FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The dangers of a dwindling bee population have been well documented, but the bees themselves can prove to be deadly in extreme cases. Killer bees are likely to call Northwest Arkansas home sooner than you might expect.
While the debate over climate change rages on, scientists point to rising temperatures as the reason for the spread of 'killer' bees in our area. They represent a new normal we will have to get used to. Folks can get a little skittish around bees, and that is for good reason.
"I think it stung me," University of Arkansas Entomology Professor Dr. Donald Steinkraus said as he provoked a bee to sting him on his arm as he tapped it once again. "Now it has."
Their sting can make you forget about the delicious honey they make and the good they do for people by pollinating the plants responsible for a third of all the food we eat. However, there is a species of bees we need to be aware of.
According to research from Columbia University, Killer bees were created in Brazil in the 1950s by a geneticist who was contracted by the Brazilian government to create a species of bee that would produce more honey in the warmer tropical climate. That scientist crossed the European and African species. The only problem, the extremely defensive instincts of the African bees was passed along.
Eventually that creation escaped; spreading across South America, up to Central America by the early 1980s, and then on to Mexico. By 1990, the bees hit the U.S. when they were discovered in Southern Texas. They have been spreading into this country ever since. The first case in Arkansas was confirmed in 2005, not far from the Texas and Louisiana borders.
If you think the killer bee population is a problem only in Southern Arkansas, think again. There is a large area reaching intro central and much of the western parts of the state.
The reach of killer bees includes much of the Southern U.S., and present a bona fide threat to public safety if you do not know much about them. The variety of bees we grew up with, brought here by colonists long ago, are more docile.
"They came over from Europe and people have raised them for centuries and they're fairly gentle," Steinkraus shared.
Dr. Steinkraus warns that gentle nature is quite different among Africanized Honeybee populations. If you disturb a hive of European bees, it is likely a small group of them will chase you for up to 100 feet.
"I'm gonna' give them a little puff of smoke through the front door," Arkansas State Plant Board Apiary Inspector Danny Brewer said as he demonstrated how to use a 'smoker.'
To avoid aggravation, beekeepers use smoke to mask the pheromone bees release that essentially acts like an air raid siren to alert other bees to attack.
"If we opened an Africanized Honey Bee hive without smoke, a thousand bees might come out and chase you for a quarter-mile," Steinkraus explained.
While the professor's interest in beekeeping is professional, there are many hobbyists that -- he warns -- need to be aware of the dangers of Africanized honeybees. Though their sting is no worse than their European cousins, killer bees attack with far more ferocity and with much larger numbers.
"With Africanized bees it all just happens a lot faster, a lot more," Steinkraus said.
As it stands now the populations we encounter in Northwest Arkansas are of the European variety. They do not sting as much. However, after speaking with Dr. Steinkraus and other experts about what could be coming our way, there is a bit of surprise that the Africanized honeybee populations have yet to impact the hives here in our region.
"Essentially all of Texas and Oklahoma have Africanized honeybees," Steinkraus stated. "In Arizona, they're a hundred percent Africanized, the feral bee colonies are. So I'm actually surprised we don't have more of them yet."
Telling the difference between European and Africanized bees with the naked eye is virtually impossible, though the African variety is just slightly smaller. The Arkansas State Plant Board monitors the bee population by setting about 60 swarm traps throughout the state to test the bees they catch.
"2010 was our last positive that we confirmed in the state," Arkansas State Plant Board Agri Program Manager Mark Stoll said. "I know the Africanized bees are still in the state, but the spread has not continued like it started off."
Brewer is one of the two state inspectors responsible for traveling all across Arkansas to monitor swarm traps.
"The bees come in the bottom, and they come on up in there," Brewer said as he showed how the traps work. "And, what they do, they get inside here and they build [honey] comb off of the grooves [inside]. And you can see this one has had a swarm in it before."
The inspectors search out locations to hang the traps that make sense for how Africanized bees spread.
"We have them set up at truck stops, lock and dams on the river, railroad stops and that's what we're trying to do," Brewer explained. "These railroads are going down into Texas, coming up into here, parking for the night and an Africanized swarm comes off of it."
According to the above map from the Arkansas Agricultural Department, the brown highlighted counties indicates locations where Africanized honey bees have been found. The red triangles indicate locations where positive markers have been found. That includes counties in the south, but adds in one just outside of Little Rock and another right there at the Missouri border.
All the tan colored counties are considered at risk and that represents a large area of impact. The experts we spoke with said there is no reason to be especially fearful of killer bees, but rather you should be mindful of them. If you encounter a hostile hive, you want to immediately cover your face and run away.
"Get inside of a building, get away from them, get inside of the car," Brewer instructed. "And now you only have to deal with a hundred that got in there with you, not the 10,000 that's coming in the next minute."
Don't try to remove a hive or infestation yourself. Brewer said it is in your best interest to contact a professional exterminator or beekeeper to handle that.
If you get stung, use a credit card or fingernail to scrape out the stingers. Grabbing it will only pump more venom into the wound.
The following are warning signs that could alert you to an Africanized bee population:
- frequent swarming to establish new nests
- minimal hoarding of honey
- the ability to survive on sparse supplies of pollen and nectar
- moving their entire colony readily (abscond) if food is scarce
- exploiting new habitats very quickly and is not particular about its nesting site.
- a highly defensive nature
- responding more quickly and more bees sting
- sensing a threat from people or animals 50 feet or more from their nest
- sensing vibrations from power equipment 100 feet or more from nest
- pursuing a perceived enemy 1/4 mile or more
You can find more information about Africanized honeybees by clicking on this link to the Arkansas State Plant Board.
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