Whether all the buzz about a suspected Africanized killer bee hive in Summerfield is warranted is something only the bees themselves may know.
That’s because even though more than half of the unwanted bee hives removed from residential and commercial properties are Africanized – or full of aggressively defensive bees – the hives are indistinguishable from those of their more passive European honey bee cousins.
That’s the situation unfolding at the Summerfield home of Eric Uneberg and his wife, Deborah Burgess-Uneberg.
“We don’t know what kind of bees are at the house, but we know we’re running into more and more mean bees” in general, said entomologist Richard Martyniak, with All Florida Bee Removal.
His company is removing the hive and its 20,000 occupants for the couple. The Star-Banner published pictures of the removal on Tuesday, and other media outlets – including the Drudge Report – also reported the story.
Martyniak said at least 50 percent of the hives All Florida Bee Removal encounters shows the more aggressive traits of the African bees. That leads him to conclude there’s a good chance that the Unebergs’ hive is made up of Africanized bees and not European honey bees, which are most associated with honey production in the United States.
But he doesn’t know for sure. So far, the bees have not been aggressive, nor have they tried to sting him behind his protective canvas suit, he admits.
The Unebergs first spotted the dangling hive 40 feet up in an oak tree in January. Swarms of at least 30 bees have swooped onto area foliage and flowers, but the Unebergs haven’t been stung yet, either.
The aggressive African bee and its migration from Brazil through South America into the United States as a dangerous intruder has been a frightening tale.
By 2002, the bees, which were accidentally released in the 1950s from Brazil, had made their way into Texas and Florida. By 2010, they were in Georgia. They attack and kill one or two people annually in the United States.
They spread into the southern United States by mating with the European honey bee queens or drones and effectively compete against the more docile European bees for resources.
The hybrid Africanized bees are indistinguishable from European bees in appearance, said Jeanette Klopchin, an official with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. The two bees only sting once, losing their stinger during the encounter, and each carries the same amount of venom.
The difference lies in their behavior.
The “killer bees” typically send out 10 times the number of attack bees than European honey bees when the hive feels threatened, Klochin said. The more aggressive bees will likely defend a far greater area around their hive.
Bee keepers can try to keep Africanized bee infestations at bay by keeping their bees from swarming. Swarming occurs when the bee hive grows substantially large enough to start a second colony and a portion of the original bee population leaves to form their own hive.
That’s when rogue Africanized bees mingle with the new swarm and mate.
Africanized bee migration is limited only by climate, Klochin said, so they could travel as far north as the Carolinas if there’s enough warm weather to support the hive.
Martyniak said he’s seen their migration and a change in bee behavior during the past few years.
He said in some cases, hives are so aggressive in defending themselves that he’s had to coordinate with local law enforcement to shut off traffic and pedestrians onto an entire block while he removes a hive. Martyniak said that level of necessary precaution wasn’t needed just 10 or 15 years ago.
Rather than trying to identify any given hive as Africanized, Martyniak said a hive is instead characterized by its level of aggressiveness.
“They’re totally unpredictable until you start working with them,” he said.
A situation where only half a dozen European bees might attack him, “thousands of Africanized bees would come after me,” he said.
In one case, his protective suit was stung so many times, “I had enough venom to kill me,” he said.
But as for the Unebergs’ hive, Martyniak said only, “I never say this is an African colony. But we are encountering more and more mean bees.”
When approaching the Uneberg hive, however, Martyniak said he wasn’t attacked, even when slicing off a portion of the hive.