We are lucky to live in the beautiful Southwest, full of a variety of plants and animals. Summertime brings renewed activity of desert life, including bees. Honey bees are an essential part of our ecosystem. Many plants wouldn’t produce flowers, seeds, fruit or vegetables without them. According the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 30% of the food we eat would not exist if it were not for bees. This positive impact is so substantial there is a large and ongoing effort to protect and increase the bee population. In recent years, the loss of the honey bee population has been significant, with a decline of almost 1/3 of the population each year. Pesticides, industrial agriculture, and climate change are all contributing causes to their rapid decline.
The African honeybee is a subspecies that is particularly aggressive and can be dangerous to people and pets. Often called “killer bees,” the perception is that Africanized bees roam around in search of something to attack. This is not true- Africanized bees are still only defending their hive just as other bees do, they just become aggressive faster. When this occurs, the behavior of Africanized honey bees does vary from other subspecies in that they tend to attack in large swarms, making the encounter particularly dangerous. Tenacious, Africanized bees can pursue a perceived threat for over 1/4 of a mile. The average person can safely tolerate 10 stings per pound of body weight. The average adult can withstand more than 1,000 stings, although 500 stings could kill a child.
In Arizona, it is calculated that 90% of honey bees are the Africanized honey bee subspecies. They build small colonies, so they can build nests in unique places. They have been known to live in tires, crates, boxes, and empty cars. If you encounter any bee hive, contact a bee specialist or pest control service that can work with you to relocate or remove the hive, depending on the situation.
To prevent bees setting up camp around your home, check for any crevasses and fill them with caulk or other solid material. Be cautious when near areas that have been empty for some time (like storage sheds or unused trash cans, for example) or when moving items in the yard that could hide bees. Loud noises, vibrations, dark colors, perfumes are all triggers to Africanized bees.
If you or someone is stung, don’t panic:
- Do not play dead or swat at the bees. If you notice a swarm coming your way, quickly get into a house, car, tent, or other enclosure. Close any doors or windows.
- The key is to run away as fast as you can in a straight line. Bees are slow fliers. Most healthy people should be able to outrun the bees. Be prepared to run up to the length of two football fields.
- Do not jump into a pool or underwater. The bees will wait until you surface for air to attack. Your face will be the first area to be stung.
- Protect your face to prevent stings to the eyes, nose, and in the mouth. Bees attack where carbon dioxide is expelled. Facial stings are much more dangerous than stings to the body. Pull your shirt over your head if no other protection is available.
Monitor for signs of anaphalaxis: shortness of breath, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, turning pale, or an abnormal heart rate. Call 911 if you notice those signs as that means a potentially deadly allergic reaction is occurring. Regardless of reaction, anybody who gets 30 or more stings should seek medical attention just to be on the safe side. For care of less than 30 stings, scrape stingers off once you’re safe indoors. Was the sting site with soap and water and apply ice to decrease swelling. If unsure, err on the side of caution and seek care.
Honey bees, including Africanized honey bees, outnumber all other kinds of bees and critters that pollinate, making them one of the most critical factors in our food chain. Their loss would be devastating, so keeping them safe as well as ourselves is imperative to maintaining our food sources. Taking a few precautions and staying aware will benefit us all. Remember, they only want to protect their hives, just as we want to protect our homes and loved ones.