Going head-to-head with killer bees

Los Angeles struggles to cope with invading African killer bees

02-01-2001 // Michael Tennesen

Killer bees? In my neighborhood? That's what the Los Angeles Times was claiming in an article I came across. In fact, the paper said that in Torrance, California, just 3 miles from where I live, about 60 percent of bees are now "Africanized"--descendants of bees imported from southern Africa to Brazil in the mid-1950s that are known for their aggressive, sometimes deadly, attacks on anyone who disturbs a nest. The story scared me.

Deciding to face the enemy head on, I called the Los Angeles County government and requested permission, as a journalist, to go on patrol with county officials. A week later, I found myself climbing down from a truck parked in the hills above the city and donning a bee-proof suit, property of Los Angeles County Vector Control, an agency whose job it is to wipe out the invasive insects. Vector control technician Robert Cueva helped me get into a pair of stiff canvas coveralls and slip a thick, mesh face net over my head.

Soon we were on the roof of a garage, where we located a swarm of Africanized bees that had gathered on a tree branch. Cueva took out a portable vacuum cleaner and started sucking the bugs off the limb into a special container. As the bees grew excited, and began to buzz and swirl around our heads, he told me how they'd stung the last reporter he'd brought along--on the face right through that "bee-proof" net.

How could this be happening here in Los Angeles? Two decades ago, when John Belushi dressed as a chubby killer bee on Saturday Night Live and bellowed, "Your honey or your wife," killer bees were hot news. Newspapers from coast to coast warned readers of the pending invasion of these exotics, which were spreading steadily northward from South America. But in recent years, the press has scarcely mentioned Africanized bees, although the bugs are now thriving in several states. The bees, it seems, were forgotten--but they're not gone.

It was Warwick Kerr of Brazil's University of San Pablo who, in 1956, inadvertently created the monster. In an attempt to develop a commercially useful pollinator that was both adapted to the tropics and as gentle tempered as the European honeybee, he began to cross African and European bees in the laboratory. But before Kerr could complete his work, some highly defensive offspring escaped from his laboratory and began moving north at a rate of more than 200 miles a year.

The bees crossed the U.S. border into Texas in 1989 and have now spread throughout the southern portions of that state, as well as Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Adapted to tropical and subtropical climates, the insects may stop before reaching Wisconsin, but entomologists are reluctant to speculate just where the invasion will end. Indeed, scientists never expected the bees to move as far north as they already have.

They've definitely arrived in Los Angeles. According to Robert Saviskas, executive director of the Los Angeles County West Vector Control District, about 20 to 30 percent of the bees the agency now brings in are Africanized. He estimates that it will be only another two years before the exotics take over all of the county's European hives that are not actively managed by beekeepers.

Swarming Africanized bees, like those we encountered on the roof, are not themselves dangerous. Nor do the insects attack people when they are out gathering water or nectar. In fact, it's only after the bees build combes in their nests, start storing honey and produce young that they become hyper-defensive.

"These bees have a level of aggression you can't even imagine," says Robert Page, professor of entomology at the University of California-Davis. "If you went up and kicked a European honeybee nest and stood there a minute, you would likely get 30 stings. If you kicked an Africanized nest, you'd more likely get 1,000 stings." Even the noise of lawn mowers and weed wackers may initiate defensive behavior. And once disturbed, the insects can stay agitated for a full day, attacking people and animals up to a quarter mile from the nest. Recently, Page mapped a gene that may account for the Africanized bee's intolerance to disturbance. When one of the insects stings you, this gene may be responsible for leaving behind a trace of a pheromone that attracts large numbers of nest mates.

The first fatal Southern California attack took place in August 1999, when an 83-year-old beekeeper in Long Beach (20 miles from my home) bumped into a hive in his backyard with a lawn mower. Indeed, most victims of bee attacks in Mexico have also been elderly or infirmed people who are unable to run away.

So far, such multiple-sting attacks are rare in Los Angeles. Page believes it's because the bees are still new to the city. Typically, it takes two to three years for Africanized bees to become established and to exhibit their trademark defensive behavior.

In Tucson, Arizona, for example, where Africanized bees have been found since 1994, stinging incidents involving humans have increased up to tenfold since the insects first arrived. According to Eric Erickson, director of the Carl Hayden Bee Research Laboratory in Tucson, "incidents of 30, 50 and 100 stings have now become common." He says that the bees have killed several horses, as well as dozens of dogs, across the state. And since they broke out of quarantine in Brazil over four decades ago, Africanized bees have taken more than 1,000 human lives in the Americas, up to 8 of them in the United States.

Erickson and other entomologists have some simple advice for anyone who is attacked by Africanized bees: If possible, get quickly into a car or building and shut the bees out. Don't shout or swat at the insects; this will only antagonize them further. If you cannot get inside, cover your face and eyes with your jacket or shirt and run. Keep running until the bees are out of sight. Do not play dead (the bees will continue stinging) and do not dive into water (they'll just wait for you to come up for air).

Finally, if you do live in an infested area, try to keep the risk in perspective. Experts say that the likelihood of being stung is minimal and that the chances of being killed are on par with getting zapped by lightning. Such figures sound comforting, but they were not comforting enough as I stood atop that roof, bees bouncing off my face and body, wondering just how "bee-proof" that get-up really was. It turned out that the suit worked just fine, though. I ended my one-day killer-bee adventure without getting a single sting.

California journalist Michael Tennesen wrote about tiger sharks in the August/September 2000 issue.

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