“Bee-ware! Bee-safe!” : 10 FAQs of Honey Bees in Urban Areas



Conversation begins with an interesting news–” Arizona: Bees Pose Menace,” published on the New York Times:

“A particularly aggressive strain of honeybee has been menacing parts of Arizona in recent weeks…..an 84-year-old Tucson-area man was stung more than 2,000 times in his backyard. Three dogs have been killed….. Experts point to the Africanized honeybee, also known as the killer bee….. The bees are more prevalent in warm Southwestern states such as Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. If their hives are disrupted, they become especially aggressive [1].”

The news seems to reveal few “shocking  facts.” Contents are somehow intriguing as well , leading to tons of questions (See bold and underline key words above)–

“Is honeybee really aggressive? What is Americanized honeybee? Is it the same species as the common western honeybee? If they are different, what are their differences? If it is called the killer bee, does it really attack humans without reasons? …etc.”

To answer all questions completely, there are many ground of bee biology to be covered. Thus, here comes the 10 Bee-ware-Bee-Safe FAQs that summarize basic knowledge about Africanized honeybees and provide useful tips to be “bee-safe” in urban environments as Tucson, Arizona.

10 Bee-ware-Bee-Safe FAQs

1.  Do honeybees usually act aggressive  and attack humans randomly?


  • NO, honeybees WON’T sting people randomly, the incident should be agitated by reasons.
  • Honeybees in foraging (a.k.a. food-searching mode) or in swarm (a.k.a. relocation mode) usually mind their own business and WILL NOT attack you unless they are getting disturbed (e.g., stepping on them)[2, 3].
  • They only show intense defensive behavior (or so-called “acting aggressive”) when defending their hive or colony [2, 3]–Honestly, I won’t blame them, because they are just being protective. I would also get mad if anyone intrudes my precious home. 

2. What are Africaned honeybees? 

  • Africanized honeybees (AHB) are a hybrid between African (Apis mellifera scutellata) and European honey bees(Apis mellifera)–also known as western honey bees (EHB) [4]. The first hybridizations occurred in Brazil in 1957 [5,6].

3. Is AHB a U.S. native species? If not, how do they move (or be moved) into U.S. ?

  • NO, AHB is NOT a U.S. native bee species. Actually, even EHB is  NOT U.S.-native, either. Long time ago, EHB are imported to North America and South America for bee keeping purposes [3,4,5].
  • In the 1950s, African honeybee queens were first to Brazil in order to increase honey production by interbreeding African and European bees.
  • Before the controlled hybridization could be accomplished, swarms escapes accidentally, leading to the formation of feral bee populations [5,6].
  • Since then, the AHB spread out at approximate rates of 300-500 km per year.
  • The northward route propagated through Central America, Mexico, and then into the United States [3,7,8].
  • The first reported colony of AHB in U.S. were found in October of 1990 at a border town of Texas [9].

4. When was the first appearance of AHB in Tucosn, Arizona?

  • The first appearance of AHB in Tucson, Arizona was documented in 1993 [10].

5. Are AHB and EHB the same species? 

  • Yes, AHB and EHB are the same species that present a few different behaviors [3,5].

6. Can we tell who-is-who by looking at them? If not, how to identify AHB and EHB?


  • NO, it is hard to distinguish an AHB from an EHB by simply looking at them.
  • It will involve more detail scientific experiments to differentiate them, such as  mitochondrial DNA or detail morphometry analysis [3,11].

7. As AHB is called “the killer bee,” does it mean that it cause more danger than EHB?


  • Firs of all, this question cannot be answered with a simple “Yes”or ” No.”
  • A nickname as “the killer bee” may sounds fancy but just miss-leading. Again, neither EHB nor AHB will initiate attack unless getting disturbed.
  • The sting of the AHB is NOT more toxic than EHB.
  • However, AHB does present more intense defensive behavior. They respond quicker and chase intruders further with larger numbers when colony is threatened (See Figure below)[3].


8. If honeybees could cause danger in urban areas, can we kill them all?

  • Definitely, NO! We need honey bees for environmental sustainability and our well-being.
  • Benefits of Honeybees for our diet goes way beyond honey production. Here are some significant facts:
    • Honeybees contribute to pollination for 75 % of leading food crops worldwide, promoting 35% of global food production [12, 13].
    • In the United States, honeybees pollinate about one-third of  flowering food crop species (such as, apples, nuts, broccoli, squash and cucumbers, citrus fruit…etc.) as well as animal-feed crops . They account for the contribution of more than 24 billion dollars to the United States economy [12,13].
    • Essentially all flowering plants in our gardens need bees to survive.
  • We all need fresh food supply and adore beautiful gardens. Is it obvious that we have “mutual interests” with honeybees? Hence, let us find a way to “peacefully share living spaces” with each other.

9. Who are At-Risk groups of AHB-stung incidents in urban areas?

At -risk groups include (but not limited to):

  • People with higher chances to interact with bees , such as utility workers , military, outdoor activity enthusiasts, etc.
  • People incapable of escaping quickly  (e.g., children, elders, the handicapped, etc.) or with medical conditions (e.g., allergy to bee sting).
  • Animals at risks: tethered or restrained animals; penned, caged, or corralled one (i.e., cannot run for life).

10. Any quick tips of bee-safe in urban ares?


Bee-ware! Bee-Safe!

Whether bee sting incident turns out to be a minor issue or a major problem in urban areas. There is no doubt that individuals could experience the pain, and perhaps even a tragedy.  Medical and bee experts indicate:

  • 10 stings per pound of body weight could be life-threaten for a child while 100 stings per pound of body weight is potentially fatal for a healthy adult.
  • Allergy reactions (Anaphylaxis) can lead to more rapid onset in sensitive persons.

To handle risks better, it depends on knowing what to do long before the moment of crisis comes. Thus, there is a quick summary of bee-safe tips in urban areas:

  • The best safety advice is to avoid danger before it happens.
  • Thus, be alert for bees coming in and out of an opening such as a tree hollow, or the hole of an utility box. 
  • Pay more attention when moving junk that has been lying around.
  • Be alert for bees that are acting differently. In general, bees will present some preliminary defensive behavior before initiating full attack. They may fly or/and buzz around you. These are warning signs that should be taken seriously. They are telling you that you are stepping into their comfort zone–Thus, PLEASE BACK OFF!
Bee-prepared for outdoor activity!
  • Examine and be aware of surroundings when you are outdoors, especially in a rural area, a park or wilderness reserve.
  • Don’t panic if seeing a few bees foraging in the flowers.  Don’t do anything outrageous, such as stepping on them or hitting them.
  • Wearing light-colored outfits. Experience has shown that anything in dark color tends to draw bees’ attention.
  • Avoid wearing floral or fruity fragrance or skin-care products. Bees are sensitive to odors. Don’t make them mistake you as “potential food sources”.
Bee-inspected & Bee-proof for your house!
  • First, let professionals handle it! If you do find a bee swarm or colony around , leave it alone and keep your family and pets away. DO NOT try to remove them by yourself. Contact local experts to deal with it first! 
  • If you hear the hum of active insects, there could exist a colony. An established colony could contain large numbers of bees entering or hovering in front of an opening, which increase potential risks of getting stung. Again, call local experts to deal with it.
  • Inspect your house and yard at least once a month to see whether any signs of bees taking up residence–inspect low for colonies in or at ground level (e.g., water meter box); inspect high for colonies under eaves or in attics.
  • Eliminate shelter! To help prevent honeybees from colonizing in your house, here are actions that should be taken: fill all cracks and crevices in walls; fill or screen holes with a diameter larger than 1/8″ on trees or in the ground; screen attic vents, irrigation boxes, and water meter box holes; remove junks that could shelter bees, fill animal burrows, etc.
Be runner when bee attacks!


Definitely, the best way to avoid danger is not to encounter with it. However, life is hard–sometimes contact with bees can not be avoided. In that case, it is important to know what to do when facing bee-attack:

  • Run ! Run! Run! A famous Chinese old saying states “Of the thirty-six stratagems, fleeing is the best.” Here is the same. Once bees get agitated, the most important thing to do is RUN away as fast as, as far as possible.
  • Try grab something (e.g., blanket, towel, coat, etc.) to cover your body, especially for your head and face.
  • If you have nothing in hand, pull your shirt up to cover face and head first. It would be far less serious if you have bee stings on the chest than those on the facial area.
  • Try to find a shelter as soon as possible.
  • DO NOT jump into water!  Unless you are a swimmer and in good physical conditions (e.g., you may become weaker after running and getting stung), it could lead to another accident. Also,bees may wait for you to come up for air.
  • Once away from the bees, take a second and evaluate yourself. If you have been stung more than 15 times or are having any symptoms other than local pain and swelling, seek medical attention immediately.
  • Last but not least, if you see someone else being stung and possible in danger, call 9-1-1 immediately.


  1. The Associated Press (2015, June 12). Arizona: Bees Pose Menace. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/13/us/arizona-bees-pose-menace.html?ref=topics&_r=0
  2. Winston, ML (1987). The biology of the honey bee. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA
  3. Chen, Szu-Hung (2013). Abundance and distribution of Africanized honey bees in an urban environment (Doctoral Dissertation). Texas A&M University: College Station, TX 
  4. Ruttner, F (1987). Biogeography and Taxonomy of Honeybees. Springer Verlag: Berlin
  5. Winston, ML (1992). Killer bees: The Africanized honey bee in the Americas. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA
  6. Kerr, WE (1967). The history of the introduction of African bees to Brazil. South African Bee Journal, 39:3-5
  7. Guzman-Novoa, E and Page, RE (1994). The impact of Africanized bees on Mexican beekeeping. American Bee Journal, 134:101-106
  8. Winston, ML (1994). The Africanized ‘killer’ bee: biology and public health. Quarterly Journal of Medicine, 87:263-267
  9. Sugen, EA and Williams, KR (1991). October 15: the day the bee arrived. Gle Bee Cult, 119:18-21
  10. Loper, GM (1997). Genetic evidence of the Africanization of feral colonies in S. Arizona between 1993 and 1995. American Bee Journal, 137:669-671
  11. Pinto, MA et al. (2004). Temporal pattern of Africanization in a feral honeybee population from Texas inferred from mitochondrial DNA. Evolution, 58:1047-1055
  12. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary (2014). Fact sheet: the economic challenge posed by declining pollinator populations [Immediate Release]. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/fact-sheet-economic-challenge-posed-declining-pollinator-populations
  13. PBS (2009, July 20). Silence of the bees: Impact of CCD on US agriculture.
  14. Africanized Honey Bee Education Project (n.d.). Information Sheet 18 Bee Safety. In “Africanized Honey Bees on the Move Lesson Plans” . The University of Arizona: Tucson, AZ