Africanized honeybees pose a threat to Hawaii agriculture


Africanized honeybees, like the one shown here from Florida, look nearly identical to a common honeybee — the main difference is in their behavior. Africanized honeybees are not known to be in Hawaii and residents can help prevent them from becoming established by reporting unusually aggressive bees to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture’s Apiary Program. -- Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services photo

In 2011, alert harbor workers in Honolulu noticed bees inside a container of medical supplies shipped from Long Beach, Calif. They closed the container and notified the Hawaii Department of Agriculture. The container was fumigated and the DOA sent the bees in for genetic testing. They were Africanized honeybees.

Honeybees are fairly widespread in Hawaii, both in managed and feral hives. But we don’t have the Africanized honeybees that are present in much of the southern United States and Central America.

Africanized honeybees are nearly identical to their six-legged relatives kept for honey production. They look the same and they produce honey, but they are much more aggressive in defending their hives. Even something as insignificant as a barking dog can trigger bees to attack and 10 times as many bees will descend.

“It’s of particular concern when the person can’t get away from the attack,” says Noelani Waters, an entomologist with the DOA’s Apiary Program. For the elderly, young children or those with bee allergies, an attack can be fatal. “They have come already once,” says Waters. “It’s very possible and extremely likely they will make it here again.”

With that in mind, the department has set up swarm traps around the harbors and airports. Monitoring around the airport is through the Mamalu Poepoe project, an interagency cooperative group that works to stop invasive species from reaching Hawaii through airports. Every six weeks or so, crews walk around Kahului airport peering in gigantic, brown papery pots mounted about head height and baited with a pheromone to attract bees. These are swarm traps, designed to be the perfect landing place for swarming bees in search of a place to start a new hive. The goal is to intercept any Africanized bees before they become established.

Noelani Waters (center) of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture shows Maui Invasive Species Committee early-detection specialists Forest and Kim Starr a swarm trap at the Kahului Airport. These containers are designed to look like the perfect home for a swarm of bees looking for a place to build a hive. These traps are set up at harbors and airports throughout the state in hopes of intercepting Africanized honeybees arriving in cargo. -- FOREST and KIM STARR photo

African honeybees were first introduced to Brazil in 1957 with the goal of breeding honeybees better able to produce honey despite the heat and humidity. Unfortunately, they escaped quarantine before the less-desirable traits — like their aggressive behavior — could be bred out of them.

The introduced drones hybridized with surrounding bees and continued to spread, taking over existing hives. Africanized honeybees spread north through Central America and into the southern U.S. They first showed up in 1985 in California, traveling in contaminated cargo.

By 1990, they had expanded from Mexico into Texas and are now spread from Florida to Southern California. Cooler temperatures likely limit their spread farther north, but the tropical climate of the Hawaiian Islands is hospitable to these bees.

Hawaii has native bees — the solitary yellow-faced bees — but honeybees are introduced. Beekeepers brought these insects to the state in 1857. Initially, they were introduced to increase kiawe pollination, used at the time as a high-protein cattle feed. Today, honeybees in Hawaii are some of the world’s highest honey producers.

The lack of Africanized bees and overall health of Hawaii-raised honeybees have led to a $10 million per year queen bee export industry. According to Waters, hives queened with Hawaii-raised bees are key to the pollination of almond crops in California every spring. Hawaii supplies 25 percent of the queen bees for the Mainland and 75 percent of the queen bees imported to Canada.

Hawaii’s agricultural industry would suffer if Africanized honeybees reached our islands. These aggressive hybrids also threaten human health and safety.

You can help. Report particularly aggressive hives, feral or managed, to Waters and her colleagues at the DOA’s Apiary Program at (808) 974-4138.

Learn more about the program at

* Lissa Strohecker is the public relations and education specialist for the Maui Invasive Species Committee. She holds a biological sciences degree from Montana State University. Kia’i Moku, “Guarding the Island,” is prepared by the Maui Invasive Species Committee to provide information on protecting the island from invasive plants and animals that can threaten the island’s environment, economy and quality of life.