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Differences Between European and African Honey Bees

M. K. O'Malley, J. D. Ellis and C. M. Zettel Nalen2

African honey bees and European honey bees are the same species (Apis mellifera), but the two are classified as different sub-species. European honey bees were first introduced to the Americas in the 1500s by European explorers. For centuries, European honey bees have been selected by beekeepers for their robust honey production and storage behavior, their reduced regular swarming (colony splitting) tendencies, and their gentleness. The African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata) was brought to Brazil in the 1950s in an effort to increase honey production. However, the African colonies swarmed accidentally and established new colonies that thrived in Brazil's native environment. Since then, African bees have spread throughout South America, Central America, and into the United States. The African honey bee is considerably more defensive than its European cousin. Consequently, it is important to understand key differences between the defensive African bee and the docile European honey bee. The term "Africanized" generally is applied to any progeny resulting from matings between European and African bees. The acronym "AHB" is now a commonly used, practical identification term.

 

Hive Defense and Stinging

Unlike wasps and hornets, honey bees can only sting once, and will die shortly afterward. Stinging is often a last resort in hive defense.

The venom of the African honey bee is no more potent than that of the European honey bee. For a fatality to occur from venom toxicity, it normally would take about 10 stings per pound of body weight, from either an African or a European honey bee. The main difference between the European and African honey bee is the defense response: an African honey bee colony, if disturbed, will send more guard bees to sting, and will pursue for a longer distance and stay agitated for a longer period of time, than will a European honey bee colony.

 

European Honey Bee


May send out 10–20 guard bees in response to disturbances up to 20 feet away


Once agitated, will usually become calm within 10–15 minutes


Disturbing a colony may result in 10–20 stings


 

 

African Honey Bee


May send out several hundred guard bees in response to disturbances up to 120 feet away


Once agitated, may remain defensive for hours or until the sun sets


Disturbing a colony may result in 100–1000 stings 


 


Swarming and Absconding

Swarming is a natural occurrence when the colony gets too large and resources are abundant. The colony rears a new queen and the hive splits. Absconding occurs when resources are scarce or there is a threat to the hive. The entire colony will abandon the hive for a new location. 

 

 

European Honey Bee


Swarm 1 or 2 times per year


Swarms are larger and need larger volume in which to nest


Rarely abscond (or completely abandon nest) from nesting location


 

 

African Honey Bee


Can swarm 10 or more times a year


Swarms contain fewer individuals, and therefore a much smaller nest cavity is needed


Abscond often and relocate to more suitable nesting locations


 


Selection of Nesting Site

Because African honey bees swarm more often, fewer individuals are involved in each swarm, meaning they do not require a large cavity to build a nest and are often discovered in water meter boxes and other man-made cavities. European honey bees need a larger-volume nesting site, and tend to nest in hollowed tree cavities.

 

 

European Honey Bee


Nests in large cavities, around 10 gallons in size.


Typically nest in dry, aboveground cavities


Nests in protected locations, rarely exposing the nest


Due to larger colony size, nests are often easier to detect


 

 

African Honey Bee


Nests in smaller cavities, 1 to 5 gallons in sizeOnce agitated, may remain defensive for hours or until the sun sets.


Will nest in underground cavities.


 Will nest in exposed locations, (e.g., hanging from a tree branch)


Due to smaller colony size, nests often go undetected until disturbed