"Killer bees" have a nasty name and a bad reputation. Do they deserve it? Or are they just doing what comes naturally?

Scientists have a joke about killer bees: How can you tell the difference between a regular honeybee hive and a "killer" bee hive? Kick the hive and see how far you run!

"Regular bees might buzz you for 100 feet or so," explains insect expert Margaret McMichael. "But 'killer' bees might chase you for two miles!"

Killer bees first flew into the U.S. in 1990. Since then, they've attacked more than 200 victims, killing two. Some people say the bees are brutal — but should you believe it? Read on and decide for yourself.


The Buzz on Killer Bees

A killer-bee sting is no more deadly than a regular bee sting. All honeybees have venom (poison) in their stingers. "Five hundred bee stings hold as much poison as a rattlesnake bite," says Margaret. People who are allergic to bee venom can die from just one sting. But most people can tolerate hundreds.

In many ways, killer bees also behave like regular honeybees. "All bees attack when they think their hive is in danger," says Margaret. To a bee, any sound or sudden motion can signal danger — like a bear or hyena out to steal honey.

But some differences in behavior make killer bees more deadly. Compared to ordinary honeybees, killer bees have:


  • Quick triggers: It takes very little to get killer bees riled up. "They can sense you walking from about two car-lengths away," says Margaret.


  • Big colonies: Hives can hold more than 50,000 bees. So lots of bees answer an alarm signal!


  • Staying power:  "A cloud of bees once followed me for 20 minutes," remembers Margaret. "Luckily, there were no holes in my bee suit!"


Living With Killer Bees

"I don't think it's possible to stop the bees altogether," says Margaret. So people are learning ways to get along with them. Here's what South American beekeepers do:


  • Avoid loud noises and sudden movements.


  • Work at night: It's cooler and bees are less active.


  • Smoke them out: "Smoke makes them think their house is on fire," says Margaret. "To get energy to fly away, they swallow a bellyful of honey. It's hard to sting with a full belly!"


As the bees move north, people in their path learn ways to avoid being stung. "It's best to leave them alone," says Margaret. If all else fails, cover your head and run for shelter!



Adapted from Scholastic's SuperScience Blue.