Bees are an important part of the environment and agriculture. They pollinate flowers to produce many of the foods we eat. But as we all know, they can act in defense of their nests and sting us to protect their young and honey.

There are two types of honey bees in San Diego: European bees and Africanized bees. European honey bees are the traditional type kept by beekeepers. They’re used to pollinate crops and produce honey, and they’re generally found in white boxes stacked in fields or in your neighbor’s garden. European bees are the more docile domesticated bees.

It is difficult to differentiate the European honey bee from the Africanized. Here’s a bit about each:

  • The European honey bee is found living in nests of 5,000 to 15,000 members per hive. Honey bees live year around and stay dormant in the winter. They can be seen as a giant swarm migrating or as 5 to 20 bees buzzing around structural openings.
  • The Africanized honey bee looks like the European honey bee. Though un-noticeably smaller in size, the Africanized honey bees are very protective of their home and can attack to defend it in great numbers. They may stay aggressive for days after being disturbed. They become aggravated by loud noises and vibrations, and are provoked by certain smells such as fresh cut grass, bananas and the breath of mammals.

The swarms and nests of the wild or uncultivated bees around San Diego are mainly Africanized bees, or so-called “killer bees.” Africanized bees overtook Southern California more than a decade ago. These bees react defensively to common disturbances, especially to vibrations such as lawn equipment. They are more aggressive, attack more readily in greater numbers, and chase their target for longer distances.

Bees are not a threat when they are visiting flowers and you are standing at a safe distance. If you see bees flying overhead in a large group, that is a swarm and they are trying to find a new home. The swarms land and form a cluster the size of a football and may land on a sidewalk, a car, the side of a house or a tree. Swarms are only temporary and hang around usually just a couple of days. They are generally not a threat if left alone.

Hives, on the other hand, are a stationary nest of honey bees, where they raise their young and store their food: the nectar, which is made into honey, and pollen collected from flowers. Bees are territorial around their hive and will react defensively if disturbed. Honey bees often nest in dark, quiet, protected places such as eaves, attics, trees, shrubbery, openings around pipes, chimneys, gutters and down spouts, abandoned vehicles, under the lid of compost piles, abandoned tires and utility boxes. You can tell it’s a hive when bees are making regular flights in and out of a main door or opening. Be more cautious around a hive; especially since most wild hives in San Diego are aggressive Africanized honey bees.

A honey bee swarm or nest will have a distinct buzzing sound. Loud motors of lawn equipment – such as weed whackers, mowers or trimmers – will mask the cautionary noises of a buzzing hive. Before you start your machinery, you may want to take a walk around the area and listen and look for bees from the ground to the trees.

And if you encounter a swarm or bee nest?

  • Do not disturb or swat at the bees.
  • Do not panic if you spot a nest; just move away slowly and deliberately.
  • Keep children and pets away. If the bees are disrupted already, move to a safe location.
  • Alert your household and neighbors about the potential danger, and consider using cones or flagging tape to show where it is.
  • Evaluate whether it is a swarm or a hive from a safe distance.

Bees are useful, but if they begin to interfere with your normal outdoor activities, put children or pets at risk, or are damaging property, it is time to seek professional help in controlling them.


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