IDENTIFYING COMMON TYPES OF BEES IN ARIZONA
Arizona is home to many types of bees. There are about 20,000 different species of bees in the world. With the exception of Antarctica, bees are found throughout the world. The greatest diversity of bee species is found in warm, arid or semiarid areas, like the Southwest.
Bees play an important role in nature pollinating plants and wildflowers as well as providing wax and honey. Bees are dependent on pollen as an important protein source and on flower nectar or oils as an energy source. Most bees will not sting unless they feel threatened. Social bees, such as honey bees, are the most common type in Arizona and will typically sting in order to protect their colonies or babies.
Although some types of bees may be solitary, the honey bee is a social insect and populates in colonies or hives. These hive colonies have a three-tier caste system consisting of: the single queen bee whose only job is to lay eggs; male drones that mate with the queen and die soon thereafter; and female worker bees that don’t reproduce. However the worker bees perform many jobs necessary for the survival of the hive; they clean the hive, collect pollen and nectar to feed the colony, and they take care of the offspring. Their wax hives are perennial and can harbor up to 80,000 bees at once. The average lifespan of a honey bee queen is two to three years – considerably longer than the six weeks of a female worker bee.
Honey bees are the most active in summer months; during winter, bees gather within the hive and self-regulate the internal temperature to keep warm. Honey bees also have specialized feathery body hairs that help collect pollen. They are the most important pollinating insects, and their interdependence with plants is mutually beneficial. While foraging, bees inadvertently transfer pollen from flower to flower resulting in cross-pollination. Honey bees are vital in agriculture as pollinators and they account for 80% of all insect pollination. Each year, bees pollinate an estimated $10 billion of crops in the United States alone. And some estimate that these insect pollinators contribute to one-third of the world’s diet. In addition to being important pollinators, honey bees have an organ that converts flower nectar into honey, which is collected inside the hive or bee colony.
AFRICANIZED HONEY BEES (AHB)
Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) are distantly related to the common domestic European honey bee. This bee, first brought from Africa to Brazil in the mid-1950s in hopes of breeding a bee better adapted to the South American climate, escaped into the wild and its descendants have been moving slowly north toward the US ever since. The first AHB colonies arrived in southern Arizona in the early summer of 1993. They are becoming more prevalent in the Southwest and can now be found in most of Texas, almost half of New Mexico, throughout Arizona, the majority of New Mexico, and portions of California as they continue their migration northward.
The “Africanized” honey bee – melodramatically labeled “killer bees” – is a hybrid between domesticated European honey bees and African honey bees. Compared to European bees, the AHB are more likely to sense a threat at greater distances, become more upset with less provocation, and sting a greater number of times, although individual stings from the AHB are not more powerful or painful. AHBs defend their hives very attentively. But away from the hive, they are no more aggressive than other bees or wasps. With their hairy bodies, yellowish-orange abdomens with black bands, to the untrained eye the AHB looks very similar to the honey bee. Only a trained entomologist, using sophisticated laboratory equipment, can tell them apart via a precise measurement or genetic testing.
IDENTIFYING A BEE HIVE
Bees are all around us most of the year in Arizona and typically forage around flowers and water. Foraging bees may sting if they are disturbed accidentally or intentionally. They may also become defensive if they are foraging close to the colony. Avoid close contact with them, and they will go about their nectar-gathering without a second thought to the humans around.
Just like their mild-mannered relative the domestic honey bees, the Africanized honey bees establish colonies of up to 40,000 individual bees. Both types of bees will swarm, a process where the swarm forms a visible cluster of many bees that is on the move (hundreds to thousands). The queen sets out to find a new location for the hive, some of her worker bees come along with her. They will temporary stop-over to allow the queen to rest but will eventually produce new colonies. Don’t panic – most honeybee swarms are not dangerous if you leave them well alone and keep your distance.
AHB colonies have faster growth rates, which means more swarms splitting off from a nest. Each Africanized honeybee colony typically swarms four to eight times annually compared to an annual rate of less than one swarm per five colonies for European honeybees. They will not however form large swarms and hunt for you as suggested in some movies. If you encounter an AHB swarm, never dive underwater, the swarm will simply wait for you to surface stinging your head and face when you surface. If you are being chased, run in a straight line – AHBs are slow fliers and most people can out run them. Treat honey bee colonies as you would a venomous creature such as a snake or a scorpion; be alert and stay away.
Honey bees are social creatures that create large communal hives with nesting galleries and large honeycombs. AHBs are not specific about the location of their hives, making it likely for them to come into contact with humans. Bees who are working to establish a colony can be seen actively entering and exiting small holes/voids in hollow tree trunks, walls, junk piles, pots, eaves, roofs, or similar location.
REMOVING A BEE HIVE
Never attempt to remove a hive on your own. Be careful and remain calm. If you think you may have a bee infestation, you must first call an expert to determine whether you’re actually dealing with bees and not some other stinging insect. Wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets are sometimes mistaken for bees. Bees are commercially valuable and an important part of our ecosystem, but in the wrong place at the wrong time, they can become pest. The sooner a hive can be identified, the safer and cheaper it can be to have removed as established colonies can be extremely protective of the hive.
Homeowners should immediately contact a pest control company and take special precautions to avoid agitating bees to prevent being stung. Do not try to remove a colony yourself.
A professional hive removal will focus on removing the queen bee from the hive. If the queen is not removed from the hive bees will continue to return. Relocation of the hive must also be considered in concert with a commercial bee expert for agricultural reasons. If the hive can’t be relocated safely treatments to remove the hive will be conducted. Your bee control professional will apply treatments on the exterior of the hive working inward to kill the bees and properly bag and dispose of the hive. When the hive is removed it is knocked down within an enclosed area and material is forced into the void and within the combs to ensure all bees are dead and removed. Though their venom is no more or less toxic, the AHB tends to sting in greater numbers and is more easily provoked than the European honey bee. Keep pets and children well away from any suspected nesting sites until you get a professional inspection.
WHAT TO DO IF STUNG BY A HONEY BEE
People can all react to honey bee stings differently. Generally, however honey bee stings do not pose a health concern unless an individual is allergic or sensitive. If the stung person is allergic, go to the hospital immediately or use an epinephrine shot, if available. Most importantly, stay calm. And if possible, get to a cool indoor location. If you are stung and can’t find shelter indoors, avoid running near other people. Once you have been stung a chemical called a pheromone signals to other bees that you are a threat inviting other defensive bees to sting.
In general, bees tend to sting people or animals when they feel threatened. Remember that your pets can also be vulnerable to bee stings and keep them away from bee hives. While yellow jackets, hornets and wasps tend to sting repeatedly during an attack, worker bees are equipped with barbed stingers that have little barbs or hooks on them and typically become lodged in the skin. When a bee stings, its stinger, the venom sac attached to the stinger, and other parts of the honey bee’s body rip away from the insect’s body and are left behind, killing the bee. Although the bee dies, its sting takes effect quickly, and, if the stinger is not removed quickly, the symptoms gradually increase as the venom sac continues to pump venom into the wound for several seconds. So if you are stung, it is important to remove the stinger and poison sac as quickly as possible. Do not pull them out with tweezers or your fingers as this will only squeeze more venom into the wound. Scrape them out using your fingernails, the edge of a credit card or a dull knife.
After removing the stinger, it is important to immediately clean the area with soap and cold water and to use cold compression like an ice pack. It is also helpful to elevate the limb where you were stung. Over the counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can also help to reduce the pain. An antihistamine and hydrocortisone ointment can help calm the local reaction. In case the local reaction worsens, your doctor may prescribe an oral steroid or antihistamine to help calm the swelling or itching.
SYMPTOMS OF A BEE ALLERGY
The symptoms that result from a sting vary, depending on the amount of poison that has entered the victim’s system. Typically, people who get stung will immediately feel a sharp, burning pain, rapidly followed by a red welt at the sting site, with a small, white spot at the center marking where the stinger punctured the skin. In most cases, the swelling and pain resolves within a few hours, however, as many as 10 percent of individuals develop a large local reaction experiencing exaggerated redness and swelling at the sting site.
Although a bee sting is not commonly hazardous, some people may be allergic to the bee’s venom. Those who have sensitivity to bees should immediately seek out emergency medical assistance or call 9-1-1 if they experience symptoms of an allergic reaction. In rare cases, individuals experience an extreme allergic reaction, known as anaphylaxis. These reactions may be life threatening and require immediate medical treatment. Seek immediate medical attention if you exhibit any of the following symptoms:
- Itching and swelling around the eyes
- Tongue and throat swelling
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dry cough
- Wheezing or difficulty breathing
- Hives, rashes, or generalized itching
- Rapid or weak pulse
- Drop in blood pressure
- Dizziness or fainting
- Nausea and vomiting
- Shortness of breath
- Shock or loss of consciousness
If you are stung multiple times or experience any of the above symptoms, even if you don’t have a sensitivity, you should seek medical attention as a precaution. If you come in contact with an Africanized honey bee, the most important thing to do is not panic. Most deaths related to bee stings happen because people panic and act irrational. Each year, stinging insects send approximately half a million people to the emergency room and are the leading cause of anaphylaxis-related deaths in the United States.