ARTICLES Killer Bees here in two years?

By MIKE GEORGE

Georgia scientists studying the migration of the Africanized honey bee, the so-called “killer bee,” say there's no real way to predict exactly when the aggressive insects will spread north from Florida into the state, but an official with the Georgia Department of Agriculture said late last week that he wouldn't be surprised to see killer bees in Georgia within the next two years.

“Right now they seem to be moving south,” said Barry Smith, an agricultural manager with the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

“But I tend to believe they'll be hear sooner rather than later.”

Researchers, scientists and government officials met in Perry Friday for the first in a series of public meetings throughout the state to talk about the killer bee threat.

“Most of us will never be affected by this,” said Professor Keith Delaplane, an entomologist with the University of Georgia. “But the point is to be prepared.”

The Africanized honey bee was first detected in the United States near Hidalgo, Texas, in 1990. The bees moved west throughout the 1990s, colonizing throughout the Southwest, Southern California and parts of Nevada. But the aggressive species has begun to turn east.

Since 2004, the Africanized honey bee has been found in parts of Arkansas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Smith said that the bees were first detected in the deep-water ports of Florida in 2002, and have since spread throughout the state, detected in several northern Florida counties in 2004 and 2005, according to Smith. According to Delaplane, Africanized bee attacks have led to more than a dozen deaths in the United States.

Bee behavior

Known for their aggression and fierce, unwavering defense of their colonies, the killer bee poses a unique challenge for both public officials working to prepare the public, and local police and firefighters who will have to deal with any killer bee attacks.

“The Africanized honey bee's sting is no more venomous than the sting from a normal bee,” Delaplane said. “There's nothing that makes its sting more potent.

It's the number of stings that's really the problem.”

Delaplane said that the Africanized bee will often attack in great numbers if their nests are disturbed.

“They will virtually empty their colonies into the air,” Delaplane said.

Africanized bees will often build their nests in unexpected places, like the gaps between walls in a home or sometimes in holes in the ground.

“You will see a lot more open nests with the Africanized honey bee,” Delaplane said. “Something as small as a soup can will hide a colony.

Sometimes they'll nest in old tires.”

According to Delaplane, the species is also unpredictable. Some colonies of Africanized honey bees are tame, while some European honey bee colonies show aggressive tendencies. Delaplane said this is most likely due to interbreeding. “If there's two things to take from this, first off, run,” he said. “Then, try to get inside.”

History on the move

Honey bees are not indigenous, brought to the Americas by European colonists in the 17th century. Although the European honey bee was able to spread and thrive throughout North America, bees did not adapt to the tropical and subtropical climates of South America.

In 1956, researchers imported bees from Africa into Brazil to breed a honey bee that could thrive in tropical climates, but the Africanized bee soon began displacing European colonies. According to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service, the killer bee spread northward at a rate of 200 to 300 miles per year, eventually establishing colonies in every Latin American country except Chile.

While European honey bees can adapt to colder climates, the Africanized bee cannot adapt as well, and colonies often migrate in response to food shortages.

Smith said researchers have been monitoring the southern counties of Georgia since the Africanized honey bee was detected in North Florida. For six months, the state has been using special traps to collect bees along Georgia's southern counties in an effort to test for Africanized bees. “We have not found any killer bees in Georgia yet,” Smith said. “But there is a good chance we'll see a migration in to Georgia.”

Facing problems

Although state officials and Georgia scientists continue to monitor the threat, they will face two major challenges. Smith said the state is compiling a list of pest control companies who are outfitted and willing to exterminate Africanized colonies, but admitted there are few companies in Georgia who are ready to exterminate these aggressive bees.

“We're still facing the question of who's willing to deal with this,” Smith said.

Delaplane, however, said he sees a silver lining.

“It's something of a niche market that could be explored,” Delaplane said. “We're hoping more companies will.”

Delaplane said several companies in Florida have emerged willing to exterminate Africanized hives, but the same process is expected to take time in Georgia.

Another major factor is cost. Bill Owens, a Monroe County firefighter and former president of the Georgia Beekeepers Association, said that local governments may have to equip their departments with special equipment and suits to deal with Africanized hives on the attack. The suits alone are priced at $150 each. Owens said the standard fire suit is only a mere distraction for many Africanized bees, who are willing to crawl into the gaps of the suit to sting at firefighters.

“The average person can run faster than a bee can fly, but people just stop and swat,” Delaplane said. “Just run.” Smith said his office plans to complete their list of pest companies willing to deal with killer bees in the coming months, posting that information online and with county extension offices.

“Don't try to do anything yourself,” Smith said. “If you have a good idea you have these bees, start with your phone book and call as many pest control companies as you can. “If you can't find a company, call your local county extension office.”

Houston County's Cooperative Extension office is located inside the Houston County Government Building on Main Street in Perry. To reach the office, call (478) 987-2028.