Africanized European Honey Bees in East-central Austin, Texas

—This article by Jerry Cates, first published on 17 June 2010, was last revised on 24 April 2016. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 11:06(03).


Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Hive Entrance; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Hive Entrance; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

In June 2010 a call came in from one of my favorite friends, Sandra R., concerning bees in a home just purchased by her daughter-in-law’s brother, Nick W.

If you click on the photos posted on this page, they will enlarge so you can examine them more closely.

The photo at left, when enlarged, shows a large number of bees at the primary entrance to the hive, along with several bees that are in flight (and thus blurred in the photo) as they come and go.

This entrance hole, by the way, measures about 3.5 inches wide, and two inches high, and from all the evidence collected while removing the honeycomb, was initially exploited by squirrels. The squirrels, years ago, entered this hole to get into the small space between the masonry and the eave. They then exploited a small hole, left by the homebuilder, through the sheathing into the interior wall, so they could nest.

Later bees happened upon the same cavity and evicted the squirrels so they could build a hive. How many years they have been here is anybody’s guess, but a minimum of ten years is a strong possibility, judging from the size of the honeycomb (and ten gallons or more of honey) that was eventually removed from the wall.

This home, built in 1968 (and thus 42 years old) was located in East-central Austin, Texas. The bees may have been hiving here as many as twenty years or more.

Sandra wanted advice to pass on to Nick regarding the best way to deal with the bees. In particular she wanted to know if spraying the hive with soapy water would resolve the issue.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Hive Secondary Entrances; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Hive Secondary Entrances; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

You may wonder why she would ask that…

Years ago I passed on to her some hoary pest management  wisdom.

In retrospect, perhaps such wisdom is best kept to myself, but it seemed the right thing to do at the time.

The “wisdom” I bequeathed to Sandra, lo those many years ago, was that spraying newly emergent nests of umbrella wasps with soapy water was a good way to control them without having to use pesticides.

She had forgotten the details. And those details mattered.

Spraying an umbrella wasp nest (which is quite distinct from a bee hive) with soapy water is just the first step in a process that included, before finishing the job, knocking down the umbrella nest with a broomstick.

Another detail that mattered was the fact that soapy water sprays only work on the smallest umbrella wasp nests, ones that have but one or two wasps on them.  Nests with only one or two wasps will almost never defend the nest by trying to sting someone trying to knock the nest down. The process is mediated by attack pheromones exuded by the wasps when threatened, and two wasps just cannot produce enough pheromone to stimulate strong aggressor behavior. On the other hand, once the nest has three or more wasps on it, attack pheromone production exceeds the threshold and, Bam! the fight is on

Furthermore, it only applied to wasps, and could not be used with honey bees.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Mapping the Bee Hive; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Mapping the Bee Hive; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

In fact, using that method with a honey bee hive–especially one that had even a small amount of Africanized honey bee DNA– would produce nothing but really nasty results.

Back in 1957, some 26 queens from a subspecies (Apis mellifera scutellata) of African honey bees native to the African nation of Tanzania, were accidentally–or, according to some researchers, intentionally–released in southeast Brazil following research by the biologist Warwick E. Kerr into the behavior of such bees in the forests of tropical South America.

It was widely believed at the time that such bees would produce more honey and survive better than the European honey bees then being imported throughout the Americas for use in crop pollination and honey production.

That turned out  not to be the case. At least, not exactly. Africanized bees, though of the same species as their European counterparts, are quite different in size, temperament, social behavior, and honey production. Because they are much more aggressive, and have earned a reputation for–at times–actually killing humans who rile them up, their hives are rightly given a wide berth until a professional experienced in dealing with them can be called in.

Those bees, released in Brazil over half a century ago, spread throughout South and Central America. By the late 1980’s they reached Texas. I was ready for them by then, having followed their travels in the literature since 1980, when I began my career in pest management. Today, nearly all the wild honey bees found in Texas are at least partially Africanized.

Still, I wasn’t yet sure that these were bees at all.

Realizing that some people routinely confuse wasps and honey bees, I inquired further, to see if she was certain these were bees rather than wasps.

“They’re bees,” she said, “and they are living in a wall of Nick’s new house.”

“Well then,” I replied, “managing them will be much more complicated.”

“And,” I added, “if Nick does anything to try to get them out of the wall himself, without lots of knowledge and–at the very least–a modest amount of professional bee-keeping accessories, he’ll just make things worse.”

“I’ll tell him that,” Sandra said.

And that was the last I heard for about a week. That’s when Sandra’s son, Chris, called for more advice.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Removing the Honeycomb; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Removing the Honeycomb; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

“How big a bee-hive is this?” I asked.

“Pretty big,” Chris answered. “And it looks like it’s been there awhile Funny thing, though; during the inspection, just before the closing, nobody noticed any bees.”

Immediately my mind wandered to a familiar train of thought. Another bee-hive got through under the radar screen! And everybody’s  surprised.

Not me. I’m too familiar with the way bees behave to be the least bit surprised.

Bees tend not to be very visible, even when they are coming and going–from a large hive in the wall of a building–in large numbers.

Of course, during winter and through the early spring, bee colonies in temperate climes like Austin are relatively quiescent, if not althogether dormant–at least from all outward appearances.

The bees do not forage during such periods and stay in the hive, feeding on the stored honey and preparing for the new flowering season that comes in the late spring. In Austin, springtime came in early April in 2010. By the middle of May, this bee hive would have been thriving with activity, and by early June it would have been extremely active. That’s when the inspector visited this home. Yet he didn’t see any.

That’s not unusual.

Unless the inspector had stared directly at the hive entrance for a few seconds without blinking, even a fairly active bee-hive would have been missed entirely. And even if the inspector notices them, they may not register in the inspector’s consciousness as something important, unless the purpose of the inspection–at that very moment–was to find evidence of a cryptic bee-hive. Savvy inspectors–maybe I should say, “bee-savvy inspectors”–do that, but most do not, because it is atypical for such inspectors to be familiar with the intrinsic invisibility that bee-hives generally possess.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Preparing the Smoker; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Preparing the Smoker; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

The natural invisibility of bee hives is not coincidental. Solitary bees have been around for hundreds of millions of years, though socialized honey bees, as a subset of the bee family, are a more recent development. While we cannot be certain how long social colonies of honey bees have existed, the fossil record–obtained mostly from amber–shows  they have thrived for several millions of years.

They managed to survive as socialized colonies only because they learned–early on–how to go about their business without being noticed. It’s important to the bees that their hives be as invisible as possible.

Think about it. The honey bee hive contains large quantities of a heavy, sweet, syrupy liquid that multitudes of animals, including humans, have prized since the first hives were discovered. Prized… Desired… Wanted…

If they were easy to find, they’d be attacked and exploited by a host of predators intent on stealing the stuff that keeps them going. If such thievery was allowed to occur with regularity,  the hives and the bees than produce them would perish. But, as I mentioned, they haven’t perished, but have thrived instead. Evidently they found a way to keep thieves from destroying them.

Yet, besides their stings, which are clearly not enough to keep most determined predators away, their options for protecting their hives from predation are limited.

So they become invisible…

Bees hide their hives in plain sight, relying strictly on the power of stealth. The hives don’t produce strong smells (though they do produce subtle odors); the bees don’t make a lot of noise (though the tiny wings of the newest workers flap ceaslessly to air-condition the hive and keep its temperature constant); the foraging worker bees  noiselessly come and go, flying in and out one by one with their precious cargoes of nector and pollen; they fly in, not from one direction (which would attract attention) but from every direction of the compass.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Lighting the Smoker; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Lighting the Smoker; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

And nobody notices.

Unless, that is, they are in your home. That’s the place where you spend a considerable fraction of your time each day. Homeowners walk around their homes looking for problems, and checking for unusual conditions. It is likely that, as a homeowner surveying your domain, you will happen to stare at the hive entrance for a few seconds without blinking. And, unlike a disinterested inspector, you will immediately be intrigued by the odd number of flying insects congregating in that particular location. Then, Voila! They’re busted

————–Breaking News————–

Two months after I wrote this article, an East Austin man was stung over 500 times by bees from one of two colonies near his home. 85 year-old Willard Duncan was mowing his lawn at 12th street and Waller on the morning of 11 August 2010 when the bees attacked.

The bees were so numerous that arriving police and paramedics could not approach Mr. Duncan, who was lying in the street covered with bees. They were so thick, in the air around Mr. Duncan, that they appeared “like a halo of smoke around his head” according to a neighbor who witnessed the attack. Nobody could reach Mr. Duncan until fire trucks hosed him down with foam.

Later, after Duncan was taken to the hospital by ambulance (in critical, but stable, condition, with a good prognosis), professional bee specialists–called in to comb the area and locate the bee hive–searched the area for hours without finding a hive. They left, news reporters said, after pronouncing the area free of bee hives, fueling speculation that the bees that stung Mr. Duncan were not from an established hive, but probably swarming at the time.

The next day the specialists returned, likely because someone pointed out that swarming bees–even swarms of Africanized bees–are much too docile to have attacked Mr. Duncan. Such attacks only take place when the bees are defending an established hive. Perhaps they did some research and realized how difficult it is to find an established bee hive by hurried inspections.

At any rate, on that second inspection trip two large, established bee hives were located near where Mr. Duncan had been mowing. One was in a hollow tree, the other in a bamboo break.

Killer bees?

One of the specialists on the scene was repeatedly asked by news reporters if these were “Killer Bees.” He replied each time that he didn’t think they were. Instead, he said, they were probably just ordinary honey bees that got agitated. Maybe so, but my research suggests otherwise.

Ordinary European honey bees are not aggressive. They use head-butt tactics, contacting an interloper’s face and hands with their bodies to make you think they will sting, long before they actually resort to stinging. I expect benign head-butts with ordinary honey bees. When the first encounter with a bee is a stinging event, though, I begin to suspect the colony is either partially or fully Africanized.

But I digress…


Let’s return to this bee colony in the wall of Nick’s home:

Chris had more to say, so I tuned in to his voice.

“The problem is, Jerry,” Chris continued, “Nick has sunk so much money into this purchase, the work he still needs to do to make the house livable, and the impending move, that he can’t afford much to get rid of these bees.”

Nick is an experienced potter, the purveyor of an ancient art–one of the most ancient of the true industries engaged in by man–that tends to be under paid and, in many places, underappreciated. He is moving to this home because the land it is sitting on is zoned to permit a kiln. And potters need kilns to fire their work.

I appreciate the fine art of pottery. And I really like Nick. He’s a serious, hard-working fellow with the kind of gentle, inquisitive spirit that genuine artists in general, and good potters in particular, ought to have. But there’s more

Nick’s late father was a Marine Corps aviator who flew helicopters in Vietnam in the early 1960’s  when I, and  my brother Allen,  were also there. Al, my older brother (he’s slightly more than a year older than I), was — like Nick’s dad — a USMC aviator who flew H-34 Choctaw helicopters on search and rescue missions to pick up downed crewmen in North Vietnam, the Central Highlands, and — when necessary to save lives — even in Laos.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), The Bunny Suit; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), The Bunny Suit; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

I suspected Al may have flown with Nick’s dad, though we hadn’t discussed that yet (later, Al, who has since published a book — Honor Denied: The Truth about Air America and the CIA — on his experiences in Southeast Asia, both as a USMC aviator and later as a pilot with Air America, did not recall knowing Nick’s dad: “The USMC had several units in Vietnam back then, Jerry,” he told me, “and I was acquainted with only about 10% of the pilots.”) But even if they never met (Nick’s dad died in a tragic helicopter accident in the Gulf of Mexico a number of years ago) they were doing the same things, in the same place, at the same time. We’re talking serious connections here...

“Tell Nick I’ll take care of his honeybees,” I told Chris. “No charge.”

He’d do the same for me. Nick, and his family–including Sandra and her husband–they’d do the same for me under similar circumstances.

No doubt about it.

Besides, I figured this exercise could be an excellent way to document–for this website–the issues involved in dealing with honey bees in the wall of a residential structure.

Nick agreed to take video of the process, and still shots as well, as the work was performed. All the photos here were taken by Nick, whose assistance–in that regard alone–was well worth the fee I normally charge for honey bee removal and exclusion.

Thanks, Nick!

On June 14 Nick, Chris and I met at Nick’s new home to look things over. The photo above of the entrances to the bee hive were taken at that meeting.

Using a stethoscope to auscultate the wall section from inside the garage, the sounds that reached my ears were loud enough to indicate the presence of a relatively large bee colony.

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Smoking the Hive Entrance; East-central Austin, Texas--06.14.10

Africanized European Honeybee (Apis mellifera), Smoking the Hive Entrance; East-central Austin, Texas–06.14.10

The stethoscope is an indispensable part of the equipment needed to properly deal with a honey bee hive in the wall of a home.

It is the only way I know of to map the activity of the hive in a wall section, from one part of the hive to another. And, during the management process, mapping the activity is important. Without that information you are shooting in the dark, blind as a bat.

That’s not the way to conduct a shootout, methinks.

Not that this was going to be a shootout.

My hope was that we could entice these bees to leave on their own, to carry on their work somewhere else, away from Nick’s house.

Not one bee had to be killed to accomplish that. Of course, if this colony exhibited serious signs of being Africanized (and, ultimately, it did show such signs), then a wholesale relocation of the hive would not be possible, though possibly as much as half of the colony might be induced to split off after a series of smoke inductions. We’d have to see…

This posting is in process and will continue to be fleshed out as time permits.


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