Drawing the line on hidden cargo Bees: A Maryland scientist has strung traps near the Chesapeake to find -- and then destroy -- any "killer bee" that slips in aboard ships.

August 10, 1996|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

About a quarter mile from the Chesapeake Bay, near an asphalt parking lot at Sandy Point State Park, there hangs a sentinel of sorts from a cypress tree.

It is Maryland's first line of defense against the "killer bee" -- I. Barton Smith Jr.'s baited bee trap.

Smith, chief bee colony inspector for the state Department of Agriculture, has 36 bee traps hanging in parks, near docks, on farms and on private tracts along the bay to see whether the Africanized honeybee -- which has killed four people in the Southwest and hundreds worldwide -- has arrived in Maryland.

His traps are intended to catch any swarm that may be hitching a ride on merchant ships in the bay.

If the sea-bound bees break from their hives to form their own colonies, they should be lured by the scent to make a home in the traps, where Smith will find them on his monthly checks.

Smith has two scented traps at Piney Point Marine Terminal in St. Mary's County; 15 scattered around Baltimore's marine terminals; and 19 straddling the Chesapeake Bay near the Annapolis anchorage, an area south of the Bay Bridge where merchant ships often stop on their way to Baltimore.

"It's nothing very elaborate," says Smith, pulling an unused trap from the bed of his tan, state-issued pickup truck at Sandy Point.

The man-made, baited hives look like large, bell-shaped flowerpots. They have a brown cardboardlike exterior and holes in their sides to serve as a doorway. Inside is a comb of beeswax and a fishhook-sized plastic capsule filled with a lemony scented lure.

Smith hangs the traps from trees and utility poles about eight to 10 feet off the ground.

"For some reason, the bees like a little height off the ground," he says, eyeing the trap at Sandy Point.

In four years, Smith's traps have caught plenty of European honeybees -- four swarms this year, 17 last year. But no killer bees.

But the traps are a necessity because the killer bee, or Africanized honeybee, has been known to sneak into East Coast ports on ships from South or Central America and already has made two unwelcome visits to Baltimore, he said.

One swarm was discovered by longshoremen unloading a container ship at the South Locust Point Marine Terminal on June 11, 1982.

Another arrived April 27, 1995, in a container shipped from Cartagena, Colombia, to Norfolk, Va. It was unloaded in Norfolk and brought by truck to the Midway Transportation Inc. truck terminal in the 3600 block of E. Monument St.

Smith said both swarms were killed with pesticides by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

APHIS, which routinely inspects ships in the port of Baltimore for bees and other insects, works with Smith by checking the Baltimore marine terminal traps.

When Smith finds bees in a trap, he seals off the entrance with a screen, waits about 15 minutes for strays to return to the hive and sprays the hive with smoke to immobilize them.

He then takes off the screen to let the strays back into the hive, seals it up and trucks it to his Annapolis laboratory, where he kills one of the bees and plucks off a wing to see if it has the smaller wings of the Africanized honeybee. If not, he gives the hives to beekeepers or keeps them for study.

Smith's work has earned high marks from bee experts and others who work with him.

"With the Africanized bees out there posing a health risk, it's important to have an idea of what's coming and what's out there," said Lawrence Doubert, an APHIS plant protection and quarantine officer in Baltimore.

Smith, who holds a master's degree in entomology from the University of Maryland, said most states probably have been spared killer bees because they are being depleted by the same mites that are killing European honeybees.

Africanized honeybees are descendants of honeybees that escaped in 1957 from an experimental station in Brazil, where they were imported from Africa by a scientist looking to increase honey production, said Hachiro Shimanuki, head of the Agricultural Research Service's bee laboratory in Beltsville.

They earned the name killer bees because by the time they entered the United States through Texas in 1990, they had been blamed for hundreds of deaths in Mexico and Latin America.

They have been blamed for two deaths in Texas and two in Arizona, and have turned up in New Mexico and California, Shimanuki said.

Shimanuki said the Africanized bees can be lethal because they attack in large numbers and defend their hives more aggressively than European honeybees, which have been used since the 1600s to produce honey and beeswax.

But Shimanuki said reports of the threat of the Africanized bees are greatly exaggerated. The ones making their way into the United States are becoming less dangerous as they crossbreed with European honeybees and their attacks are rarely life-threatening.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.