Killer Bees

Back in the 1970s, when the killer bee threat to the US was first announced, it stirred the imagination of movie makers. Because the threat was new, the US public was largely uninformed about the limits and scope of the problem. This allowed movie makers to run wild with their imaginations and create movies that could scare the beejezus (pun intended) out of people. One of the first killer bees movie was the 1974 made-for-TV “Killer Bees”. This movie features an entomologist saving the day by having his girlfriend drive the queen bee (and accompanying swarm) into the New Orleans Superdome. The threat is ended by cooling the stadium to low temperatures that “stun” the bees.

The megabucks Hollywood disaster filmmaker, Irwin Allen, produced a train wreck (and a swath of death and destruction) with The Swarm (1978). The film runs over 2 hours. After the first hour, the audience usually starts rooting for the bees. Since the mid-1990s, killer bee movies have become passé.

Insect disaster movies often use the theme of “knowledgeable entomologists who try to warn the public but are not taken seriously by officials who put profits above safety”. In these movies, something bad always happens, and the officials responsible for ignoring the warnings are killed by the very threat they ignored.

Now that killer bees have become more widespread and Americans are more familiar with the threat, movie makers have moved on to the next group of unknown threats.

The story of the Killer or “Africanized Bee” is well documented. A bee breeder in Brazil gets a good idea to create a strain of honey bee that is better adapted to the tropics and starts importing bees from other tropical countries. A bee strain from African is imported that is super-aggressive. The bees escape, breed with domesticated bees across South America and spread. Decades later, these Africanized bees are present in most of the Southern US.

The Killer bees are indistinguishable from domesticated bees in most of their physical characteristics. The key distinguishing feature is their behavior. Africanized bees are more likely to sting. If the hive is threatened, killer bees will pursue the threat in greater numbers, over longer distances for longer times than domesticated bees. The killer bee venom is no more potent and no greater amount than a domestic bee. The “killer” is the number of stings. Killer bees can deliver over one hundred instead of a half dozen that might be delivered by less aggressive bees. People who are killed often lack the ability to get away quickly.

The Africanized bees swarm more readily than domestic bees and do not store as much honey. That makes them less likely to survive the winters in colder parts of the US. Bee keepers manage the killer bee problem by eliminating hives that are overly aggressive and re-queening hives with bees from Africanized-free zones.

Bees need to be treated with a healthy respect. The Africanized bees are a problem we have to learn to live with- like most invasive species.

Honey Bees Feeding on Sugar Maple Sap

About jjneal

Jonathan Neal is an Associate Professor of Entomology at Purdue University and author of the textbook, Living With Insects (2010). This blog is a forum to communicate about the intersection of insects with people and policy. This is a personal blog. The opinions and materials posted here are those of the author and are in no way connected with those of my employer.
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1 Response to Killer Bees

  1. Pingback: Living With Killer Bees | Living With Insects Blog

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