Tests confirm Africanized bees responsible for man's death

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- A Georgia Department of Agriculture press release issued Thursday has confirmed that Africanized honeybees were responsible for the death of an elderly Dougherty County man last week.

Curtis Davis, 73, was attacked by a swarm of bees and suffered more than 100 stings after he dislodged a feral hive while moving debris with a bulldozer on the 1500 block of Williamsburg Road.

Initial reports said the bees were regular European honeybees, but entomological tests later confirmed that the insects were indeed Africanized.

"This is the first record of Africanized honeybees in the state of Georgia," Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said.

The Africanized bees and the familiar European honeybee (Georgia's state insect) look the same, and their behavior is similar in some respects. Each bee can sting only once, and there is no difference between Africanized honeybee venom and that of a European honey bee.

However, Africanized honeybees are less predictable and more defensive than European honeybees. They are more likely to defend a wider area around their nest and respond faster and in greater numbers than European bees.

Africanized honeybees first appeared in the U.S. in Texas in 1990. Since then they have spread to New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida and now Georgia.

Entomologists and beekeepers have been expecting the arrival of these bees in Georgia for several years. There has been an established breeding population in Florida since 2005.

"The unfortunate event with Mr. Davis was really the result of a perfect storm," Georgia certified Master Beekeeper Dale Richter said. "He (Davis) had a fire going, which confused the bees, and the vibrations from the bulldozer aggravated them. Everything that could have possibly gone wrong went wrong Monday."

Because Africanized honeybees look almost identical to European honeybees, the bees from the Dougherty County incident had to be tested to accurately ascertain they were the Africanized strain.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture sent samples of the bees to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which has the capability of conducting FABIS (fast African bee identification system) testing and the U.S. Department of Agriculture identification test (the complete morphometrics test) to confirm the bees' identity.

"Local beekeepers, the University of Georgia and the state department of agriculture are working closely together to monitor the situation," Richter said. "In the meantime people just need to be aware, and if they encounter a swarm call in professionals to handle the situation.

"These bees can be handled and managed, and while you can't tell a European honeybee from an African honeybee, the main thing is people shouldn't panic. We can handle this."

Irvin agreed, adding that Georgia's beekeepers can manage the invading bees.

"Georgia beekeepers are our first and best line of defense against these invaders. They are the ones who will be able to monitor and detect any changes in bee activity," Irvin said. "The Georgia Department of Agriculture is going to continue its trapping and monitoring of bee swarms to try to find where any Africanized honeybees are. We also want to educate people about what to do in case they encounter a colony of Africanized honeybees."

The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service has a publication on Africanized honeybees that is available online (http://pubsadmin.caes.uga.edu/files/pdf/B%201290_2.PDF) or at extension offices.

The public may also visit http://www.gabeekeeping.com for more information.