South Carolina dodges bullet with Africanized bees

Officials extract samples of bees from a suspected Africanized hive in Charleston County.

Photo courtesy of Clemson University

PENDLETON – More extensive genetic testing has concluded that a hive of suspected Africanized bees were predominately the less volatile European honeybees, said officials with the Department of Plant Industry at Clemson University.

The hive in Charleston County was destroyed in May after the bees attacked the beekeeper and other bystanders over the course of several days, sending one individual to the hospital for multiple epinephrine shots.

Clemson Department of Plant Industry Apiary Chief Brad Cavin drew two separate samples from the hive. Testing conducted by the USDA Agricultural Research Service Carl Hayden Bee Research Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, and the Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspection in Gainesville, Florida, returned initial results indicating a 93 and 95 percent probability, respectively, that the hive was comprised of Africanized bees.

“More extensive genetic testing of the bees was requested, which took nearly four more weeks, but we’re happy to report that the final results came in confirming the hive as European,” Cavin said.

“Both species are defensive. The difference is to what degree,” he said. “There are 28 subspecies of hybrid bees with varying degrees of aggressiveness. With hybrid bees, specific identification without genetic testing is exceptionally difficult.”

“The aggressiveness of this hive required us to act immediately in this case,” said Mike Weyman, deputy director of Clemson’s Regulatory Services unit, which oversees the Department of Plant Industry and is the designated state agency to safeguard the health of South Carolina’s crops, forests and landscape plant industry. “We were acting out of an abundance of caution, which is part of our job protecting the people and agricultural industry of South Carolina.”

Cavin said the results from the USDA genetic test do not indicate the percentage of genes the hive possessed from either the European or African varieties.

The Department of Plant Industry is preparing to invest in a laboratory that will allow for such genetic testing of bees locally to speed such identification in the future.

Weyman praised the cooperation of stakeholders in the process, including the state and local beekeeper associations that have assisted in vigilance and education of their members.

“South Carolina has so far managed to dodge the bullet with Africanized bees, and the cooperation and professionalism of our beekeeping community is the most important reason why,” Weyman said. “Suspected Africanized hives are rare and have not managed to gain a foothold in our state. All the stakeholders in this industry can be proud of that achievement.”

About 2,500 South Carolina beekeepers manage about 30,000 honeybee colonies in South Carolina. These colonies produce 1.2 million pounds of surplus honey annually and pollinate countless plants in fields, gardens and landscapes. Nationally, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in added crop value each year.

In addition to its Honey Bee Program, Clemson’s Regulatory Services unit protects the state from exotic and invasive species, ensures that pesticides are used safely, regulates the structural pest-control industry, verifies that fertilizer and lime meet standards and labeled guarantees, conducts programs for seed and organic certification, provides diagnosis of plant pests and ensures readiness to respond to a catastrophic event impacting the state’s agriculture.

Officials extract samples of bees from a suspected Africanized hive in Charleston County. extract samples of bees from a suspected Africanized hive in Charleston County. Photo courtesy of Clemson University
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