How important? Honeybees pollinate a wide array of plants —— and about one-third of our diet depends on pollinators.
For you non-vegetable eaters, animals also depend on pollinators. Vegan or meatatarian, we all depend on pollinating plants for our diet.
Not only do honeybees help with food production, they also supply beeswax and, of course, honey.
The honeybee has become the spotlight of many news stories lately, because they are dying in great numbers, and the cause remains unknown.
Where the bees came from
European honeybees (Apis mellifera) were brought to the Americas in the 1600s. Many colonists brought over honeybee hives and beekeeping know-how.
In North America, the European honeybees flourished. In almost all areas of the United States today — including Alaska — you can find wild honeybees of European descent. Most beekeepers manage European honeybees.
In South America, the European honeybees did not thrive as well. The tropical and subtropical climate was a little too different.
In the 1950s, another subspecies of honeybee (Apis mellifera scutellata) was brought over from Africa into Brazil. This was an effort to promote honeybees and beekeeping in the area with a subspecies more likely to thrive.
The African honeybees began colonizing immediately. They even started hybridizing with the European honeybees. The resulting progeny is a honeybee we have all heard of the Africanized honeybee, aka the “killer bee.”
Which brings me to why I’m writing this article.
This past week, a colony of bees in Eastern Tennessee was confirmed to be a colony of partially Africanized bees. (The genetic makeup of the hive was only 17 percent Africanized bee. A truly Africanized bee would be 50 percent European bee and 50 percent African bee.) Nevertheless, the Africanized honeybee has moved farther north.
The Africanized honeybee (AHB) has been found in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, now Tennessee, and most of the southwestern states.
It has not been found in Alabama yet — although swarm boxes are set up in strategic places for testing of wild colonies by the USDA.
Not really “killer bees”
The Africanized honeybee is not that much different than our European honeybee. They are both honeybees. The Africanized honeybee is a tad smaller. The size difference is miniscule, though, and laboratory testing is the best way to tell the two apart.
European bees do not make more honey than the AHB. In fact, the AHB is probably a better honey producer in marginal areas.
The main difference in Africanized and European honeybees is the aggressive nature of the Africanized honeybee — thus its sensationalized nickname, “killer bee.”
Africanized honeybees, like European honeybees, will defend and attack when the colony has been disturbed. European honeybees will send out some bees to defend an area up to 20 yards from the nest. But Africanized honeybees may send hundreds of honeybees out to defend their nests, at distances up to 100 yards.
The venom of the Africanized honeybee is actually not as potent as that of the European honeybee.
However, they are very persistent and will send out more workers — which means more stings for a longer period of time.
Africanized honeybee nesting sites are usually larger, and they will colonize in more open places.
The females of both types of bees have the stingers. She can only sting once.
Do’s and don’ts
You don’t need to jump and run every time you see a honeybee, but you do to be alert and respect them. Some do’s and dont’s if you encounter aggressive, defensive bees:
• Don’t stand in one place and swat. Swatting can make them more defensive. They are defending a nest and will do so until you leave.
• Immediately leave the area. If a really defensive hive follows, cover your head (nose and mouth) as you run.
• Look for shelter. Brush piles and water are not good shelter. The bees may hang around awhile, and you can’t stay underwater forever.
• Before weed-eating or mowing, check the area. Most of the time, this is how colonies are found.
• Look first! This time of year, I ask my daughter to take a stick with her when she walks. This is for flipping over logs and rocks and whatever she may get into to check for snakes
The same is true for flying insects (wasps included). Use caution when first opening up meter boxes, power tools, barns, lumber stacks, sheds, etc. Check for honeybees that may have started building a hive.
If you find a nest
Remember, Africanized honeybees have been sensationalized as killer bees. They are commonplace in the southwestern states. They are not commonplace here.
If you do come upon a swarm or hive, contact a local beekeeper or your local extension office, which can put you in touch with a beekeeper. Odds are that they will be European honeybees, and a beekeeper may want the swarm.
Use good sense and judgment, and enjoy the food that the bees pollinate for you.
Danielle Carroll is an extension agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.