Closeup of Africanized honey bees (AHBs) surrounding a European queen honey bee (EHB), marked with a pink dot for identification. Photo by Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, www.insectimages.org
RALEIGH - Africanized honeybees, often sensationalized as “killer bees,” have yet to reach North Carolina, according to a recent survey of honeybees by state experts.
"This is very good news, but not all that surprising,” said Don Hopkins, state apiarist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who collaborated with N.C. State University on the survey. “Africanized honeybees have recently been found in Florida, but they haven’t yet become established farther north."
Scientists at N.C. State used both morphological and genetic screening techniques to verify that none of the collected bees were of African origin. “While we will need to test more colonies across the state to be sure, it seems that we are well ahead of their arrival,” said Dr. David Tarpy, N.C. State’s honeybee specialist.
Experts predict that the Africanized bee will almost certainly be introduced into North Carolina at some point. To prepare for this likelihood, the N.C. Africanized Honey Bee Task Force is developing a comprehensive response plan consisting of education, quarantine and research components. The task force, made up of individuals from universities, state government, private industry and the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, has completed an initial action plan, which is available on the Web at .
The task force will continue to conduct educational outreach and training activities to ensure both beekeepers and the public are aware of the status of the Africanized honeybee.
Even though the Africanized honeybee likely will find its way into North Carolina, it isn’t clear whether the insect will become permanently established in the state. “Before we can know the full extent of the Africanized bee’s distribution, we first need to understand why it has been so ecologically dominant in North and South America,” said Dr. Stanley Schneider, a biology professor at UNC-Charlotte and one of the nation’s leading African-bee experts.
Charles Heatherly, president of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, said the estimated 12,000 beekeepers across the state are the front line of defense against the Africanized bee by monitoring honeybee colonies and stocking their hives with favorable genetic varieties.
"Beekeepers will be the first to know if we in North Carolina are ever threatened by the Africanized honeybee, and we will be prepared to deal with it," Heatherly said.
The sting from an Africanized bee is no more potent than that from its European counterpart. However, Africanized colonies tend to be more defensive and respond to intruders to their territory in greater numbers. This increased defensiveness is what makes them a concern for the public.
Yearly death rates from bee stings are far lower than from lightning strikes, yet public fear of bee attacks is extremely pervasive. This suggests that the Africanized bee “threat” is more perceived than real.
Honeybee pollination accounts for an estimated $154 million per year in added agricultural produce in North Carolina and more than $20 billion nationwide. Almost 100 crops rely on bees for pollination and increased crop yield, so that one-third of everything people eat is attributable to honeybees.