Bee Stings

Africanized honey bees swarm on a bench, southern USA

A swarm of Africanized honey bees in southern US.

Bee stings facts

Most stinging insects are relatively safe to be near, even in large numbers, so long as they are not aggravated.

However, over a hundred Americans a year die from bee stings – generally delivered by African bees (aka Killer bees or Africanized bees). The deaths are mostly due to anaphylactic shock or as a direct result of the toxins, because the bees were disturbed or irritated, making African bees the most dangerous creature in the US, apart from man.

In contrast around 30-40 people in the southern US die yearly from fire ant stings, while wasps, yellow jackets and regular European honey bees in total rack up the same number of fatalities in the USA.

European bees are much more docile than African bees as they have been bred in  safe, carefully managed artificial hive environments whereas African bees evolved in wild  colonies that were constantly under destructive attack from animals – especially monkeys – as well as humans.

African Honey Bees (Africanized bees, Killer bees)

African Bees look just like regular honey bees and are, in fact, honey bees but they reproduce five times faster than ordinary European honey bees.

Colonies can number up to 1,000,000. In Arizona a gardener died  in 2014 after a reported 800,000 Africanized bees attacked him when he disturbed their nest.

African bee stings cause more American deaths annually – about 100 – than any other creature apart from humans, and this is probably an underestimate.

African bees may swarm and aggressively defend their nests when approached or disturbed from up to 100 yards away – though usually you’d have to be a lot closer. Noise and vibrations from power mowers/cutters are a common cause of attack.

African bees will chase invaders for up to a quarter of mile (about 300m) and continue attacking for up to 10 hours if enraged.  In flight they look like a small cloud, sound like a power tool and may cluster anywhere, car bumpers included.

Bees generally do not want to sting, however, since the curved sting is a part of their body and usually gets trapped in the victim so when the bee departs the sting is ripped out of the bee’s body, killing it. Wasps, yellow-jackets and hornets are different in that they can use their stingers again and again.

After a determined onslaught by safety officials in US about 15 years ago on especially aggressive bee species, remaining ‘killer’ bees are much less irritable  so quiet activities near their nests are unlikely to cause trouble.
If the latest version of Afican bees become irritated, they often warn off intruders by bumping heads with them, not stinging. If that happens to you, don’t swat them, just turn around and leave!
The chance of being killed by a bee these days in the US is less than being killed by lightning or a dog.

Africanized Bee Facts

There is one type of bee which is a problem in South and Central America and is now happily travelling around the southern states of the US. The Africanized honey bee is a hybrid created in the 1950s when scientists were trying to improve honey yield. Some African bees escaped and interbred, creating highly aggressive animals.

African honey bees have 27% less venom than regular European honey bees – and thus are less dangerous individually, but they are irritable, hyper-sensitive and have a ‘one for all, all for one‘ defence policy so it’s the number of stings in massed bee attacks that do the damage, not the individual potency. In fact only half the colony will be involved in an attack as males don’t possess stings. They have an insemination tool instead.

Avoiding Bee Stings

• be observant when using a noisy garden tool in wilder parts of your outdoor spread in USA. Check for hives/nests or dangerous insect activity before use. Do not use a noisy tool within 50 yards of a hive or 150 yards of a wild bee colony (if you’re in the USA and they could be Killers).

• don’t swat bees or wasps, you’ll probably just enrage them. Only wack a wasp if you are sure to kill it. If you strike or kill a bee you’ll set off its defence pheromone which will bring unhappy relatives seeking vengeance.

• cover food and drinks outdoors, and take care that a wasp hasn’t gone swimming in your coke.

• check your damp beach towel for stinging animals cooling off.

• if wasps persist (they love sweet things), make a trap by putting something sweet in a jar (jam/honey/beer), put a couple of inches of water in, cover it and punch a wasp-size hole in the cover. The critter will crawl in, buzz around, fall in the water and drown. Result!

In the event of a massed stinger attack bee cool!

• Keep calm, cover your head if possible (e. g. with your shirt) and run steadily to safety as most people can outrun bees if they don’t panic. Bees don’t travel very fast, 4mph top speed.

• Run in a straight line (a bee line! ), don’t try to zigzag!

• Get into anything that is sealed in such a way as not to allow insect entry, such as a tent or a car.

Do not…

• scream as this will only irritate them more and increase the severity of the attack.
• run towards other people who will also get attacked, unless you feel that they should take some of the burden of your misfortune.
• hide under water (e. g. your pool) as they will still be swarming above – and go for you – when you surface for air. Killer Bees may continue to attack for up to 10 hours.
• rip your clothes off, even if some bees got inside. If the shirt comes off the rest of the bees will have more targets.

Treatment of Bee stings

• all bee stings include an alarm pheromone which incites their mates to attack, so step one is to get away from a nest/hive with all speed.

• scrape/pull out stings as soon as possible. (contrary to traditional advice, speed is of the essence, not method. Penn State University ’96) A honey bee sting has a pump attached that continues to introduce venom for 1 minute after stinging. A wasp doesn’t leave its stinger behind.

• apply an ice pack (e. g. anything frozen wrapped in a kitchen towel) to minimise swelling and pain. But not too long at any one time unless you want frostbite. Off/on, off/on. . .

• lift limb to heart level to reduce swelling.

• take an antihistamine tablet to reduce swelling and itching.

• take a pain killer, preferably anti-inflammatory.

• the swelling and redness may be worse the next day; this is a normal allergic reaction. If however the swelling is still painful and a fever is present there may be secondary infection and a hospital visit is advisable.

• antibiotics do not help.

Severe reactions

• if the victim has been stung multiple times, is young or old, or is one of the 1% that is super-sensitive to stings, watch for signs of systemic allergies. These may include:
• headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, swelling of the tongue or throat, difficulty in breathing, cramps, drowsiness or unconsciousness. Get medical help.
• severely allergic people should carry an epinephrine kit and use it, followed by an ice pack and hospital.