African Honey Bee Basics

How dangerous are African honey bees (Aphis mellifera scutellata)?
Apis mellifera scutellata is known more commonly as the Africanized honeybee, African honey bee, or killer bee.

Recently a pet professional asked me if I had any thoughts about an incident that occurred where a dog died as the result of dog an African honey bee (AHB) attack. She was a bit alarmed by it but the reality is that although the AHB is more aggressive than other species of bees, the venom they emit is not any more potent than other honey bees–it is the behavior differences that makes them more dangerous.

The problem is that once the AHBs sting, the pheromones they release triggers more aggressive responses from other bees in the colony. So more join in to defend the nest and will attack and continue to pursue a threat for an estimated 1/4 mile.

In general 5-10 stings (from any bee) per pound of body weight can result in a severe allergic reaction. The good news is that infection from a sting is actually more common than envenomation. Some symptoms of reaction include swelling, breathing issues, dizziness, hives, fainting, nausea, vomiting, and pain.

Now when it comes to bee sting statistics, wasps and bees are lumped together so it is hard to get an accurate assessment. However, anywhere from 30-120 deaths are estimated to occur per year in the United States. These are attributed to both toxicity and intense allergic reactions to the stings.

According to government statistics, about 3.3 percent of adults will experience anaphylaxis after an insect sting and there are 40 to as many as 100 deaths annually from insect-sting-related anaphylaxis. Read more here or here.

So far I only found one reference from Brazil related to dog deaths from bee stings by this species and another reference mentioned in passing in a veterinary reference book. But, since pet safety is usually dependent on your safety–I am including information that will benefit you both.

How to Bee Safe?
So how can you remain safe and keep your pets safe against these bees? Paying attention to your surroundings and taking action to refrain from providing a bee friendly environment are good starts.

For instance, removing attraction to a pool or outdoor water source in the yard could be as simple as keeping the pool covered , fixing dripping faucets, or adding a couple of teaspoons of vinegar to the outdoor pet water bowl.

Holes or cracks in walls, trees, or areas in barns and sheds might attract these insects—so fill in those cracks and holes and take steps to make buildings less attractive to insects. Removing junk piles and keeping storage containers closed are other solid practices.

Remember also that outdoor chores could also be hazardous since noise or vibration have been found to spark AHB attacks. The use of a lawn mower, weed eater or tractor has inadvertently resulted in Africanized honeybee attacks. It appears that disturbed insects have been known to react at distances of 150 feet.

Bee Alert?
Additional rainfall has often contributed to increased swarms of bees during the spring and summer but it is the disturbance of the colony or nest that usually brings trouble. If you hear the humming of bees, it is best to get a professional out for an assessment right away.

Often you can identify if there are bee colonies in the area by asking neighbors and checking with the local fire departments as to whether or not they have received reports of any problems. This can help you to avoid any colonies located nearby.

Swarms begin to become visible as the weather warms up and as hives expand and break into smaller groups. Some African honeybees are estimated to move every six weeks or so. The good news is that the AHB normally will attack only if their colony/nest is disturbed and not usually when they swarm.

In general, bees often display defensive behavior before going into a full attack. This includes buzzing around your face or head. These warning signs should be taken seriously and you should vacate the area immediately.

Bee Wise!
What else can you do? Watch what you wear—light-colored clothing is a good choice since bees tend to attack darker colors. Avoid wearing bright colored items or florals since they might attract these stinging insects. If you have a dark pet, a light-colored cover or bandanna might be advisable to make as part of a wardrobe staple.

Bees are attracted by color but also by scent. So many professionals also suggest avoiding floral or citrus scented deodorants, aftershave, lotions, or perfumes. Watch out if your pet has recently returned from the groomer sporting a new scent too.

Bee Attack?
Prevention is the best practice since almost all cases of these African insect attacks have been traced back to provocation.

So the main action to take?


Avoid swatting because it creates more agitation and you don’t want to piss them off any more than they already are!

Getting into a building or taking shelter in a car are the best strategies to get away quickly–get securely indoors if you can.

These pests will mainly attack your face and head. Use protection such as the sting shield or some sort of head cover.

Placing a cover over your pet as you run may or may not be an option–so get your pet out of the area as quickly as possible and keep him or her from snapping at them.

Prevention is essential when out hiking or horseback riding in areas where these insects exist. Bees are less active when it is cold so plan early morning ambles since they might be less risky and always keep your pet close to keep him or her from running through areas where bees might be disturbed. You might also ponder over to how to protect the eyes, muzzle and ears. (I wonder if a calming cap would help.)

If  you are in a bad situation, or you see someone else in trouble, call 911 since fire fighters have AFFF (aqueous film forming foam) and using it will stop and kill AHBs.

Other things you should know?

  • Don’t jump into water since the bees tend to wait at the surface to sting you when you come up for air.
  • Don’t let animals near areas that contain hives or colonies and don’t tie an animal near insect nests.
  • Don’t try and remove a colony or hive yourself! Call a pest control company that specializes in bee removal.

If you or your pet are stung, do not pull out stingers. They need to be gently scraped out to avoid expelling more toxins.

A cold ice pack, baking soda paste (left on for 15-20 minutes) or sting swabs might be helpful.

Having Benadryl on hand or a cell phone to call paramedics would be good. (An epi-pen is useful for life threatening allergic reactions but talk to your doctor about its use.)

Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the best options for your pet for any venomous insect bites.

Do you have any tips or hints on this topic? If so, leave a comment or chime in over in my Facebook community.

Additional Resources Related to African Honey Bees

Tatiana Tiger Report

Animal attacks are a topic of interest for me since early in my career with animals I observed more than my fair share of them at close range.

Close hands-on work with large predators and powerful animals (such as elephants) always come with an inherent risk and are an occupational hazard.

However, there are animal attacks that happen to non-professionals that catch my eye and capture the imagination of the general public. One of those happened on Christmas Day 2007 at the San Francisco Zoo.

Perhaps some of the fascination is rooted in a primal fear of being killed or consumed by a large predator because the risk of dying or being mauled by such a creature is minuscule when compared to the chances of dying from a car accident or perhaps anaphylactic shock.

But since those events are more common place, they are not as fascinating nor do they really capture the widespread attention of the media.

Now a few years ago I wrote a series of posts about the San Francisco tiger attack on zoo visitors and what I called the tiger’s lucky leap.

I even posted a video and some citations about how the tiger might have jumped out of the enclosure.

The whole event was a fiasco and raised suspicions about the behavior of the tiger victims prior to the tiger escape incident.

I wasn’t the only one questioning what might have motivated Tatiana the tiger to escape, and then this weekend the Associated Press released an article that hit the wires with this gem:

…I cannot imagine a tiger trying to jump out of its enclosure unless it was provoked,” Gage wrote in the Dec. 27, 2007 draft of her report.

That statement was stricken from the final version of the report because it was “irrelevant from an Animal Welfare Act enforcement standpoint,” said David Sacks, a spokesman for APHIS. Whether or not the tiger was provoked has long been a point of contention.

You can read more about the San Francisco Tiger Attack Documents here.

Now people taunting tigers and other animals in zoos is more commonplace than people think and is something that makes zoo professional cringe.

On the one hand, close encounters can inspire a sense of wonder and fascination with these creatures, but on the other hand captive animals endure the stupid antics of the unsophisticated or bored.

One thing I would hope is that the example of this incident will perhaps dissuade others from taunting captive wildlife.

But perhaps that is too much to ask and I am sure we will be hearing about other such incidents in the future.