Honey Bees

Homeowners Guide to Honey Bee Problems

Honey Bee Apis mellifera melliferaHoney Bee Apis mellifera mellifera, David Cappaert, Bugwood.orgAfricanized Honey Bee 

Africanized Honey Bee Apis mellifera sp. scutellata, Jeffrey W. Lotz, Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Bugwood.org

Honey Bees

Honey bees are social insects that live in colonies containing  60 to 120 thousand individual workers during summer.  They are about ½ inch in length with an orange to yellowish-brown color and black intersegmental bands on the abdomen. The legs, antenna and eyes are black and the thorax, abdomen and legs are densely covered with hairs.

Honey bees are the primary pollinators of 2/3 of the food we eat, either directly or indirectly. They gather nectar from flowers to make honey and collect pollen from flowers during pollination and use them for food. When there are few nectar sources blooming, honey bees forage at any source that has sugar, e.g. trash cans, soft drink cans and sweets like candy and fruits. These insects are among the most beneficial organisms economically providing pollination services worth an estimated $3 billion annually in the US.Honey bee gathering pollen

Honey bee gathering pollen, B. Merle Shepard, Clemson University, Bugwood.orgHumans care for and manage honey bee colonies in hives and extracts the excess honey and pollen. The different colors of honey are produced by the floral sources from which the honey bees gather the nectar. Wax, propolis (resinous bee glue), honey bees and queens are other products that beekeepers harvest from the hives they manage. Unlike other bees, a reduced honey bee colony will overwinter intact, not just the queens.Beekeeper tending hives

Beekeeper tending hives, David Cappaert, Bugwood.orgA new colony is formed naturally when a queen bee leaves a colony with a large group of worker bees.  These bees  find a temporary location, cluster and rest while workers scout for a new location to build a nest.  Usually, swarming bees are not aggressive, especially when settled in a tight cluster. These may be seen in tree limbs, exposed rafters, etc. during a swarm.

They may build their nest of wax is inside walls, attics or other hollow portions of structures. They may also nest in tree hollows and protected locations on trees or other structures.A colony of honeybees that formed on a tree limb, A colony of honeybees that formed on a tree limb, Dennis Riggs, Denrig, Inc., Bugwood.org

Whether in walls or exposed, the nest is a series of double sided wax sheets that are arranged in patterns and a build up of honey. Honey bees defend their nests when disturbed. When disturbed, a few hundred bees emerge from the nest to attack intruders. They only sting once because their barbed stinger remains in the individual or animal when stung. This causes the last abdominal segments of the honey bee to be ripped off and the bee dies.

Management of these insects should not be attempted by inexperienced or ill-equipped individuals. Honey bee removal from structures is not a job for a person who has never worked around stinging insects or even a novice beekeeper. Removing honey bee nests from cavities (walls of houses, hollow trees) is a time-consuming, labor-intensive practice usually done by professionals.Removing a hive from inside a building wall,Removing a hive from inside a building wall, Timothy Haley, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Contact a local beekeeper or a pest management professional to safely remove the bees. In addition, if the bees have been in the structure for long, you may need to hire a contractor to open the wall to remove the wax and honey from the interior.  If not, the wax and honey will attract other pests to the structure, like cockroaches, ants, and rodents.Wild hive in a building wall, Wild hive in a building wall, Timothy Haley, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org

Africanized Honey Bees

The Africanized honey bee is a hybrid cross between an African subspecies and the European subspecies. The Africanized honey bee is slightly smaller than the European honey bee but cannot be distinguished visually. Color patterns, markings and body characters are the same, making it impossible to separate them by visual observation. They build the same type of wax nest and may be located in walls, structures, trees or hanging from trees or structures. But, unlike their European cousins they will nest in unusual places like the ground, water meters and even barbecues.Africanized honey bee nest under boardwalk. Africanized honey bee nest under boardwalk. Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org

The African honey bees were initially brought into Brazil from Africa to improve the foraging and nectar gathering ability of the European honey bee. Moving from Brazil in 1957, they escaped and crossed the United States border in 1990. Since crossing the border in Texas, they have spread West to California through New Mexico and Arizona and east into Oklahoma, Arkansas and Louisiana. Florida and Alabama have become infested from swarms escaping from ships at ports of entry.

Like the European honey bees, these bees can only sting once. However, they are  more aggressive. The amount of venom received in a single sting is about the same for Africanized and European honey bees. Serious injury or fatality comes from the significantly greater number of Africanized honey bees that sting compared with European honey bees.

They do the same work of the European honey bees in pollinating flowers and will forage at any source of sugar when there is a lack of blooming nectar sources. But, they have become more of a problem than a benefit to the industry.

Africanized honey bees can take over European colonies. They are also noted for the process of absconding, where the entire colony picks up and leaves a location due to lack of a food source or disturbances. Absconding can happen several times a year. This, in conjunction with swarming, is what accounts for their rapid spread and movement of 200 to 300 miles a year.

Their range may gradually expand as they become accustomed to environmental conditions or through crosses with the European populations. Their northward march has slowed considerably in recent years. More information on the Africanized honey bee can be found at this link at these University of Florida sites “African Bees” and African Honey Bee Information for School Administrators ENY-142 “.


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