Africanized honeybees confirmed in Ga.; one man stung to death

Africanized honeybees were responsible for the stinging death of an elderly man in Dougherty County last week, tests have confirmed. It marked the first time the aggressive bees have been found in Georgia, years after they were originally predicted to arrive.

Curtis Davis, 73, was stung about 100 times when he overturned a bee hive while clearing debris with a bulldozer. Emergency medical personnel had trouble reaching Davis because the bees were so thick and fierce.

Africanized honeybees are a hybrid of African and the more common European variety, but they look the same. Both types of bees sting only once and their venom is no different, according to a state Department of Agriculture news release. But Africanized honeybees defend a wider area around their nest and respond faster, in greater numbers, than their European cousins.

The bees originated in South America, where some African honeybees escaped in the 1950s from scientists trying to develop a honeybee that could tolerate tropical weather.

The escapees interbred with European honeybees and spread north, arriving in Texas in 1990.

They have now been found in 10 states, including Georgia. However, they are not considered established here, as they have been in Florida for about five years, said Jennifer Berry, research coordinator and manager of the University of Georgia honeybee lab in Athens.

“We are thinking this is an isolated incident,” she said, adding that they would probably be considered established only after several colonies are found a year.

Ever since the bees established in Florida, where they remain a small percentage of the bee population, Georgia has been conducting surveillance and colony trapping in the southern part of the state, Berry said. “We knew it was a matter of time,” she said.

But entomologists were surprised that the Dougherty bees were Africanized, Berry said. A professional beekeeper at the scene thought they were European honeybees, and the number of stings was more typical of a European hive hit with a bulldozer, she said.

The bees will probably spread less in Georgia than Florida, Berry said.

“Our saving grace here is our winter weather,” she said. “They don’t do well in cold climates. And they didn’t evolve to keep large stores of honey over winter.” Africanized bee colonies also move around more often, exposing them to colder weather in the winter.

Africanized bees can take over managed bee hives, but it’s rare, Berry said.

They can be managed for honey like any other hives as long as beekeepers wear enough protective clothing.

But often American beekeepers simply deal with the problem by removing the queen, said Steve Prince, a Fort Valley beekeeper and member of the Heart of Georgia Beekeepers. Replace it with a new queen, and the mood of the colony will change completely, he said.

“People have been dealing with these for years in other parts of the country and we know what to expect of them,” he said. “People call them killer bees, but they’re not really killer, just more aggressive in protecting their homes.”

Prince said he won’t approach bees any differently now that Africanized bees are in the state, because he always wears his bee suit anyway.

Berry said it would be extremely rare for members of the public to encounter Africanized bees.

“The main thing we need to get out to the public is, (if you are pursued by bees) you need to run,” she said. “But the human response is to stand and swat.

“Or people will get in a car, and some bees get in with them, and they freak out and get back out. But 10 bees inside the car is better than 10,000 bees outside the car.”

Berry emphasized that beekeepers are the state’s best line of defense against Africanized honeybees. Any zoning that might limit beekeeping will only open a niche for wild Africanized colonies to move into, she said.

Prince said most beekeepers would recognize if their hives were infiltrated with Africanized bees because they could tell from the aggressive behavior.

He said people who see bees swarming should either call a beekeeper immediately or leave the swarm alone, as it will probably move on in a few days by itself. A swarm is looking for a permanent home, not staying. He said people should not try to spray the bees with pesticide or water, as most beekeepers will no longer want to help after that.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.