming and Colony Expansion:

  • Africanized honey bee colonies may have a higher tendency to swarm compared to other honey bee subspecies. Swarming occurs when the colony splits into two or more groups. One group, led by a new queen, leaves the colony to establish a new hive, while the original colony continues with the existing queen.

5. Colony Maintenance:

  • The colony continues to produce new generations of bees, with the queen laying eggs and workers tending to the brood (developing larvae and pupae).
  • The reproductive cycle of the colony repeats as the colony grows and maintains its population.

Gestation in honey bees, including Africanized honey bees, refers to the time it takes for an egg to develop into an adult bee. The duration of gestation varies depending on the caste (queen, worker, or drone) and environmental conditions. Worker bees typically develop within a few weeks, while queens and drones may take slightly longer.

The number of young produced in an Africanized honey bee colony can vary widely depending on factors such as colony size, time of year, and available resources. A mature colony may contain thousands of individuals, predominantly workers, and potentially a few dozen male drones and new queens by the end of the season.

Lifespan

The lifespan of Africanized honey bees, commonly known as “killer bees,” can vary depending on their caste within the colony and environmental factors. Here’s an overview of the lifespan of different castes in the wild and in captivity, along with the primary threats they face:

Worker Bees:

  • Lifespan in the Wild: Worker bees typically live for a few weeks to a few months, depending on their workload and environmental conditions. During this time, they perform various tasks such as foraging, nursing larvae, and defending the colony.
  • Lifespan in Captivity: Worker bees may live slightly longer in controlled conditions, often up to a few months. Providing them with a stable environment, adequate food, and protection from predators can extend their lifespan.

Male Drones:

  • Lifespan in the Wild: Male drones have relatively short lifespans, typically ranging from a few weeks to a couple of months. Their primary purpose is to mate with new queens.
  • Lifespan in Captivity: The lifespan of male drones in captivity is similar to that in the wild, typically a few weeks to a couple of months.

Queen Bees:

  • Lifespan in the Wild: Queen bees have the longest lifespans among castes, typically ranging from one to several years. After mating and hibernation, they initiate new colonies.
  • Lifespan in Captivity: Queen bees can live for several years in captivity if provided with suitable conditions, including hibernation during the winter months.

Primary Threats to Africanized Honey Bees:

  1. Habitat Loss: Destruction of natural habitats, including meadows and wildflowers, reduces foraging and nesting sites for Africanized honey bees.
  2. Pesticides: Exposure to pesticides, including neonicotinoids, can harm Africanized honey bees, affecting their behavior, reproduction, and survival.
  3. Disease and Parasites: Africanized honey bees can be affected by diseases and parasites, such as Nosema and Varroa mites, which weaken or kill individuals.
  4. Climate Change: Altered weather patterns and temperature fluctuations can affect Africanized honey bee foraging and nesting behaviors, as well as the availability of flowers.
  5. Competition with Other Species: Competition with other bee species for food and nesting sites can pose a threat to Africanized honey bees.
  6. Loss of Floral Resources: Reduced availability of nectar and pollen due to changes in land use and monoculture agriculture can impact their nutrition.

Africanized honey bees, like other honey bee subspecies, are essential pollinators and play a vital role in ecosystems and agriculture. Conservation efforts focus on protecting their habitats, reducing pesticide use, and promoting awareness of their importance in maintaining biodiversity and food production.

Eating Habits

Africanized honey bees, often referred to as “killer bees,” have dietary habits typical of honey bees in general. Their diet primarily consists of two main components: nectar and pollen. Here’s a description of their eating habits and how they gather their food:

1. Nectar Feeding:

  • Nectar: Nectar is a sugary liquid produced by flowers as a reward for pollinators. Africanized honey bees, like other honey bees, collect nectar as their primary source of carbohydrates, which provides them with energy.
  • Feeding Process: When foraging for nectar, worker bees use their long proboscis (tongue) to access the nectar within flowers. They insert their proboscis into the flower’s nectaries, specialized structures that contain nectar, and then suck up the sugary liquid.

2. Pollen Collection:

  • Pollen: Pollen is a source of protein for honey bees. It is essential for the development of bee larvae and for maintaining the health of the colony.
  • Feeding Process: Worker bees actively collect pollen while foraging for nectar. As they visit flowers, they brush against the anthers (the pollen-bearing structures) of the flowers. Pollen grains adhere to the fine hairs on their bodies, particularly on their hind legs. They use their legs to gather and transport the pollen back to the colony.

3. Water Intake:

  • Africanized honey bees, like all honey bees, require water for various purposes, including maintaining temperature and humidity within the colony.
  • They collect water from various sources, such as puddles, streams, and other water bodies, and transport it back to the hive in special “water-carrying” bees.

4. Honey Production:

  • Africanized honey bees also produce and store honey, which serves as a long-term energy source for the colony. Honey is created from nectar through a process of regurgitation, evaporation, and storage within the hive.

Foraging Behavior:

  • Worker bees are responsible for foraging and collecting nectar and pollen. They visit a wide variety of flowering plants to gather these resources.
  • As they forage, Africanized honey bees play a crucial role in the pollination of many plant species, helping with the fertilization and reproduction of flowering plants, including agricultural crops and wildflowers.

Africanized honey bees are known for their efficient foraging behavior, visiting numerous flowers and covering significant distances to gather nectar and pollen. Their fuzzy bodies help trap pollen grains, making them effective pollinators while they collect their food resources.

Uniqueness

Africanized honey bees, often referred to as “killer bees,” are unique and distinctive in several ways, primarily due to their behavioral characteristics and history of hybridization. Here’s what makes them unique:

  1. Hybrid Origin: Africanized honey bees are the result of hybridization between African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) and European honey bees (Apis mellifera mellifera and other subspecies). This hybridization occurred in Brazil in the mid-20th century, leading to the creation of a new subspecies.
  2. Aggressive Defense: Africanized honey bees are renowned for their defensive behavior. They are more likely to respond aggressively and in larger numbers when their colony is threatened or disturbed. While their stings are not more venomous than those of other honey bee subspecies, their defensive response can make them appear more dangerous.
  3. Swarming Tendency: Africanized honey bee colonies have a higher tendency to swarm compared to other honey bee subspecies. Swarming involves the colony splitting into multiple groups, with one group led by a new queen leaving to establish a new hive. Swarming can be a response to population growth and resource availability.
  4. Migratory Behavior: Africanized honey bees have exhibited more migratory behavior compared to some other honey bee subspecies. They have spread and established colonies in various regions of the Americas, including the southern United States, often outcompeting and hybridizing with other honey bee populations.
  5. Foraging Efficiency: Africanized honey bees are efficient foragers, visiting a wide range of flowering plants for nectar and pollen collection. Their adaptability and ability to thrive in diverse environments contribute to their success as pollinators.
  6. Environmental Resilience: Africanized honey bees have shown resilience in different environmental conditions, including tropical and subtropical regions. They can be found in a variety of habitats, from forests to urban areas.
  7. Importance in Agriculture: Despite their reputation, Africanized honey bees play a crucial role in pollinating agricultural crops. They contribute to the pollination of various crops, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which is vital for food production.
  8. Genetic Variation: The Africanized honey bee population exhibits genetic diversity due to the hybridization of different subspecies. This diversity can result in variations in behavior and adaptation to local conditions.
  9. Conservation Concerns: While considered a unique subspecies, Africanized honey bees also raise conservation concerns for native bee populations and other pollinators due to competition for resources and the potential displacement of local honey bee populations.

In summary, Africanized honey bees are unique due to their hybrid origin, aggressive defense, swarming tendency, migratory behavior, foraging efficiency, and importance in agriculture. Their distinct characteristics and adaptation to various environments have contributed to their recognition as a unique subspecies within the world of honey bees.

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FAQ’s

1. How many types of Killer Bees are there?

The term “killer bees” typically refers to a hybridized and more aggressive form of the African honey bee, known scientifically as Africanized honey bees or Africanized bees. Africanized honey bees are not a separate species from European honey bees (the common honey bees in Europe and many other parts of the world); they are a subspecies or race (Apis mellifera scutellata).

Africanized honey bees were initially the result of hybridization between African honey bees and European honey bees in Brazil in the 1950s. These hybrid bees inherited certain aggressive traits from their African ancestors. They earned the nickname “killer bees” due to their increased defensiveness and tendency to attack perceived threats in larger numbers than European honey bees.

There is essentially one main type of Africanized honey bee, but they have spread and interbred with other honey bee populations, leading to variations in behavior and traits. However, these variations do not typically classify as distinct types or subspecies. Africanized honey bees can be found in regions of the Americas, including parts of the United States, where they have expanded their range.

It’s important to note that while Africanized honey bees are more defensive and prone to attacking perceived threats in larger numbers, their stings are not more venomous than those of European honey bees. Nonetheless, their aggressive behavior makes them a concern in areas where they have established colonies, and beekeepers and the public should take precautions when dealing with them.

2. Why is the Africanized honey bee called Killer Bee?

The term “Killer Bee” is a colloquial and sensationalized name given to Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata) due to their perceived aggressive behavior when defending their colonies. This name has been popularized by the media and is somewhat misleading. Here’s why they acquired this nickname:

  1. Aggressive Defense: Africanized honey bees are known for their heightened defensive response to perceived threats or disturbances near their colonies. When disturbed, they are more likely to respond aggressively and in larger numbers compared to other honey bee subspecies. This behavior can make them appear more dangerous and defensive, leading to the sensationalized nickname “Killer Bee.”
  2. Media Sensationalism: The term “Killer Bee” was popularized by the media in the 1970s and 1980s when Africanized honey bees began to spread through the Americas. Media outlets often used dramatic language and imagery to describe their behavior, contributing to the public’s perception of these bees as highly dangerous.

It’s important to note that Africanized honey bees are not inherently more venomous than other honey bee subspecies. Their stings contain similar venom, and the physical effects of their stings are similar to those of other honey bee stings. The term “Killer Bee” primarily refers to their behavior, particularly their aggressive defense of their colonies.

While their defensive behavior is unique and should be respected, it’s essential to understand that Africanized honey bees play a vital role in pollination and are valuable for agriculture. They are not “killers” in the sense of seeking out and attacking humans or animals unprovoked. Most stings occur when humans accidentally disturb their nests or hives.

In regions where Africanized honey bees are present, education and awareness campaigns have helped people understand how to coexist with these bees safely. Beekeepers and the public are encouraged to take precautions and avoid disturbing Africanized honey bee colonies to prevent conflicts and stinging incidents

Sources
  • Britannica, Africanized Honeybee, https://www.britannica.com/animal/Africanized-honeybee, retrieved January 2024.
  • Burnie, David & Wilson, Don, Animal, Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.
  • Hickman et al, Integrated Principle of Zoology, McGraw Hill, Boston.