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Killer Bees

ORDER: Hymenoptera GENUS: Apis
FAMILY: Apidae SPECIES & SUBSPECIES: mellifera scutellata

Description: The general appearance of Killer Bees (= Africanized Bees) is the same as common Honey Bees, but there are some distinctive physical differences between the two. To analyze the differences, a laboratory has to measure and compare some 20 different structures. Another way to check is to analyze the specimen's DNA and enzymes.

Killer Bees: click to enlarge These bees were photographed in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Smithsonian Photo by Carl C. Hansen
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
(c) 1993 Smithsonian Institution

Distribution: In 1956, some colonies of African Honey Bees were imported into Brazil, with the idea of cross-breeding them with local populations of Honey Bees to increase honey production. In 1957, twenty-six African queens, along with swarms of European worker bees, escaped from an experimental apiary about l00 miles south of Sao Paulo. These African bee escapees have since formed hybrid populations with European Honey Bees, both feral and from commercial hives. They have gradually spread northward through South America, Central America, and eastern Mexico, progressing some 100 to 200 miles per year. In 1990, Killer Bees reached southern Texas, appeared in Arizona in 1993, and found their way to California in 1995. They are expected to form colonies in parts of the southern United States.

Damage done: Africanized Honey Bees (=Killer Bees) are dangerous because they attack intruders in numbers much greater than European Honey Bees. Since their introduction into Brazil, they have killed some 1,000 humans, with victims receiving ten times as many stings than from the European strain. They react to disturbances ten times faster than European Honey Bees, and will chase a person a quarter of a mile. Other concerns with Africanized Honey Bees are the effects on the honey industry (with an annual value of $140 million dollars) and general pollination of orchards and field crops (with an annual value of 10 billion dollars). Interbred colonies of European and Africanized honey bees may differ in pollination efforts, be more aggressive, excessively abandon the nest, and not survive the winters. Further, beekeepers may not continue their business of honey production if faced with aggressive bees. The packaged bee and queen rearing industries are in the southern United States, which would affect the honey industry across the continent.

Control: Many authorities have been working on the problem of Killer Bees in the United States. Two primary solutions have been considered. The first is termed drone-flooding, which involves maintaining large numbers of common Honey Bees (originally from Europe) in areas where commercially-reared queen bees mate. This process would limit the mating possibilities between Africanized drones and European queens. The second strategy is requeening frequently, where the beekeeper replaces the queen of the colony, thus assuring that the queens are European Honey Bees and that mating has also occurred with European drones.

Selected References:

Gore, Rick. 1976. Those fiery Brazilian bees. National Geographic Magazine, volume 149, number 4, pages 491-501.

Michener, C. C. 1975. The Brazilian bee problem. Annual Review of Entomology, volume 20, pages 399-416.

Rinderer, T. E. 1986: Africanized Bees: The Africanization Process and Potential Range in the United States. Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, Winter, 1986, pages 222-227.

Taylor, Orley R., Jr. 1977. The past and possible future spread of Africanized honey bees in the Americas. Bee World, vol. 58, 19-30.

Taylor, Orley R., Jr. 1985. African Bees: Potential Impact in the United States. Bulletin of the Entomological Society of America, Vol. 31, No. 4, pages 15-24, 1985.

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Prepared by the Department of Systematic Biology, Entomology Section,
National Museum of Natural History, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services,
Smithsonian Institution

Information Sheet Number 45

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