Tennessee State Apiarist Mike Studer has announced that honey bees in a hive belonging to an East Tennessee beekeeper have been positively identified as containing Africanized genetics. The hive belonged to a hobby beekeeper in Monroe County, Tennessee, which is located southwest of Knoxville. The hive has been “de-populated”, meaning that the bees in it have been destroyed. The subject of African/European hybridization in honey bees is extremely complex, and the details are rarely understood or reported clearly by the news media. These bees were described as being 17% Africanized honey bees (AHB), which I presume means that 17% of the genetics which vary from species to species in honey bees are of those of Africanized bees. The media articles quoted Studer as saying that bees are not considered Africanized unless they are 50% AHB. However, in my opinion, bees that are 17% are a cause for real concern. The only bees in Kentucky ever identified as having any Africanized genetics had much less than 17%, but were still highly defensive, and were destroyed prior to being brought to my attention and being tested. If the genetics involved are related to defensive behavior, it does not take a high percentage to cause problems for beekeepers. What concerns me even more is that these bees were reportedly from a package purchased in 2011 from a Georgia supplier. The name of the supplier was not released, but the account indicated that the same source had shipped other packages to Tennessee. Not knowing the supplier, it is not possible for me to know whether they sold packages in Kentucky last year, but most package bee sales in Kentucky do come from Georgia.
My advice for beekeepers is not to panic but, as always, to pay attention to the defensive behavior of your bees. If you feel that your bees are overly aggressive without an apparent reason, you should contact your state apiarist for advice. If you live in Kentucky, which has not had a state apiarist since early January, I suggest that you contact Kentucky Department of Agriculture Commissioner James Comer at 502-573-0450 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m sure that apiarists in other states are investigating any shipments from this supplier to their respective states. While I was the Kentucky State Apiarist, I took any reports from beekeepers of overly defensive bees quite seriously. If I considered the bees’ behavior suspicious after getting as many details as possible from the beekeeper, I would ask him or her to send me samples. Usually – with only two exceptions – the results came back as being 100% European, proving that even our relatively gentle European honey bees can get grouchy at times.
Environmental factors, such as weather, predation (by skunks, bears, raccoons, etc.) and lack of food sources, can affect stinging behavior. I recall opening a hive in eastern Jackson County and receiving numerous stings on my hands (I don’t wear gloves) as soon as I opened it. I asked the beekeeper if the hive was always this irritable. He replied, “Not before the cow knocked it over.” This close encounter of the bovine kind had occurred just a few days before, and put the bees in defensive mode. Apparently they suspected us of being the ones who had disrupted their home. Even swarms, which beekeepers often capture without wearing veils, can get grouchy if they have been hanging in a tree for several days. Understandably, they get hungry and irritable. So don’t panic if your bees suddenly seem more aggressive. The cause is more likely to be circumstantial than genetic, and the result is probably temporary.
Moreover, overly defensive behavior by honey bees is a perception on the part of the beekeeper and is influenced by his or her experience. Bees that a veteran would consider just a little “grumpy”, might be described as “down right mean” by a newer beekeeper. Technique in opening hives can also affect the response of the bees; taking your time and not knocking the hive around can reduce the chances of your being stung. I often encounter less experienced beekeepers who, for some reason, do not wish to use a smoker. Smoke will calm bees down. While I will not tolerate bees that are consistently aggressive (they are not fun), I am very aware that bees sting and will sting more often on some days than on others. If the bad behavior persists, I mark the hive for re-queening. I might add that my hives sit within 20 feet of my driveway and, on their worst days, have never stung a member of my family walking to the mail box. But they would sting my old dog before she learned to keep her nose away from a hive’s entrance. I often walk among my hives without a veil, and without being stung, but I do not allow guests to do so.
The general public should always keep their distance from ANY colony or nest of stinging insects, including hornets, yellow jackets, and other wasps. Most stinging incidents do not involve honey bees. In many reported cases of aggressive bees, the culprits turn out to be yellow jackets, which are similar in appearance. They typically nest in the ground, and are often encountered while mowing. Non-beekeepers should also know that, like myself, most beekeepers want gentle bees and work to maintain strains that are not prone to sting unless their hive is opened (so it is the beekeeper who gets stung – not the neighbors). Bees normally do not sting away from the hives (as on flowers) unless stepped on or swatted. It is interesting to attend an outside activity with both beekeepers and non-beekeepers when a bee or other stinging insect is flying around. Beekeepers will ignore the insects, and you’ll hear them tell the non-beekeepers, “Just leave them alone. If you don’t swat at them they won’t sting.” This is advice gained from experience.
I’m certain that details on the situation in Tennessee will continue to emerge, and I’ll do a follow up post when I learn more. I happen to have been in Tennessee speaking to the Blount County Beekeepers Association on Monday evening, just before this story was reported in the media. Maryville, where I was speaking, is only about 20 miles from Monroe County. Needless to say, it was the topic of conversation at the meeting, and several of the local beekeepers had been contacted by reporters for comment. I’ll also do a future post on the methods used to identify honey bees as Africanized, an interesting and complicated topic which deserves its own article.
For media reports on the Tennessee AHB discovery see: