University of FloridaSolutions for Your Life

Download PDF
Publication #ENY-146

Living with African Bees in Florida's Outdoor Workplaces1

M. K. O'Malley and J. D. Ellis2

Introduction

This document offers African honey bee (AHB) related recommendations and precautions specific to outdoor workers in Florida. The outdoor worker category includes utilities employees, park employees, right-of-way workers, tree-workers, landscape workers, construction workers, and anyone else who works outdoors. Outdoor workers should be aware of the presence of AHBs in Florida. This awareness should include a healthy respect and caution of all stinging insects and a realization of the importance of honey bees nationwide. Furthermore, it may be helpful for outdoor workers to know some basic biological and behavioral characteristics of AHBs; this prior knowledge is presupposed for the recommendations in this document. Many AHB educational resources exist for Floridians and outdoor workers specifically. Please see the Additional Resources section at the end of this document for more information.

African Bee Defensive Behavior

Although they typically do not attack unless provoked, AHBs can be extremely sensitive to disturbances and respond negatively when encountered. Nearly all encounters between AHBs and people occur when the bees perceive an immediate threat to the colony and when people are not aware that there is a colony in the vicinity until it has been disturbed. Common causes of disturbances include lawn mowers or other heavy machinery. Usually, foot traffic by people or animals is not enough to upset a colony.

The following outdoor activities may agitate a bee colony:

  • operating heavy machinery (tractor, chainsaw, etc.),

  • mowing grass,

  • cutting down, pruning, or manipulating trees/shrubbery, and

  • causing any loud noise or heavy vibration.

Where AHB Colonies Can Be Found

Outdoor workers have a greater likelihood of encountering feral AHB colonies because they work outdoors where the bees nest. African honey bees use a variety of nesting sites in outdoor settings. They will nest above or below ground, in natural or manmade crevices, and in urban or rural areas. In forested or slightly wooded areas, AHB nests generally will be found in three typical locations: ground cavities near the base of trees (Fig. 1), suspended from a tree branch (Fig. 2), or inside a hollow void on a branch/in the trunk (Fig. 3). Bees found gathering pollen and nectar on flowers do not necessarily indicate that a colony is nearby. Foraging bees can travel long distances and do not represent any real danger.

Perhaps the most important and most useful recommendation for outdoor workers is to be aware of their outdoor surroundings at all times and to inspect any area before entering, especially if the area is not frequented by human traffic.

  • Watch for bees flying fast and straight into and out of an object or area. This behavior is an indication that a colony may be nearby.

  • African honey bees will nest in the ground, including in burrows, meter boxes, irrigation valve boxes, electrical boxes, etc. Approach potential nesting sites with caution.

  • African honey bees will use any protected location or void to establish a colony. Any place where you have seen a paper wasp nest could house an AHB colony

Figure 1. 

An excavated underground colony


Credit:

J. D. Ellis, UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 2. 

Exposed comb suspended from a tree branch


Credit:

Insect IQ


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 3. 

Void in a tree branch


Credit:

M. K. O’Malley, UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Common nesting locations for AHBs:

    • Eaves under roofs

    • Water meter boxes

    • Manholes

    • Electrical boxes

    • Gutter down-spouts

    • Abandoned vehicles

    • Abandoned appliances

    • Empty containers

    • Empty flower pots

    • Lumber piles

    • Utility infrastructures—power poles, light poles, etc.

    • Old tires

    • Garages

    • Outbuildings

    • Sheds

    • Walls

    • Chimneys

    • Attics

    • Soffits

    • Under portable buildings, mobile homes, sheds and dog houses

    • Bird nest boxes

    • Hollowed or dead trees

    • Playground equipment

    • Exposed tree branches

Figures 4–7 illustrate what AHB colonies might look like in some areas described above.

Figure 4. 

A swarm of bees on the branch of a tree.


Credit:

M. K. O'Malley, UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 5. 

A honey bee colony established close to the ground, between the roots of a tree.


Credit:

W. H. Kern, Jr., UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 6. 

A two-month-old honey bee colony established on the branches of a tree.


Credit:

W. H. Kern, Jr., UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 7. 

Bees on a palm frond that have started building comb.


Credit:

W. H. Kern, Jr., UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 8. 

A honey bee colony that has been removed from a water meter box.


Credit:

Insect IQ


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

What to Expect

African honey bees are more defensive than are European bees, the latter of which are the honey bees beekeepers manage. African honey bees defend their nests readily and often with little provocation. Hundreds to thousands of bees can fly out of a provoked colony, following the provoking human/animal for some distance. Following provocation, the colony may remain agitated the rest of the day.

What to Do If a Colony is Found/Disturbed

Anyone finding a feral honey bee colony should contact a pest control operator (PCO) or registered beekeeper as soon as possible. The PCO likely will eradicate the colony while the beekeeper typically will remove the colony from the structure (see Resources section for Choosing the Right Pest Control Operator for Honey Bee Removal: A Consumer Guide, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in771).

It is important not to panic if a honey bee colony is disturbed. The first thing one should do when the subject of a bee colony’s defensive response is run to a protected area. Bees exhibit defensive responses to protect the resources (honey, brood, pollen, etc.) of the colony. Sting victims should leave the attacking colony’s area as quickly as possible. While running, sting victims should cover their noses and mouths to prevent bees from entering airways. Defensive bees are attracted to dark areas (eyes, ears, up the nose, etc.) and carbon dioxide emissions.

African honey bees have been known to pursue a possible intruder for some distance. A sting victim should attempt to enter a building, vehicle or other enclosed structure. A few bees may enter the enclosure with the victim; however, the victim should not exit the enclosure, even if bees are inside. It is preferable to sustain a small number of stings from the few bees that followed the victim inside rather than to be outside with the several hundred or more agitated bees. Sting victims should not jump into water or attempt to hide in bushes.

It may be wise for outdoor workers to carry some form of portable personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a veil or sting suit when working outdoors. Several products are available that can offer immediate emergency protection from stinging insects and fold-up into a small, portable size. Bee veils that cover the head and neck area are available from most beekeeping supply companies.

Figure 9. 

First responder wearing a convenient, lightweight, and portable veil that can be folded to the size of a wallet.


Credit:

W. H. Kern, Jr., UF/IFAS Extension


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

If Stinging Occurs

Generally, honey bee stings result in localized swelling and some skin inflammation. When a honey bee stings, it leaves behind a stinger attached to a venom sac. The sac actively pumps venom into the victim. After a bee sting, the stinger and venom sac should be scraped gently out of the skin with a blunt-edged object such as a fingernail, credit card, or the back of a key. If a victim receives multiple or hundreds of stings, it is important that they receive assistance removing the stingers (with venom sacs) to prevent excess venom from being released into the body. The stung areas should be washed with soap and water. A cold or ice pack, wrapped in cloth, may be held on the sting area for a few minutes or sting swabs can be used following their labeled directions. Over-the-counter pain relievers may be taken for pain, and antihistamines can be taking for swelling and discomfort at the sting site(s).

For those who are allergic to honey bee venom, a single sting may trigger a severe, possibly fatal, allergic reaction. Victims of bee stings should watch for signs of a severe allergic reaction. These include:

  • large areas of swelling (i.e. an entire leg),

  • abnormal breathing or wheezing,

  • tightness in the throat or chest,

  • dizziness,

  • hives,

  • fainting,

  • nausea or vomiting, and

  • persistent pain or swelling (e.g. persists for more than two weeks).

If any of these symptoms occur, the victim must seek emergency medical attention or call 911 immediately.

Preventative Measures

Homeowners, park service employees, landscapers, tree service specialists, and others who may work outdoors should take the following precautions to reduce the chances of people-bee encounters.

  1. Fill any holes under or around the base of trees. This can be accomplished simply by collapsing the hole or filling it with dirt from the surrounding area. This precaution limits AHB access to the area around the base of a tree and makes them less likely to nest there.

  2. Fill or cover holes larger than 1/8th of an inch located in potential nesting sites. This can be done by stapling or nailing screen mesh around the hole or filling the hole with expandable foam or other filler materials. This includes holes in tree trunks or at the base of trees.

  3. Patrol wooded areas regularly—especially during swarm season in the spring and fall. Look for bees flying into and out of any hole; such activity may be a sign that a bee colony is in the area (bees on flowers are not a threat or a sign of a nearby colony).

Contact a PCO or registered beekeeper if you have reason to believe that bees are nesting in or around a tree. A list of trained professionals is available from the AFBEE Program website (www.AFBEE.com) and from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ website (http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Plant-Industry/Pests-Diseases/Africanized-Honey-Bee). See the Resources section for links and more information.

Conclusion

All Florida residents, especially those employed in outdoor workplaces, should be aware of the presence of AHBs in Florida. This awareness should encourage healthy respect and caution of all stinging insects. After all, honey bees are among the most beneficial of all insects. There are many beekeepers in Florida who keep honey bees to make honey or pollinate many of the state’s crops.

Additional Resources

Choosing the Right Pest Control Operator for Honey Bee Removal: A Consumer Guide

A UF/IFAS Extension publication that offers recommendations to any Floridian in need of contracting removal specialist. http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/IN771

Bee Proofing for Florida Citizens http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/IN741

A UF/IFAS Extension publication that instructs homeowners and property owners in the specifics of bee proofing and its importance.

Frequently Asked Questions about the African Honey Bee in Florida http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/IN738

A UF/IFAS Extension publication that addresses questions frequently asked about the African bee in Florida.

What to do About African Honey Bees: A Consumer Guide http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/IN739

A UF/IFAS Extension publication that offers recommendations and precautions to Florida's general public about the African honey bee.

AFBEE Program http://entnemdept.ifas.ufl.edu/afbee/

The African honey bee Extension and Education Program was established by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University of Florida, and it serves to educate all Floridians about the presence of AHBs in Florida. The AFBEE Program website is a clearing house of information on AHBs. In the resources section, customers can find fact sheets, presentations, videos, and educational documents catered specifically for their needs. The downloadable list of bee removal specialists is available under the Bee Removal tab.

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services', Division of Plant Industry, Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspection, African Honey Bee Page http://www.doacs.state.fl.us/pi/plantinsp/ahb.html

This website includes links to videos, fact sheets, press releases, and more. It also includes a list of trained PCOs.

Footnotes

1.

This document is ENY-146 (IN783), one of a series of the Entomology & Nematology Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. First published: June 2008. Reviewed March 2011. For more publications related to horticulture/agriculture, please visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/.

2.

M. K. O'Malley, extension assistant, and J. D. Ellis, assistant professor, Entomology & Nematology Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.