Killer bees set up shop in Florida
By Robert P. King
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 14, 2006
As if hurricanes, roaches, sea lice and insurance bills weren't bad enough,
Floridians can add a new menace to their list of worries.
Killer bees are here. And they're going to change your life.
After decades of hype and cheesy disaster movies, Africanized honeybees
have established a foothold in Florida, bringing a hair-trigger temper that
makes them a threat to farmworkers, landscapers, meter readers,
firefighters and basically everyone who ventures outdoors.
In St. Lucie County, thousands of bees nesting below ground near water
meters swarmed onto unlucky utility workers late last year, though not
fatally. Separate attacks killed two dogs near Miami and Sarasota, along
with a horse near LaBelle west of Lake Okeechobee. Africanized bee
colonies have turned up in ports throughout the state, including Fort
Pierce and the Port of Palm Beach, and have been suspected at tourist
attractions such as Busch Gardens and Downtown Disney.
Nobody knows how to stop them. So Floridians will just have to adapt —
just as they've learned to nail plywood before hurricanes and scan lawns
for fire ant mounds.
That means residents should "bee-proof" their homes, sealing any
openings that could allow the insects to turn attics and walls into killerbee condos, experts say. People also should look out before starting lawn
mowers, whose noise can provoke the bees, or opening potential nesting
sites such as sheds and barbecue grills.
Lightning a greater hazard
Those are already realities from Texas to California, where the bees
showed up in the 1990s after a decades-long march from Brazil to
Mexico. California firefighters receive training in rescuing bee victims,
while Arizona educators have drawn up bee lesson plans for children as
young as kindergarten age. (One tip for handling a bee attack: "RUN!
But experts say the bees are just one more potential hazard in a state
teeming with them. They say people are more likely to be struck by
lightning than killed by bees.
"We live in a state that has fire ants that actually kill people," said Jerry
Hayes, assistant chief of apiary inspection for the Florida Agriculture
Department, which is including bee brochures in its display at the South
Florida Fair. "We have scorpions and spiders and boa constrictors and all
those scary things."
David Barnes, a bee technician for the department, said he already has
had to placate panicked callers, including a landscaper's wife. "I told her
he has more to worry about about yellow jackets."
So far, the Africanized bees haven't killed anyone in Florida, the
department says. They have killed roughly 1,000 people in the Americas,
including at least 14 in the United States, since the bees' ancestors
escaped from a Brazilian lab in 1957.
Unlike Hollywood's fictional killer bees, the real-life ones don't roam the
countryside looking for people to kill. They're slightly smaller and no
more venomous than the docile European strains prized by beekeepers.
But what the Africanized bees lack in size, they make up with a severe
lack of anger management.
All honeybees defend their hives, but the Africanized bees erupt against
disturbances that European bees might shrug off — a noisy leaf-blower
or nosy dog, for example. And they attack in much greater numbers.
"People end up with 300, 400, a thousand stings," said Bob van der
Herchen, who runs a bee removal service in Englewood, south of
Sarasota. Five hundred stings might be enough to kill a child, federal
Hayes said the deaths that have occurred "have been horrific," noting that
the bees' favorite stinging targets include the nostrils and the mouth. "It's
a very gruesome way to die."
Once angered, the Africanized bees stay agitated for as long as 24 hours,
posing a continuing hazard, Barnes said.
In September, a swarm of Africanized bees trapped three residents in
their Miami Gardens home and attacked several firefighters, three dogs
and two television journalists after someone tried to move the log where
the bees were living, The Miami Herald reported at the time. One dog
Near LaBelle in Hendry County, Imogene Risner said her niece was
washing a horse near their home last year when a cloud of bees attacked,
besieging the animal's head and face. The horse died that night after
suffering about 2,000 stings, she said.
Hayes' department then performed DNA tests on hives that Risner's
husband, an amateur beekeeper, was tending nearby. She said the state
workers killed all 40 hives with soapy water after several of those tests
came back positive for Africanized genes — a result she disputes.
Education will be key
"Bees are temperamental," Risner said, adding that after the execution,
"We had a mess all summer. The honey was run out and the flies was
coming from all directions."
Other incidents are less clear-cut. Last month, Palm Beach County
sheriff's officials said bees attacked nine deputies, three burglary suspects
and a dog during a chase through woods west of Lantana, putting three
deputies in the hospital. But nobody saved any samples, so the state
couldn't determine whether they were Africanized bees, European bees or
even yellow jackets.
Bee removal expert Ronnie Sharpton, owner of Palm City-based Alpine
Farms, said not all mass bee attacks involve Africanized bees.
"The only time we run into aggressive bees is when someone else has
been aggravating bees by throwing rocks or spraying them," he said. He
urged people to leave all bees alone and let professionals handle them.
Hayes' agency continues to try to slow the Africanized bees' spread by
maintaining hundreds of baited traps at ports and other key locations. But
now that the bees are here, education will be a major strategy.
"We can be safe," Barnes said. "Maybe this is one more thing to pay