To bee or not to bee
A bee expert addresses what all the buzz is about
A swarm of bees attacked more than 20 sixth graders at a middle school in Saginaw, Texas, on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. Four of those children were treated at Cook Children’s Medical Center and then sent home the same day.
That news made us wonder about bees and just how dangerous they are. We asked Michael D. Warriner, the nongame and rare species program supervisor for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, for more information on bees.
Warriner said there are well over 700 different bee species known from Texas. But how many of them are dangerous?
Any insect that lives in a social life in a colony (the queen and its contingent of workers) will likely exhibit defensive behaviors if disturbed, Warriner said. Social bees and wasps can defend with their venomous stings when needed.
The majority of native bees and wasps in Texas (well over 90 percent) are not social. They are known as solitary bees, which means they are not defensive at the nest and do not mount sting attacks against perceived attackers.
“Any stinging insect might be dangerous if the individual stung has a heightened sensitivity to that species venom,” he said. “Any stinging insect that lives in a social colony (honeybees, paper wasps, bald-faced hornets, red-imported fire ants) should be treated with respect. Because European honeybees live in such large colonies (up to 50,000 workers in a colony) they can mount a pretty large attack against what they perceive as disturbing them. No other bee or wasp in Texas lives in such large colonies. The potential for the delivery of hundreds if not thousands of venomous stings makes European honeybees a public health concern.”
European honeybees and Africanized European honeybees are the same species (Apis mellifera). They are nearly identical morphologically and have the same venom chemically. The Africanized European honeybee is a mix of different European honeybee subspecies (European and African). African European honeybee subspecies differ from those in Europe in being more defensive at the nest, ability to nest in smaller cavities, store less honey and swarming more often.
So what should parents tell their children about bees?
“If they see large groups of bees flying in the air, clusters of bees attached to a branch, or a string of flying bees entering and exiting one location to not approach,” Warriner said.
Warriner thinks of honeybees not so much as enemies, but our grouchy neighbor. They need to be respected and they serve an important service.
“Honeybees are also essential to the production of many of the fruits and vegetables we eat,” he said. “The annual value of insect pollinated crops (honeybees do most of the pollinating) to the U.S. economy is around $18 billion annually.”
Bees around flowers represent less of a sting risk as they are away from the nest (no nest to defend) and really only interested in foraging for food. Foraging bees can be watched, but should not be swatted or captured. However, that’s not the case with all honeybees.
Feral (or wild) European honeybee colonies near human occupied areas should be removed (live or dead), preferably by an expert.
“Remember, European honeybees are not native to North America,” Warriner said. “They are essentially ‘farm animals’ – used for production of honey and wax as well as pollination services - and not integral components of our native ecosystems. Honeybees belong in boxes managed by beekeepers, not living wild and free in Texas. Think of pigs on farms versus feral hogs in natural systems. The latter case is not good.”
“Feral European honeybees have spread across most of Texas and a good percentage of those are likely Africanized,” Warriner said. “Because they live in large colonies, their presence is often not hard to miss. That gives humans a chance to spot a potential danger before the bees perceive us as (a threat). Feral European honeybee colonies can represent a public health threat in occupied areas (that’s why feral colonies should be dealt with in human-occupied areas). Our biggest concern with European honeybees is the potentially negative impacts they may have on native bee communities (competition for food) and plant communities (honeybees have been shown to increase seed set of certain non-native, invasive plants).”
Warriner said the biggest misconception about bees is that all bees live in big colonies and will mount mass sting attacks against disturbances. The vast majority of bees in Texas are completely benign.
“Ninety percent of our native bees are solitary and do not live in colonies or mount sting attacks to defend their nest sites,” Warriner said. “These bees are of little if any health concern. The only real way to get stung by those bees is if it were to become trapped in your clothes or you were to press it against your skin.”