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Mississippi on watch for deadly bees

A recent incident on the Gulf Coast involving angry European honey bees reminds Mississippians to be prepared for the likely arrival of more aggressive Africanized honey bees.

On March 6 in Pascagoula, Miss., a swarm of bees attacked and killed a dog and stung the dog’s owner when he tried to rescue it. The swarm was destroyed, and DNA from the bees was tested.

The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s Bureau of Plant Industry reported that the swarm was not Africanized honey bees but the European strain common to Mississippi. To date, Africanized honey bees, commonly known as killer bees, have not settled in Mississippi.

“The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce will continue setting and monitoring swarm traps in the Pascagoula area and along the southwestern border with Louisiana to detect any possible migration of Africanized honey bees into Mississippi,” the department stated in a press release.

Clarence Collison, bee specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said Africanized honey bees were introduced to Brazil from South Africa in 1956. An accidental release freed them to spread, and they arrived in the United States in 1990 in Hidalgo, Texas.

“They spread for the next two to three years northward and westward in Texas, then New Mexico, Arizona, southern California and southern Nevada, then basically the migration stopped for a while,” Collison said. “In the last year and a half, they have been found in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Florida.”

Northern migration will be limited by cold weather, but Collision said researchers don’t know why the bees moved mostly westward in the United States rather than east and west from their initial entry.

“There was a lot of speculation that the terrain in east Texas acted as somewhat of a barrier,” Collison said. “We anticipate Mississippi will have them in the not-too-distant future.”

He said Africanized honey bees have not yet been confirmed to be living in Mississippi, although in years past, a few Africanized swarms have been removed from ships harbored in Pascagoula. One swarm arrived in 2006 at Camp Shelby in south Mississippi on a piece of military equipment shipped in from Texas.

Every time Africanized honey bees are found, they are captured and destroyed, Collison said. The bees exhibit very defensive behavior and attack in swarms when they feel threatened.

Collison said Africanized honey bees spread by interbreeding with European honey bees. When an Africanized honey bee drone mates with a European queen, some of her offspring will be Africanized.

“They basically have remained unchanged since 1956,” Collison said. “When bee races or strains interbreed, there is normally a dilution of their DNA, but this has not happened.”

While nothing can be done to halt the spread of Africanized honey bees, the state is actively involved in monitoring for their presence. Bee keepers are encouraged to look for any indication of a strong defensive behavior in their bees, as this can signal the arrival of Africanized honey bees.

Bee keepers with an aggressive hive should kill the existing queen and replace her with a new queen that comes from a gentle line of bees. If this does not curb the aggressive behavior, the hive should be exterminated.

Everyone else is urged to avoid all swarming bees.

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