A hive filled with killer bees has been found in Charleston County and state officials are searching the countryside to see if any more of the aggressive pollinators are living in the area.
Clemson University inspectors recently exterminated the colony of Africanized insects, commonly known as killer bees, in an effort to prevent the bees from spreading across the landscape.
Inspectors found the stinging bugs at a domestic bee-keeping operation outside the city of Charleston this spring.
Clemson officials say that while they think they have killed all the Africanized bees in the area, they are checking to make sure. The discovery of the killer bees is the first in South Carolina since 2001.
“This appears just to be a localized incident, but as a precaution we have depopulated the hive and are conducting a survey within a two-mile area to determine whether any Africanized honey bees remain,” Clemson inspector Brad Cavin said in a news release Monday. “Depending on those results we’ll decide whether any additional efforts will be required.”
Killer bees are more likely to attack people than honeybees that are common to North America. With less provocation, they have been known to swarm and sting people or animals hundreds of times. African bees were brought to Brazil some 50 years ago in an attempt to create a hybrid species of bee that would produce more honey.
Since then, wild populations of killer bees have been moving toward North America, but they have never reached the Carolinas.
The only killer bees previously found in South Carolina have been those that were transported to the area on airplanes, ships or by other means, experts say. The last documented case of Africanized bees in South Carolina was 15 years ago, when they were discovered inside an airplane wing in Greenville, Clemson officials said.
In the Charleston case, Cavin said he conducted a routine check of a honey bee farm near the end of April to make sure Africanized bees did not exist. Laboratory test results that came in earlier this month confirmed that the bees were not the type native to North America, he said.
“I said ‘Wow!’ ‘’ Cavin said in an interview with The State newspaper. “It’s kind of a big deal because this was from a managed colony, not like a feral or wild beehive.’’
Cavin declined to say where in Charleston County the bees were found, but he said a bee-keeping operation outside the city apparently acquired a nest of the Africanized insects without realizing it.
He estimated there were easily thousands of bees in the nest. The university, which enforces laws governing bee-keeping, is still investigating to learn more about who sold the hive and whether any laws were violated.
Cavin did not say who is suspected of selling the killer bees to the farmer, but several beekeepers said Monday they suspect the insects originated in states where Africanized bees have already established themselves in the wild, such as Florida.
Bees are often sold to farmers who want to get started in the bee-keeping business or to supplement established operations. Honey made by bees is sold on the market. South Carolina has about 2,500 beekeepers managing 30,000 honey bee colonies, according to Clemson.
A concern with Africanized bees on a farm is that they can get out in swarms, establish their own colonies and mate with local bees.
Larry Haigh, president of the S.C. Beekeepers Association, said he has seen a diagram that Clemson sent him showing the area being checked is along U.S. 17 south of Charleston. The area is near research sites managed by Clemson and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said.
Nationally, wild populations of killer bees have been confined mostly to Florida and the southwestern United States.
But they are believed to be spreading into northern California, according to news accounts. There, bees suspected of being of the Africanized strain recently swarmed, attacked and killed two small dogs. Closer to home, Africanized honeybees were responsible for the stinging death of an elderly man in Georgia about six years ago.
Dave Tarpy, an entomologist who studies bees at N.C. State University, said it is not yet known if the Africanized bees could live in the wild in areas such as the Carolinas that experience cold weather in the winter.
“They are tropical so whether they really would persist in places that have even kind of moderate winters, it’s still up in the air,’’ he said. “They’ve kind of baffled scientists and all predictions throughout their entire 50-year history in the Americas. It’s hard to say whether they will be a natural part of the environment or not.’’