Unwanted colonizers stake a killer claim

Africanized bees, after 5-decade push north, attack Arizona

April 13, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TUCSON, Ariz. - From under logs, behind water meters and in the eaves of houses, they're swarming, mad as hell after two years of drought and not going to take it anymore.

Africanized "killer" bees are having a coming-out party this spring, making their presence felt from the Mexican border to the Grand Canyon.

"Big time," says Justin Schmidt, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "I'm getting buckets of them."

Fire departments in the state's largest cities are being called out a half-dozen times each day to ward off attacks with chemical foam and treat sting victims.

At AAA Africanized Bee Removal Specialists, exterminators are working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. to answer the more than 300 calls coming in daily to the company's four offices.

"This is an epidemic we're having," says owner Tom Martin in an office that's ringing like the set of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. "Every one of these colonies is a time bomb."

A bomb, he says, with a hair trigger.

Two seasons without significant rain killed off many weaker bees, leaving just the meanest of the mean. Heavy winter rains caused desert plants to bloom early, providing food for bees with a bad attitude and hellbent on colonization.

"It left us with a super Africanized bee," says Martin, a former federal bee researcher and commercial beekeeper. "The stronger the colony, the more aggressive the bees are in defending their nest."

Like John Belushi's black-and-yellow-clad thug snarling, "Your pollen or your wife," the real killer bees are wreaking havoc in suburban communities, breaking up golf games, family picnics and school recesses.

It isn't the sting that makes an encounter with the bees so memorable, it is the number of stings, experts say.

Unlike a European honeybee colony, which may dispatch a team of 100 or so defenders, the Africanized colony will send out 10,000 to 25,000. The swarm engulfs the head of an unsuspecting interloper, zeroing in on the nose and lips, says Dr. Eric Erickson, director of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Center.

"It's your breath that offends them," he says.

If that wasn't enough, the stinging insect leaves behind a scent that acts as a homing beacon for the others.

"These bees are not going to back off," says Schmidt. "They're going to sting you until there isn't one of them left."

Once in a snit, Africanized bees may stay that way for hours and fly around looking for a fight.

The bees are responsible for 1,000 human deaths in North America, eight of them in the United States. An unknown number of animals have died in attacks.

Ironically, Africanized bees "are bees as nature intended them," says Erickson. Centuries of cultivation by European beekeepers created the docile honeybees familiar to Americans.

But in 1956, bees imported from southern Africa that were part of a cross-breeding experiment at the University of San Pablo in Brazil made a break for it. The "Africanized" bees flew north at a rate of 200 miles a year.

"We like the fuzzy honeybee," says Schmidt. "We put them on cereal boxes, and they hang out with Pooh Bear. Killer bees, in our mind, are evil, like a crazed man with a knife."

Killer bees reached Bolivia in 1968, Venezuela in 1977, Panama in 1981 and Mexico in 1986. They were first detected in the United States near Brownsville, Texas, in October 1990.

Martin eradicated the first hive found in Arizona in June 1993, but he knew those bees weren't alone. Now nearly all of Arizona's bee colonies are Africanized, living in all 15 Arizona counties.

"One of the most undesirable traits is that they raise a new swarm that splits off once a month or more," says Martin.

Luckily, the experts say, more and more people are calling on professionals to eradicate swarms rather than accidentally setting their worldly possessions on fire with an ill-placed gasoline bomb.

And an educated public knows the warning sounds and signs of infestation. The colonies send out patrol bees up to 30 yards from the hive to "head butt" intruders away.

If all else fails, experts say, be a coward. "The thing that's going to save you is getting the hell out of there," Schmidt advises.

"Run away," Erickson agrees. "But don't dive underwater because carbon dioxide bubbles will give you away, and the bees will just wait for you to surface."

Martin says it's only a matter of time before the bees adapt and move farther north.

"I just don't know where this is going," Martin says, sighing. "I really don't."

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