Experts say African bee colonies are increasing and migrating northward, soon covering the entire state.
Eric Uneberg was walking his dog Sasha beneath the live oaks in the backyard of his Marion County home when he got a strange feeling that he was being watched. He looked around as the hairs on his neck began to stand on end. Nothing to the right or left.
But as Uneberg turned to go inside the house, he decided to look up.
“I thought it was just some strange animal hanging from the tree because it was big and brown and in the corners all you could see were these four golden-like feet,” Uneberg said.
They were bees. Tens of thousands of them. However, these were not typical pollinators.
The unusual hive is a trademark of the African killer bee, a honey bee subspecies that has swarmed the region as it makes its way north from South Florida. The infamous insect is notorious for viciously attacking both animals and people-anyone that threatens the colony.
The bees have been reported in more than 26 Florida counties from the south and along both coasts, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture. But they won’t stop there – experts say the honey bees will likely encompass the entire state in just a few years.
Marion County is known as the front line of the African bee migration because cold winter temperatures kill the insects and keep them at bay, said entomologist Richard Martyniak, who works for various bee-removal services throughout the state.
Martyniak said there have been confirmed reports of African bees in all Central Florida Counties – Orange, Osceola, Lake, Volusia, Seminole, Polk and Brevard.
The bees are reproducing rapidly, adapting and migrating faster than expected. Jason Deeringer of All Florida Bee Removal said 80 to 90 percent of colony removals are inside homes and buildings
Martyniak said he’s been flooded with work removing feral hives from urban apartment complexes in Kissimmee and Orlando to killing dangerous colonies near golf courses as far north as The Villages.
African bee or typical honeybee?
African or killer bees are practically indistinguishable from the typical honeybee – except in behavior.
Commercial honey bees are more docile and tamed easily by beekeepers. Unlike the African bees that prefer tight compact places, these bees construct their hives high above the ground in trees and open spaces.
Martyniak said queens are choosing to mate with male African bees – who fly faster and are resistant to pests killing other bees -creating hybrid populations of highly-defensive bees.
Entomologists noticed the bee behavior change in Central Florida in the last two years.
Killers bees received their name because of the relentless way they attack invaders. If a threat approaches, thousands of bees will descend and chase them for more than a mile. They aim their stingers at the neck, head, and face to stop you from breathing, Deeringer said.
“You can jump in a pool and they won’t stop chasing. You are marked,” Deeringer said. “If your head comes out of the water one second, they will attack with unrivaled tenacity. The aggravation they feel is 10 times that of a normal honey bee.”
When a killer bee hive is disturbed, anything within 600 yards – pets, horses, children – is vulnerable, Deeringer said.
“We’ve seen spectacular stinging incidents,” Martyniak said. “Just last November in Georgia, an African bee colony killed a fellow who was knocking down a house on his homestead.”
It can take about 1,000 stings to kill a full-grown man – or 10 stings per pound of body weight – but for people who are allergic, it only takes one.
If residents come across a bee colony, experts advise them to act quickly and call a professional bee removal service.