Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Killer Bees in New Orleans

Killer Bees Picture
Africanized honey bees ("killer bees") have been identified in New Orleans, the furthest east that they have been found in the state of Louisiana. This is not an unexpected event, as this variety of stinging insect appears to be spreading across the United States and will likely eventually reside across the entire nation, unless contained by some environmental factor.

“Killer bees” are an Africanized race of honeybees created by interbreeding of the African honeybee Apis mellifera scutellata (brought for experiments into Brazil) with common European honeybees. The hazard from these bees is that they tend to be more irritable, sense threat at a distance greater than their European counterparts, swarm more readily, defend their nests more aggressively and stay agitated around the nest for days, and impose mass attacks upon humans. The venom of an Africanized bee is not of greater volume or potency than that of a European honeybee. However, the personality of the Africanized bees is such that they may pursue a victim for up to 2/3 mile (1 km), and may recruit other attacking bees by the hundreds or thousands. A victim may be stung 200 to more than 1,000 times; it is estimated that 500 stings achieves the lethal threshold. The bees unfortunately appear to be adapting to colder temperatures.

The sting mechanism for a honeybee is composed of a doubly barbed stinger attached to a venom sac that pumps venom into the victim. When the bee attempts to escape after a sting, the stinger and sac remain in the victim (this kills the bee) and continue to inject venom. Thus, the honeybee can sting only once, whereas a wasp, with a smooth stinger that does not become entrapped, can sting multiple times, as can yellow jackets, hornets, and bumblebees.

Pain from a bee, wasp, or hornet sting is immediate, with rapid swelling, redness, warmth, and itching at the site of the sting. Blisters may occur. Sometimes the victim will become nauseated, vomit, and/or suffer abdominal cramping and diarrhea. If the person is allergic to the insect venom, a dangerous reaction may follow rapidly (within minutes, but occasionally delayed by up to 2 hours). This consists of hives, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, swelling of the tongue, weakness, vomiting, low blood pressure, and collapse. People have swallowed bees (undetected in beverage bottles) and sustained stings of the esophagus, which are enormously painful.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.