Killer Bees: How to Survive a Swarm Attack
Honeybees swarm around their Queen as she lays eggs inside a beehive.

Killer Bees: How to Survive a Swarm Attack

Bees have always been one of the banes of summer. Whether you’re simply relaxing out on the porch or enjoying a nice hike in the woods, that familiar buzz is sure to cast a downer on your day. Unfortunately, the threat of bee attacks has only grown worse in recent years thanks to a new player – the Africanized Killer Bee.

Get to know about this insect before heading outdoors.

Their origins

The “Africanized” Killer Bee is called such because it’s not strictly from Africa. Its origins can be traced back to Brazil, where beekeepers attempted to breed a bee that produced more honey. They successfully cross-bred the Western honeybee with European species like the Italian and Iberian honeybees, along with, of course, the African honeybee (hence the term “Africanized”). In 1957 several swarms of the new hybrid bee escaped from quarantine, spreading all over South America. It wasn’t until 1985 that the killer bee started appearing in North America, and by the ‘90s scores of killer bee hives could be found in Texas.

The “Africanized Killer Bee” (left) truly differs from its European
counterparts (right), but experts are better at identifying “Africanized” bees (

What makes them “Killer Bees”?

These bees are called “Killer Bees” not because they actively seek out other creatures to kill, nor are their stings inherently lethal, but because they are way more tenacious in defending their hive. If their hive is disturbed or if they feel threatened, these bees will attack the offending person or animal by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, to deliver a lethal payload of venom. Moreover, they are relentless, sometimes chasing their quarry for up to 1.5 miles. This combination of swarming numbers and tenacious pursuit often results in a lethal outcome for unlucky trespassers, long before the bees give up.


Know the triggers

These bees don’t attack unwary people or animals on sight. The “offending party” must be close to the hive, and the bees must be “triggered” to go on attack mode. They may be provoked by:

  • Loud noises; i.e. barking dogs, car horns, blaring radios
  • Vibrations from machinery like chainsaws, weed-eaters, lawnmowers and similar equipment
  • Strong odors like perfumes
  • Shiny jewelry
  • Dark-colored clothes

When encountering a hive

If you stumble upon a hive, don’t disturb it and don’t run away in panic. Back away quietly and calmly without making any noise. Avoid the instinctive reaction to run, scream or swat at the bees to avoid alerting them and triggering a swarm attack.

What to do when attacked

If you’re attacked, do your best to remain calm and composed. Again, don’t scream or flail about; the bees will escalate the attack and you can get stung hundreds of times.

While covering your face, run and get as far away from the area as fast as you can. These bees will chase you for a considerable distance (about a thousand feet from their hive), but they will eventually give up.

If other people are being attacked, tell them to run and don’t stop to help them unless they can’t run on their own. Assist the elderly by helping them cover their face; if you have a jacket, let them cover their face with that. If with a small child or infant, carry them with their face tucked directly into your body. Young children and the elderly can be very susceptible to life-threatening allergic reactions from even a single sting, and should be protected first.

Getting to safety

Killer Bees are slow fliers, so your best bet is to outrun them and get to shelter. Running through shrubbery can slow or distract pursuing bees.

If your car is nearby, head straight for it and leave the area with your windows closed. If you can get in your car but can’t leave, close all the windows and doors. Don’t make any noise by using the radio or honking the horn. Call 911 and wait for the bees to leave. Should you get to a house, tent or camper, close all doors and windows and seal any open vents. If any bees get in, don’t kill them as their dead bodies will emit a pheromone that will attract and anger the other bees. If you see a “stranded” bee in a room, turn the lights on– this will confuse it and it’ll scramble to the nearest window. If there are no other bees outside that window, let the bee out then close the window immediately.

Only when you’re safe and secure from the swarm should you call 911 and inform the authorities of the attack.  Whatever you do, don’t jump into a nearby pool or lake in the hopes that the bees will leave while you hold your breath underwater. They’ll wait for you to come up for air and sting your face.

What to do if stung

If you’re stung, remove the stinger immediately. A bee stinger has nerves and muscle tissue that let it dig deeper into the wound and pump more venom into you. Using your finger or a credit card, calmly but quickly remove the stinger in a scraping motion; don’t pinch or squeeze it out. Take note:

If you have no allergic reactions or history of allergy:

– Clean the wound with soap and water.

– Apply antibiotic ointment.

– If you start to itch, you can take an antihistamine.

– If you feel any pain, your doctor may advise you to take ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

– Apply a cold compress (don’t use ice directly) on the affected area to reduce pain and swelling.

– In some cases, your doctor may advise you to get vaccinated for Tetanus or get a booster shot.


If you know you are allergic to bee stings:

– Use an epinephrine shot (Epi-Pen or Auvi-Q) or two.

– Call 911 immediately. Regardless of whether you took an epinephrine shot and it worked, you must still seek medical assistance.

For those allergic to bee stings, access to epinephrine can mean the difference between life or death (


If you don’t know if you’re allergic, watch for these symptoms:

– Itching, hives, or swelling over a large area on your body – not just where you got stung

– Your face, throat, or tongue begins to swell

– You begin to have difficulty breathing

– Stomach cramps, with nausea or diarrhea

If any of these symptoms manifest, you are seriously allergic to bee stings. This is called anaphylaxis, or severe allergic reaction. Call 911 immediately and if you have access to an epinephrine pen, use it. If the above symptoms are mild or only some of those listed manifest, use the epinephrine to be safe, and call 911 regardless.

Even one bee sting can cause a serious allergic reaction, as Bear Grylls discovered.
A reaction like this can cause airways to swell up in minutes. Call 911! (

Notes on stings

Like most other bees, the stinger of the Africanized Killer Bee is a “one-use-only” weapon. Stinging tears out most of its abdomen as it flies away, then it dies. The now-dead bee gives off a pheromone that smells like bananas. This acts like a signal for the others to go into attack mode, so never hang around any hives if you’re not wearing protective clothing.

With regards to human tolerance of bee stings, studies have found that:

  • Most people can withstand 7-10 bee stings per pound of body weight.
  • An average-sized adult who isn’t allergic would have to be stung over 1000 times for the bee venom to be lethal.
  • Most children can withstand half that number.
  • Bee stings and their venom do not kill people per se; it is the resulting allergic reaction or anaphylactic shock that’s fatal.
  • An estimated 2 million Americans are allergic to bee stings.
  • Some people are so allergic, just one sting can be lethal.
  • Bees don’t attack when foraging for nectar; they only attack if the hive is threatened.
  • Females are the ones with stingers; male bees have no stingers.

How to prevent attacks

If it can be helped, avoid staying in areas where Africanized bees have their habitat. Warmer states like Texas, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and southern California are their new habitat.

In May 2014, a hive was discovered in west central Colorado, but was destroyed. Other states which may have Killer Bee infestations are Louisiana, southern Utah, southern Georgia, and eastern Tennessee. As recently as 2014, some Africanized Killer Bees have turned up in San Francisco.


If moving out is not an option, here are a few precautionary measures you can take:

  • Avoid venturing into unfamiliar areas alone.
  • Make routine checks on your home and property perimeter for cracks or holes where bees might establish a hive.
  • Cover or fill potential hive sites; holes in trees, eaves, outer walls and carports.
  • Remove debris like old tires and piles of wood.
  • Remove dead trees or plants; these make excellent spots for colonies.
  • Before you use any motorized tools like chainsaws or lawnmowers, check your work area for bees and beehives. The noise and exhaust will trigger an attack.
  • If you find an established hive, don’t try to eliminate it yourself. Call an exterminator and let them handle it.
  • If you have a birdbath, put a tablespoon of vinegar in it. This will act as a bee deterrent.
  • Check routinely for bees in animal pens or wherever you have pets or livestock.
  • Check culverts and drainage pipes; these may harbor a hive as well.
  • If you’re outdoors, don’t wear strong perfume, hairspray, shiny jewelry or dark clothing.
  • Use insect repellent.

Final notes

Most of what is known about this bee is more science fiction than fact. The word “killer” implies that these bees actively seek people and animals to kill – which is totally false.

These misconceptions are likely due to the rash of “B-movies” that tried to cash in on the hype in the 80’s when these “Killer Bees” first arrived in America. Africanized Killer Bees can kill you, but you’d have to go out of your way to provoke them and be foolish enough to stay within their range. It’s true that hundreds of people have died from bee stings in America, but not all fatalities were due to Killer Bees, and usually the victims mistakenly disturbed the hive, panicked, and provoked the bees even more.

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