What Do Killer Bees Look Like?

How to tell African honey bees from other bees

An Africanized honey bee (left) and a European honey bee on honeycomb.
An Africanized honey bee (left) and a European honey bee on honeycomb. Despite color differences between these two individuals, you can't usually distinguish them just by looking at them. Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org

Unless you are a trained bee expert, you will not be able to tell killer bees apart from your garden variety honey bees.

Killer bees, which are more properly called African honey bees, are a subspecies of the European honey bees kept by beekeepers. The physical differences between African honey bees and European honey bees are almost imperceptible to the non-expert.

Scientific Identification

Entomologists usually dissect a suspected killer bee, and use careful measurements of as many as 20 different body parts to aid in identification.

Today, scientists can also use DNA testing to confirm that a honey bee contains African bloodlines.

Physical Identification

Although it can be difficult to tell an African honey bee from a European honey bee, if the two are side-by-side you may see a slight difference in size. African bees are typically 10 percent smaller than the European variety. It is very difficult to tell with the naked eye.

Behavioral Identification

Absent the help of a bee expert, you may be able to recognize killer bees by their significantly more aggressive behavior when compared to their more docile European counterparts. African honey bees defend their nests vigorously.

An African honey bee colony may include 2,000 soldier bees, ready to defend and attack if a threat is perceived. European honey bees typically have just 200 soldiers guarding the hive. Killer bees also produce more drones, which are the male bees that mate with new queens.

While both kinds of bees will protect the hive if attacked, the intensity of the response is very different. A European honey bee defense will usually include 10 to 20 guard bees to respond to a threat within 20 yards of the hive. An African honey bee response would send several hundred bees with a range six times greater of up to 120 yards.

Killer bees react quicker, attack in greater numbers, and pursue a threat longer than other honey bees. African bees will respond to a threat in less than five seconds, while the calmer European bees may take 30 seconds to react. A victim of a killer bee attack may suffer 10 times as many stings as from a European honey bee attack.

Killer bees also tend to stay agitated longer. European honey bees usually calm down after about 20 minutes of being agitated. Meanwhile, their African cousins can remain upset several hours following a defensive incident.

Habitat Preferences

African bees live on the move, swarming much more frequently than European bees. Swarming is when a queen leaves a hive and tens of thousands of worker bees follow in order to find and form a new hive. African bees have a tendency to have smaller nests that they will more readily abandon. They swarm from six to 12 times a year. European bees usually only swarm once a year. Their swarms tend to be larger.

If foraging opportunities are scarce, killer bees will take their honey and run, traveling for some distance in search of a new home.

Sources:

Africanized Honey Bees, San Diego Natural History Museum, (2010).

Africanized Honey Bee Information in Brief, UC Riverside, (2010).

Africanized Honey Bees, Ohio State University Extension, (2010).