Africanized Honey Bees (Killer Bees)
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WEST PALM BEACH -- 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 killer-bee 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.

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! RUN! 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 experts say.

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 died.

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.

"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 attention to."




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