“AHB in Florida?”

Bee Culture (September 2005), Vol. 133 (9): 17-19




Dr. Malcolm T. Sanford



There continues to be more news about the “Africanized,” called by some “African,” honey bee now better termed by the more neutral, less sensational moniker, “AHB.”  A recent press release revealed that this infamous insect has now been found in southwest Arkansas in the town of Brightstar.  Ed Levi, Arkansas Plant Board Inspector reported that the unwanted visitors probably came from Texas.  He also said that in August 2004, a work crew in the southwest Oklahoma community of Tipton was attacked by a swarm of AHB, but there was no reason to panic. 

"Honey bees in general are very defensive," he is quoted as saying. "Some are more defensive than others.  "If somebody sees a colony of bees, they need to get away from it," he added. "If they get stung, they need to get away a little faster. If they're getting a lot of stings, they need to run to a place of safety." But the best bet is simply avoidance.
"You just need to respect the space of bees," Levi said.  One might find the above advice somewhat confusing.  No doubt this is the result of the kind of reporting by those who know little about honey bee behavior quoting experts in the field.   It’s the sort of thing we’ve all come to expect when it comes to the 20th century’s “pop insect.”  Another press release by Texas A & M University reports that the state is abandoning its AHB quarantine program, that has been in place ever since the AHB crossed the border from Mexico in 1990.1

Now comes a release from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) quoting Dr. H Glenn Hall in the Department of Entomology and Nematology as saying the AHB may eventually spread throughout the state and move into other areas of the southeastern United States.2  “The bees, which tend to sting in large numbers, have been found and stopped at various Florida ports over the past decade, but now it looks like they're here to stay, according to Dr.  Hall, who said Florida's warm climate is ideal for the bees, which could be bad news for the state's $16 million honeybee industry.”

"If African honeybees become established in large numbers over the next few years, they will affect the beekeeping industry and the pollination of many crops," Hall said. "Public safety, recreation and tourism may also be affected, leading to liability problems."  

“Hall, a bee geneticist who developed DNA markers to identify African honeybees, said that to the untrained eye they look the same as resident European honeybees.  African bees more aggressively defend their nests than European bees. African bees may swarm as many as 16 times a year while European bees swarm about three times a year, he said.  

“The African bees invaded five southwestern states in the 1990s and have periodically turned up at Florida's deep-sea ports since 1987,” Hall said. “Until recently, swarms entering through ports such as Jacksonville, Miami and Tampa have been successfully captured in bait hives maintained by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.”  

"However, new finds in the Tampa area suggest that African bees are spreading and becoming established in the state, and they are being found farther inland from the ports," Hall said. "We did not believe that enough bees could arrive on ships to form an established population, but they did so in Puerto Rico, and now appear to be doing the same in Florida."   

In response to the press release, Jerry Hayes, Florida’s Chief Apiarist, has also provided a list of talking points with the help of Dr. John Capinera, Chairman of IFAS Department of Entomology and  Nematology, University of Florida:3

“For the last decade, Florida has been surveying for the insect and established the country’s first AHB detection program that is jointly operated by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (FDACS), Division of Plant Industries (DPI) and the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The program involves placing bait hives in ports, and educating ships’ crews and dockworkers to identify and report suspicious swarms. Today, nearly 500 bait hives are in place throughout the state, primarily in port areas, along Interstate-10 and on the Florida/Alabama border. The bait hives are checked on a three-week cycle based on the reproduction habits of the AHB.

“When a suspicious swarm is found in one of our traps, or an apiary inspector identifies more defensive bees in a managed colony, samples are taken. Of the 653 samples collected since 2002 (when the first AHBs were detected in a Tampa Bay area), 59 have turned out to be positive for AHB genetics.  In addition to coming in on cargo ships, they are being detected in the honey bee colonies that return to Florida after being shipped around the country at different times of the year for pollination purposes, particularly from almond orchards in California where the AHB is already established.


“Testing for AHBs in managed colonies is challenging and resource intensive. Florida alone has 200,000 managed colonies. FDACS/DPI has resources to analyze samples of approximately 10% of these colonies annually. If the results of these samples show AHB genetics, current control actions include eradication or other remediation methods such as re-queening – a process which attempts to replace AHB queens with European honey bee queens.”


A meeting of Florida’s Honey Bee Technical Council (June 29, 2005) reviewed the evidence of AHB in Florida.  It shows an increasing number of finds last year and the first half of 2005 ranging from Tampa across the state and to the south.  Most interesting was the fact that all have been confined to feral colonies, most often found traps monitored by DPI, and none in beekeeper-managed colonies.


How long this will remain the case is uncertain.  The question all this brings into focus is when authorities should declare to the general public that the state has a population of AHB.  Clearly, many  people including beekeepers are caught here “between a rock and a hard place.”  If  declared too soon, then authorities run the risk of being called sensationalistic by beekeepers and others; if too late (i.e. after some sensationalized stinging incident), they are likely to be blamed for providing too little advanced warning.  Given the responses of all other states with AHB populations, there is little reason to believe DPI will have the resources or will to mount any kind of eradication and/or control program.  There was discussion about possibly mounting a certification program for beekeepers to provide them  with a  fallback position (damage control) should any become involved in law suits due to stinging incidents.


Meanwhile it seems prudent to no longer deny to the press and others that AHB is in Florida.  Beekeepers and others must face up to this fact.  That does not mean, however, that they should contribute to the over dramatization of the situation, which is in all too many cases the unfortunate history of reporting on this insect. 


The present situation appears to make my comments in the November issue of The Florida Beekeeper concerning these AHB finds more relevant and subject to change: “ In the face of the current situation, it is difficult to determine where Florida beekeepers might go from here. At the present time, these finds must be considered incidental. They do not indicate a population of AHB has been established in the sunshine state [Editor’s note:  The current finds may be altering this perception]. It will take some time to ascertain whether this is so. In the meantime, the industry will have to be prepared to answer the myriad questions these and other subsequent finds may generate. As a consequence, I am republishing here an outline of remarks made by Mr. Michael O'Hara, communications and education division director, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, on crisis communications as reported in the August 1992 APIS  Newsletter:4

The following should always be kept in mind when talking to reporters:

1. Individual Rights -- No one from the press has the right to violate your individual rights.
2. Honesty -- Never mislead or lie to a reporter. If the situation is under litigation, say this is so; if there is a question about profits, dollars or proprietary information, you can defer/refuse answering based on not informing competitors in the marketplace.
3. Buzz Words -- Never repeat an expression or inflammatory statement made by a reporter. As an example, if you are asked to what do you attribute this catastrophe, do not repeat the word "catastrophe." It then becomes attributable to you and you alone; you will "own" it.
4. Hostility -- Never get angry; keep cool and remember the reporter always has the last word.
5. Off the Record -- There is no such thing; if you don't want it reported, don't say it.
6. Estimates -- Never make numerical estimates in time or dollars. Say that the incident is under investigation and you will provide accurate information when it becomes available.
7. Reporter Verification -- Ask for identification, the purpose of a reporter's activities, media affiliation and telephone number.
8. Bridging -- Try to bridge the gap between a reporter's wish to be negative and providing a positive statement about your activity.
9. Statistics -- If you are not aware of statistics provided by a reporter, say so and ask for them in writing before commenting.
10. Deadlines -- All reporters are on deadlines, but you are not. Take all the time necessary to avoid hasty comments. The fact that a microphone is stuck in your face doesn't mean you have to say something. Dead air time is not likely to appear on television.

“It is best to have a communications plan in place and persons trained in this area. Defer all questions to one or two designated (and trained) persons to avoid giving conflicting information. An offensively oriented public relations/communications plan is the best defense against sensationalistic reporting based on negativism. Appointing and training of designated persons to speak for the group would be good activities for beekeeping associations both now and in the future.

Fortunately, there are a good many resources that beekeepers can point to as training  references and can be used for reporters that are bound to call about this subject should any stinging incident arise.  My good friend Tom Fasulo, the point man for information on all manner of pests in the IFAS Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of Florida, has been quick to add several publications to his Pest Alert site,5 including both a fact sheet published  in 1995 and a pointer to my previous Apis newsletter web site at the University, which details a history of this insect during my tenure as Florida’s extension apiculturist6.

Florida residents and officials need not feel alone in being surprised by AHB. Dr. Eric Mussen in his From the UC Apiaries (May/June 1998),7 stated the following concerning readiness of officials in California, where the bee had been established for a number of years.

"The truth of the matter is that we have fallen behind. When AHBs arrived in southern California, they caught the attention of the general public and public officials. Local and regional task forces were assembled and training sessions were held for decision-makers and emergency responders. Funds were made available for production and distribution of printed information, slide sets, videotapes and a school curriculum targeting AHBs. We did a lot of information dissemination. So, how did we get behind?

"Over the years, AHBs did not spread as fast as we anticipated. They just were discovered in the southernmost tip of Nevada and a portion of San Bernardino County, the fourth ‘colonized’ county in California. We have had only seven stinging incidents in California attributed to AHBs since they arrived nearly four years ago, but in the most recent incident a field worker was stung over 300 times. We were concerned that the attending physician may not have been aware of the problems with ‘organ failure’ (kidney failure) that can occur up to a week after such a sting patient is released from the hospital. (Three different Steering Committee agencies conveyed the message to the doctor, independently).

"The greatest problem is personnel turnover. A substantial portion of the previously trained health and emergency providers have ‘moved up’ or ‘moved out.’ New replacements are ignorant of the problems encountered working around defensive colonies of honey bees.”

1.      http://agnews.tamu.edu/dailynews/stories/ENTO/Jun2205a.htm, accessed, July 21, 2005.
2.      http://pestalert.ifas.ufl.edu/africanized_bees_g_hall.htm , accessed July 21, 2005.
3.      http://pestalert.ifas.ufl.edu/AHB_talking_points.pdf , accessed July 21, 2005.
4.      http://apis.ifas.ufl.edu/apis92/apaug92.htm#1, accessed July 21, 2005.
5.      http://pestalert.ifas.ufl.edu/, accessed July 21, 2005.
6.      http://apis.ifas.ufl.edu/threads/ahb.htm, accessed July 21, 2005.
7.      http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/faculty/mussen/5-6-98.pdf , accessed  July 21, 2005.