“At Risk Populations for AHB:  The Case of Civil War Reenactors

Bee Culture (August 2006), Vol. 134 (8): 15-17




Malcolm T. Sanford



The history of the Africanized honey bee in the Americas attests that most of the “problems” associated with this insect have to do with its unpredictable behavior.  This is because its habits are unfamiliar to folks, including beekeepers themselves, who are used to those of European bees introduced to the Americas from the temperate lands of the Old World.  The New World, tropically adapted Africanized honey bee is truly another breed, and as such it emulates the human population in the Americas, which also developed a rougher, less-refined version of its European forbearer.


In general, the Africanized  honey bee (AHB) is far more defensive and migratory, and much less finicky when it comes  to choosing nesting  sites.  While no self-respecting European honey bee would nest in the ground, the AHB does.  It also will be found cheek by jowl with humanity in other unlikely places.  One that comes to mind is the ubiquitous water meter.  First found to be a favorite nesting site in the West, who would have thought that the same would occur in humid Florida.  Yet at least one county in the Sunshine State has hired a beekeeper to monitor meters in its area for honey bees, thereby adding another employee equivalent to its already strained budget.


Besides water meter readers, other at-risk populations come to mind, including birders, trail bikers, hunters, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, campers, etc.  One that I hadn’t thought much about was brought to my attention by a colleague in the Department of Entomology and Nematology who is a Civil War reenactor.  Thomas R. Fasulo, an entomologist and mild-manner civilian, once a Marine Corps officer in the Vietnam conflict, now on weekends often becomes a Private in the 13th Indiana/8th Florida Infantry, which is involved in re-recreating the Battle of Olustee, reenacted each year near Lake City, Florida, just south of the Georgia state line.  He also manages the award-winning web site dedicated to this historic engagement1 and a series of others supporting the Department’s educational outreach to to the pest control industry.2


Fortunately, for reenactors, Tom is a trained entomologist and so understands how those involved in his “hobby” are likely to be affected by AHB.  The following are his thoughts taken from a recent publication:3


“In March, a participant of February’s Battle of Olustee reenactment in Florida posted an article on the Web complaining that there were too many regulations at the event, and stated that he was even told “not to swat at ‘Federal bees.’ ” This ‘Federal bee’ warning resulted from a notice I gave the event organizers about the confirmation of established Africanized honey bee populations in Florida. As a result, organizers and participants of Olustee and other Civil War events in the southeastern U.S. need to educate themselves about these bees and their aggressive habits.


“I hate to tell you this but research into why AHB attack is not good news for reenactors. However, let me preface this by stating that individual foraging AHB are usually not a threat to the general public, except for individuals who are allergic to insect stings. The danger arises when AHB feel the need to defend their colonies. The general experience since 1956 reveals that:


1) AHB have a greater tendency to attack people wearing dark vs. light colors (And we thought we already had enough trouble getting reenactors to galvanize to Union blue for the day.);


2) AHB have a greater tendency to sting people wearing wool clothes as the hooks on their tarsi (feet) get stuck in the tangled fibers (Will this begin a trend to polyester uniforms?);


“3) AHB have a greater tendency to sting people wearing strong scents or who smell of sweat (And who does not sweat after running around a battlefield wearing wool?);


4) AHB have a tendency to attack people when disturbed by loud noises or vibrations such as those produced by lawnmowers, farm equipment, gas powered pruners or weeders (Or as in just one rifle, not counting hundreds, or a cannon being fired.);


5) AHB have a greater tendency to attack horses on principle (Horses are often dark and have a strong odor.), even when they are just walking by an AHB colony;


6) AHB are attracted to facial hair and hair on your head (It is about time more of the Rebs started shaving!).


“Imagine what might happen when we bring thousands of noisy, sweating people into a normally quiet area for one weekend a month?  I suspect that future events will see a requirement for an onsite response team, to include trained, properly equipped personnel and a tank truck with foam capability. There is no way distant emergency personnel can respond quickly in the traffic snarls we now experience at events.


“At a recent seminar in my department, an entomologist who has worked with AHB since their early days in this hemisphere, stated that we would eventually see 300 to 400 swarms per square mile. When I asked if that included unmanaged pine woods, he said yes. Remember that one very common honey source in the southeast U.S. is palmetto.


“The good news is that reenactors will not have the primary responsibility to educate those who attend our events, although we can help. For example, the State of Florida is gearing up for a major education effort in the media, in the schools (as Texas already does), and for government agencies at all levels. In the future, an onsite response team capable of controlling AHB will probably be mandated by Federal, state and county government regulations at large events of all types. To secure an AHB colony that is not already in “attack mode” requires that the colony be contained within a few seconds. This requires the proper clothing and equipment (usually a foam generator). While fire fighters have discovered that their normal clothing is not suitable for AHB encounters, most fire equipment already standing by at large events already have foam generators.


“One thing we need to start doing at events is being more observant about our surroundings. Here are some examples: events organizers need to make a good examination of the spectator area at the battle (stands, trash cans, nearby woods, etc.) before spectators start moving into the area. They also need to give the area a once-over before the sutlers and reenactors arrive. When the reenactors arrive, they too need to be more observant. If you are going to be the first to take a bale from that hay stack, or wood from the pile, both of which may have been sitting there for days or even longer, you might want to check for bees moving into and out of the hay and wood. Remember, AHB will colonize areas that European honey bees would not.


“The cavalry will especially want to examine their camping areas. Horses are usually killed by AHB because they are confined to a small area or tired up and unable to run away. The same is true for dogs who are usually tied to a stake or other object. For several years, fur-bearing animals, except for horses, have been banned from the Olustee Reenactment for other reasons. While not always popular, this may become a common rule at other events.


“So who needs to be concerned about AHB? Should our pards in more northern states dismiss AHB as a southern problem, as they do with the red imported fire ant? Entomologists used to think that the range of AHB would be limited by temperature, but this is no longer the case. I have seen maps that project AHB moving up the East Coast and Mid-West into Canada. At this time we do not know if this will actually occur. Some scientists now believe that the AHB range will be limited by rainfall or altitude. Perhaps this might be a good time to invest in that mountain retirement property.


“What do you do if you discover AHB in your camp, at an event, or anywhere else where they pose a threat to people, pets or livestock? If the colony is not in ‘attack mode,’ the best thing to do is report it to local authorities, such as event organizers or law enforcement personnel. Do this at the same time you are alerting people to quietly move out of the area. 


“If the colony is already attacking you or others, then RUN or SEEK SHELTER. AHB will follow you for long distances, often up to one-third of a mile or more. While running, protect your face with your arms and hands. Your body can sustain many more stings on your arms and torso than on your face. Do not wave your arms about you as you run. This just attracts more AHB to you. If you can enter a car or building — do so. It is better to be stuck in a vehicle with 20 or 30 AHB that you can swat and kill, than to stay outside with thousands. Once in a safe place, do not attempt to pull out the stingers in your body as grasping the fleshy part hanging on to the stinger just pumps more venom into you. Instead, use something with a flat edge to scrape the stinger loose.


“Unlike European honey bees which probably deliver 20 to 30 stings to drive you out of the immediate area of their colony, AHB can deliver thousands of stings to an individual. Even if you are not already allergic to insect stings, where one or two stings might cause complications or death, thousands of stings can result in kidney failure due to the amount of venom, or a heart attack due to the stress and pain of the attack. Kidney failure usually occurs when an individual receives 28 mg/kg of venom, or about eight to nine stings per pound of weight.


“Here is some good news for the ladies. Experience has shown that the group most likely to be stung in an AHB attack are young males between the ages of 16 to 25.  This is due to no other reason than this is the group which contains people most likely to say, ‘Hey, watch what happens when I hit that bee swarm with a rock.’  Unfortunately, as the ladies well know, men in older age groups who are reenacting for the weekend, often act as if they were considerably younger (if not – yes, I will say it –  immature).


“Have I frightened you? Good, as that was my intent. If you are concerned about AHB, then you will take steps to protect yourself, your pards, your loved ones and others while at an event. Now I am going to put AHB into perspective. In the 50 years since AHB have been in the Western Hemisphere there were approximately 1,000 recorded deaths, or about 20 per year. In the 16 years since AHB were first discovered in the U.S., we have experienced about one death per year. Compare this to the 16,337 people who were killed while riding in cars (this does not include pick-up trucks, vans or commercial vehicles) in 2002. Yet every day the vast majority of us come out of our homes, climb into our ‘killer cars’ and travel the roads of America. And we share those roads with people in other vehicles who are thinking about anything but driving, who are speeding, running through red lights and stop signs, and often have a cell phone attached to their ear.”


In my discussions with Tom, I have asked what role honey bees played in the Civil War.  There is evidence that they were used in battles during Greek, Roman and the European Dark and Middle Ages.  Can you imagine what a colony, conveniently housed in a straw basket (skep),  hurled at and collided with a knight in shining armor might have done?  So far, we have found little information that honey bees were used in any role other than perhaps supplying energy (honey) to exhausted troops during the War Between the States. 


As the AHB population grows in the Southeast and extends on good days in fair weather further north, it is intriguing to speculate what an entrenched population of tropically-adapted, over-defensive honey bees nesting at or below ground level might have meant to both Union and Confederate troops in the 1860s.  It’s possible we may find out in a modern reenactment of an actual battle, should a stinging incident become a reality, initiated by Africanized bees incited to defend their nest against an army of wool-uniformed, sweating, gun-firing, shouting humanity, accompanied by horses. 


One thing is for sure.  The bees will take no sides, rendering the decision of whether or not to “swat a Federal bee” as academic at best.  Both Johnny Reb and Union blue coats will be on the run.




  1. http://battleofolustee.org/
  2. http://pests.ifas.ufl.edu, accessed June 20, 2006.
  3. Fasulo, Tom.  2006.  Civil War News, Vol. 31, No. 5.