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Killer bees vs. honey bees: the difference

The main differences between killer bees and honey bees are their size and that killer bees, as their name suggests, are more likely to sting when defending their hives than honey bees. Every so often, Africanized honey bees find their way into the news. The story of so-called “killer bees” makes for sensational headlines and gets a lot of attention. But the story of how these bees got to North America and into the United States is the stuff of legend, too.

However, the truth about Africanized bees is, as with most myths, they're not quite so sinister as you may have been led to believe. Yes, they do pose a potential threat and they tend to be more aggressive than other bees, but are they really the threat that some would have you believe? Western Exterminator Technicians know the difference between honey bees and Africanized bees and how to handle their nests.

If you have a problem with bees, contact your local Western Exterminator specialist and schedule a free property inspection.

How did Africanized bees enter the United States?

The story of how Africanized bees entered the United States has become legendary. This type of bee came into existence when they were interbred between the standard European honey bee and bees from Africa by a man named Warwick E. Kerr, a biologist. He initially bred these bees in Brazil while trying to create a species of bee that would be hardier and adapt to tropical conditions found in South America. He wanted them to be great producers of honey for that region.

Kerr kept these bees in a special apiary, away from the other breeds of bees. He used special screens, known as “excluders”, that would stop larger bees, such as the queens, from leaving those hives and mixing with the native honey bee population.

Kerr soon noticed that his newly created bees were more aggressive than other bees. They also were more willing to defend a wider radius around their hive than the European bees. He had even more reason to restrict their ability to leave their hives.

In 1957, however, Kerr had a visit from another beekeeper who noticed that workers in these new hives were having trouble maneuvering around the excluders. He removed them and set them aside. Doing this accidentally released 26 swarms of the new bees. They very quickly interbred with native bee populations and began spreading across South America and were soon headed north.

Due to the fact that they spread so quickly and so far makes the Africanized honey bee one of the most successful invasive species of all time.

The first swarm of Africanized bees in the U.S. was spotted in an oil field in the San Joaquin Valley in the state of California in 1985 and they have been a part of the United States in warmer climates ever since.

What do Africanized bees look like?

Africanized killer bee

The problem with Africanized honey bees is that they look a lot like the standard honey bees we see across the U.S. Of course, all honey bees are pollinators and are crucial to the environment, even the so-called “killer bees.” That means that simply wiping out beehives on your own is never a good solution and, more than likely, illegal in most places. This is one of the reasons the discovery of any unwanted beehive should require calling in a pest Technician who knows how to best handle these situations.

The main way to tell the difference is to compare the sizes. Africanized honey bees are usually smaller than their European cousins. For scientists, it’s still a tricky prospect to try and distinguish between the two bee species. They have to study the veins in the wings, body part colors and other factors that you will be unlikely to see if you run across a swarm. In fact, if you saw an Africanized honey bee in the wild, there is a very good chance you would just think it was a standard honey bee.

Are Africanized bees poisonous?

Even the standard honey bee that beekeepers have been breeding for centuries contains venom. Africanized honey bees contain no more venom than those bees. However, a big difference between them and the more docile European honey bee is that they attack potential threats in greater numbers, thus, someone can receive hundreds and hundreds of stings and that much venom can be dangerous and even fatal. Their poison is not stronger or more deadly than other bees. It’s all about volume.

Are Africanized bees more aggressive than European honey bees?

Africanized honey bee

Yes. This is the main differentiator when it comes to telling the difference between the two species of bee. Africanized honey bees are more defensive and will defend their hive over a wider radius than the standard European honey bee.

Africanized bees will only attack if someone or something gets too close to their nests. Although the actual colonies, or swarms, of Africanized bees tend to be smaller than the hives you see containing European bees, more of the hive will attack in the Africanized hive. Therefore, their attack swarm may seem much larger than anything you get from a European hive.

Africanized bees will also pursue a potential threat over much larger distances than European bees. They have been shown to attack up to 500 meters, or 1640 feet, away from the hive.

How many stings will an Africanized bee give?

Just like their European counterparts, the Africanized bee will give just one sting and then die. They, too, disembowel themselves when they sting, so an individual bee will sting you just once. The danger occurs when it brings its friends.

Since their hive can contain hundreds of bees, and the vast majority of them can be summoned to attack a perceived threat, victims of killer bee attacks can be stung 500 or more times in one attack. Even for those who are not allergic to bee stings, this can create very serious and potentially fatal reactions to the stings.

What should you do if you see an African honey bee hive?


More than likely it will be hard to tell if the nest of bees you’re seeing is an Africanized honey bee nest or a standard honey bee nest. If you see any type of bee nest, and it is close to you, your family, pets or neighbors, it is best to contact a local pest control specialist like those at Western Exterminator.

A Western Exterminator bee expert will be able to safely determine if the nest is that of Africanized or European honey bees. We work with local agencies to safely remove the hives and nests and transplant them elsewhere.

Most importantly, stay away from the hive. Do not let pets or anyone else near the hive. Back away and contact Western Exterminator immediately. We will send a professional out to help.

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