The Swarm: the sequel

How real-life Texans cope with Africanised killer bees.

Suzanne Miller

Topics Politics

In the 1978 movie The Swarm Africanised honey bees from South America migrate through Mexico to the USA, where they begin attacking and killing residents of Texas. Extreme measures are taken to stop the swarm of ‘killer’ bees, when the US Air Force drops an atomic bomb on Houston, Texas.

As far-fetched as this sounds, Africanised honey bees – popularly known as ‘killer’ bees – do exist; they originated in Brazil and eventually migrated north into Texas in 1990. In reality, Texans use a soapy foam rather than nuclear warheads to combat swarms of Africanised bees, and attacks on humans have rarely resulted in death.

Nevertheless, the bees have raised worries among Texans. Summer is a time of particular concern, as people spend more time outside and the bees are active.

When the Africanised bees began to spread through Texas in the early 1990s, newspapers dramatically announced their arrival in new regions of the state. One article in the Houston Chronicle newspaper in May 1994 read: ‘Late last July, the waiting was over. The worries were not. Africanised honey bees – whose aggressive behaviour earned them the label “killer bees” – showed up in a trap near this Fort Bend County city….’ (1) Another article equated the killer bee arrival to a plague (2).

According to the research centre on Africanised honey bees at the Texas A & M University, ‘the Africanised bee’s “killer” reputation is greatly exaggerated’ (3). Indeed, sometimes it is unclear whether attacks were by Africanised bees or regular bees. One headline from July 2003 read: ‘Two dogs killed by honey bees, not killer bees.’ (4). Another read: ‘Likely “killer” bees attacked pets, expert says.’ (5)

But, says the Texas Africanised bees research centre, fears do have some basis in fact. ‘In isolated instances, people and animals have been stung to death. Most often, the person who died was not able to get away from the bees quickly.’ Others who died have had an allergy to bee stings.

The story of the Africanised honey bee began in 1956, when Brazilian scientists started to cross-breed European and African honey bees in an attempt to create a bee that could withstand tropical temperatures. A year later, some of the bees escaped the outdoor laboratory and began spreading through Brazil. They are said to travel about 200 to 300 miles per year and have reached as far north as the state of Nevada – though their migration into the USA has so far been limited to the south western corner.

An Africanised bee’s sting is not much different from a European honey bee’s sting. The ‘killer bees’ name comes from the way they attack. Africanised bees typically attack in swarms that are between three and four times the size of European honey bee swarms, which causes a greater number of stings. Africanised bees also do not give up very easily, and have reportedly chased victims for half a mile. They seem to be agitated and provoked to attack by noises, or by anyone getting too close to their colony.

Altogether, ‘killer’ bees can cause a lot of pain to both people and pets. In early June 2003, a man in Texas ended up in hospital after he was stung about 150 times by Africanised bees. According to the local newspaper, the man had opened the door of an abandoned refrigerator he found while ploughing a field; a swarm of bees had flown out, attacked the man and chased him for about half a mile (6).

But in general these bees are not killers. Africanised honey bees have been responsible for only a handful of deaths in America over the past 13 years. California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas have all reported one death each (7). An exact number of deaths is unknown, but statistics estimate that only 10 people have died from Africanised bee stings – and this is out of a total US population of 280million (8).

So far this year, at least 15 people have been attacked by Africanised bees in the south western USA, but none has been killed (9). However, the bees have had more severe affects in Mexico, where 175 people died in the 10 years after the bees entered the country (10).

And dogs do not fare so well: out of 15 attacks on dogs this year, 11 were killed. Humans attacked by the Africanised bees are advised to run far and fast – but penned-in animals make easier targets.

Some have suggested trying to wipe out killer bees. One proposal involves introducing the South African Cape honey bee, which sneaks in female bees to lay eggs in killer bee hives. The Cape larvae tend to be given better food, causing them to develop faster. ‘Pampered and well fed, many of the Cape larvae develop into pseudoqueens, possessing some of the characteristics typical of queen bees, such as greater body weight. These pseudoqueens are the key to the overthrow’, ABC News reported in 2000 (11).

While this may sound like the answer to the killer bee problem, scientists explain that it is not that simple. Cape bees would eliminate the European honey bees, as well as Africanised bees. And simply killing the Africanised bees would present the same problem. It is very difficult to distinguish European honey bees and Africanised honey bees, so killing one breed would eliminate the other.

It seems that, for now, Americans will just have to learn to live with aggressive bees.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sun, sea and scaremongering

(1) ‘Better get accustomed to those bees’, Houston Chronicle, 30 May 1994

(2) ‘Western honey industry braces for “killer bees”‘, Houston Chronicle, 4 March 1994

(3) What is the Africanised honey bee?, Agricultural Communications, Texas A&M University

(4) Two dogs killed by honey bees not killer bees, KCDB, 29 July 2003

(5) Likely ‘killer’ bees attacked pets, expert says, Lubbock Avalanche Journal, 12 July 2003

(6) Bees sting man about 150 times, Galveston County Daily News, 7 June 2003

(7) Recent Africanised honey bee stories reported in the media, Sting Shield Insect Veil, July 2003

(8) Africanised ‘killer’ bee chronology, Sting Shield Insect Veil, July 2003

(9) Recent Africanised honey bee stories reported in the media, Sting Shield Insect Veil, July 2003

(10) Africanised ‘killer’ bee chronology, Sting Shield Insect Veil, July 2003

(11) Battle of the bees, Jennifer Viegas, ABC News, 18 December 2000

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Topics Politics


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