How Killer Bees Kill

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An Africanized honeybees, a.k.a. "killer bee."
dlplumer, Flickr

Larry Goodwin, a 62-year-old farmer in Moody, Texas, met a painful death last Monday when he accidentally disturbed a hidden hive of Africanized honebees, a.k.a. "killer bees," as he drove his tractor on a neighbor's land.

The bees swarmed from their hive in overwhelming numbers, prompting Goodwin to run to a nearby house and grab a garden hose to try and spray away the fierce insects. But the hive with an estimated 40,000 bees, overtook the farmer and killed him with their stings.

Goodwin's was a horrific and unusual death -- but how exactly do these bees kill?

Scientists hunt for the honey bee killer.
© iStockphoto.com/Thinkstock

"These are extremely defensive and dominant bees," said Eric Mussen, extension apiculturist at the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.

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"Africanized honeybees are extremely sensitive to vibrations," Mussen explained. "If a lawnmower goes off several houses away from a colony, for example, the bees could still likely detect the vibrations and sting everyone in the area."

When disturbed, the killer bees have extra soldiers on duty to respond to alarms. The bees are slightly smaller than honeybees and have the same venom load per sting, but a defensive attack, such as the one that killed Goodwin, can be devastating.

Mussen explained that if a European bee colony is disturbed, the victim may be stung 12 to 20 times, or up to 200 times if the entire colony is somehow tipped over or otherwise dramatically bothered.

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If a killer bee colony senses a threat, on the other hand, the victim could be stung around 2,000 times.

Yet another threat comes from the double-damaging venom. Meletin, the primary pain-inducing compound in the venom, makes up about 50 percent of the mixture. Another component, called "phospholipase A2," gives the venom the ability to damage human tissue. The damage can be so severe that the material can overload the kidneys, resulting in kidney failure days after the individual was stung.

Some doctors overlook the latter problem and release patients before the kidney threat is treated, according to Mussen. In one case, Mussen had to advise a victim's wife to have her dying husband go through dialysis, which eventually saved his life.

Africanized honeybees resulted from a bee breeding experiment that went horribly wrong. Now their numbers continue to expand across the United States.

According to Mussen and an information sheet provided by the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the bees are connected to research conducted by Brazilian geneticist Warwick Kerr. The Brazilian Agriculture Ministry had Kerr bring African honeybee queens to Brazil for breeding experiments.

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