Find a message in killer bees
It's a vivid, strangely compelling scene that takes us out of the news drudgery. And it has meaning, describing ecosystem invaders and many people's gut-deep fear of nature.
A 53-year-old man was tooling a backhoe around a Las Vegas yard on Saturday, and he flipped up a boulder, exposing a large colony of Africanized bees. From local reports:
Witnesses described it as a scene from a horror film … the man jumped from the backhoe, trying to escape by running into a vacant yard, but was brought down by the stinging horde … Reports say the man suffered more than 2,000 stings …
"The colony was disturbed. (The bees) start head-butting you … boom-boom-boom …"
When paramedics arrived, the man was shirtless and on his hands and knees … "His back was literally covered in hundreds of bees … They could barely see any skin. It looked like just a black mass on his back" … Firefighters sprayed the insects with water to knock them off … but many stingers remained in his skin.
(Today the victim) remains hospitalized … He is expected to recover, but hospital workers literally had to pull stingers from his body one at a time.
It's tempting to fall into the hysteria around these so-called "killer bees." However ...
As I wrote in a 2002 High Country News cover story that's still fresh:
It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. And you could say that several times over ...
... When 26 bee colonies from Africa were brought to Brazil by a scientist in 1956, it was an attempt to boost that country's honey production ... But a year later, African queens escaped captivity and began spreading like crazy on their own, taking over regular honeybee colonies either by force or interbreeding and asserting dominant genes, and occupying many niches held by native bees. Soon, Hollywood was churning out cheap horror movies like The Swarm and Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare.
The front shifted from country to country as the Africanized bees picked up speed and killed an estimated 1,000 people in Latin America. They invaded Texas in 1990, Arizona and New Mexico in 1993, California in 1994, Nevada in 1998.
… They've stung four people to death in Arizona ... As many as eight more people have been killed in New Mexico, Southern California and Texas. There is disagreement about how many deaths the killer bees can be blamed for: Do we count the bulldozer driver in Texas who jumped off to run from bees and got run over by his own machine?
Let's avoid hysteria and recognize these bees have become part of our ecosystem, like tiny wolves. And some people are making a profit on what my story called "The Buzz Business" …
… We find the swarm in the backyard, clinging to a tree branch. It's a writhing, solid mass of maybe 12,000 bees surrounding the migrant queen. The swarm is resting on the branch. (Tip) Tisdale and Paul Gerard, another Triple-A pro who rolls in, discover that the swarm has just split from a big colony under a storage shed. We suit up again and the pros attack the swarm in the tree and then the colony under the shed. They use a smokepot to slow the bees, a soapy spray that clings to the bees and clogs their breathing, and the pesticides. Ripping up the floor of the shed to expose the colony, they find the eerily beautiful fins of honeycomb, pupae in the wax cells, and the emergent queen. It's sweaty work in the thick protective gear, staving off the bees' defense. Thousands of dead little bee bodies curl on the ground. But it only takes about an hour and half to do this job and present the bill: $600.
Tisdale's cell phone keeps jingling. On an average day, he estimates, he does six service calls; on a busy day, he averages 10 to 15. Triple-A's going rate is roughly $200 per hour per man on the jobs I observe, split between those on the front and the head of the company, who does the dispatching. Triple-A is probably the biggest anti-killer-bee company in the world, with five pros in Tucson and eight in the Phoenix metro area, a statewide toll-free number and 24-hour-a-day dispatching. Even the company's name is a marketing ploy - AAA to be first in the Yellow Pages when customers under siege are looking for bee removal in a hurry.
I'm beginning to see that this is a story not only of ecology, but also of the good old resilient American instinct to make a buck out of anything that presents itself.
As this map shows, the killer bees keep spreading in the West and across the southern tier to Florida.
Wonder how the doctors count and remove hundreds of stingers?
Let's close with some reflections I stumbled into on the front lines:
… The relationship of the killer bees to the bee removers captures me. There is a sadness to it. Really, the killer bees are just trying to defend themselves. Every bee that reacts to a predator dies, once it delivers the sting.
... The people who specialize, rattling around in their trucks loaded with ladders, prybars, saws, drills, and the chemicals and soapy sprays that do in killer bees with only a few wisps, understand. They deal with a creature they respect and sympathize with.
... Kent Griffith, a brawny, affable cancer survivor who is BeeMaster's point man in the field, mostly works in a T-shirt, gets stung maybe 100 to 150 times a day, and says you get used to it. It's as if he wants to give the bees a chance to leave their mark on him. Or, as if the bees help him feel alive after the cancer. After all, there are people who believe in the medicinal properties of bee stings.
... We brought the killer bees from Africa for our purposes and the truth is, honey production in Brazil has soared, just as the importer hoped, and the bees have not escaped our grasp. As Griffith finishes off the few thousand that are left in this place, several fly out far enough to pop against me. I watch one stinging my black leather camera strap with its incredible determination (many predators have dark fur) and listen to its high-pitched song, until it gives up the stinger and falls into the dirt.
Shortly, we get a call about a swarm in a tree in a Target store's parking lot. Off we go.