Africanized honey bees identified in Tennessee Beekeeper’s hive

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 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:


4 responses to “Africanized honey bees identified in Tennessee Beekeeper’s hive

  1. Phil, You make a convincing argument why we need a State Apiarist.
    My question on how the level of 17% Africanized genetics was measured is related to a lecture by Keith Delaplane I heard last fall at the KSBA meeting.
    He spoke about the hive as a super organism. Where genetic diversity among hive sisters is part of what makes it more adaptable.
    If a European queen is mated to 10 drones, only one of which is Africanized, what would a genetic profile of the hive look like? Would 1 and 10 workers be 50 percent Africanized, or would the hive show 5 percent African genetics?
    Thank you for your continued work on behalf of beekeepers in Kentucky and bees around the world.

    • Ray

      As I said in the post, “The subject of African/European hybridization in honey bees is extremely complex…”. I’ll delve into that topic soon in another post. But to answer your question, IF (and that is a BIG if) we can assume that the queen is 100% European, she will contribute half the genetic in the offspring and the drones the other 50%. And if the queen mated (as you said 10 drones to give nice round numbers to the issue and IF one of those drones was 100% Africanized), each of those drones would contribute 5% of the genetic pool to the colony. So the answer is 5% AHB genetics. But even if we were dealing with these nice round numbers, the results would not come out that way. Genetics in the real world are also complex and not that simple.
      Obviously, at some point, 10% of the worker offspring would be the result of a European mother and a AHB drone, so 10% would be true hybrids. And possibly pretty grumpy bees. And the complexity grows when one asks “what are the AHB genetics directing in the offspring?” If the answer is defensive behavior it worries me. If it directs swarming behavior it does not. Genetics are complicated.


  2. Phil,
    Thanks for the response, if only 5 bees out of 100 are really aggressive, I think I would still want to re-queen. This is definitely to something watch. If African genetics is better at dealing with mites or nocema, feral populations may change faster than managed colonies. I saw an interesting show about arctic foxes and how a simple test (a mitt was held in the cage to see if the fox attacked) it changed both temperament and fur color in just a few generations of selective breeding. The rate of change in genetic expression was surprising to the researchers.
    I have been followed by an upset bee or two for more than 100 feet from the hive. I attribute this to the bee losing its stinger in my suit and buzzing me with her last bit of dedication to protect the hive.
    How should we evaluate the level of aggression in a hive?
    Again, Thanks for all the work you do.

    • Ray
      There are research protocols for evaluating the defensive response of honey bees (I think mostly used with Africanized honey bees), but I’m not that familiar with them. Some of them like the test with the foxes you saw involve waving a target in front of the hive entrance. It is really a judgment call on the beekeepers part. I think most beekeepers will decide a hive is too defensive (as I said not fun to work), long before it is a threat to your family, pets, neighbors or other non-beekeepers. But the problem with evaluating defensive behavior is that it can be caused by factors other than genetics and if by something such as having been disturbed by a skunk, it likely will become less defensive over time. As a result I’ll put up with grumpy bees for a while (several weeks or several openings of the hive) before deciding the cause is genetic and replacing the queen. And remember, just because a hive is defensive does not mean it has Africanized genetics. While state apiarist I submitted a number of samples from beekeepers for testing and the beekeepers were saying “these bees must be Africanized” and the results came back 100% European. Bees can get mean, even European bees. I have experienced painful encounters a number of times with European honey bees.