Killer bee expert: 'They're the worst nightmare you can imagine'

Published: Jul. 9, 2015 at 5:54 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2018 at 4:22 PM MST
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(Source: Trez M. Garvin)
(Source: Trez M. Garvin)

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Since they arrived in the United States in 1990, Africanized honey bees have all but exterminated their European counterparts.

They are undeniably the most aggressive honey bees in the world and are responsible for at least 1,000 deaths in the United States alone, there is a reason they are called killer bees.

"It isn't a dimmer switch with them. It isn't oh, they're a little angry," said Reed Booth, a Bisbee-based bee removal expert. "It's an on/off switch. They don't care about you at all -- and the next second you're dead."

Booth knows firsthand.

During a large-scale removal several years ago, he was covered from head to toe in killer bees and would have likely died had it not been for firefighters standing by to spray them off.

"Because in 15 seconds, you can have 15,000 angry bees out, and they've chased this truck for two miles," Booth said, pointing toward his work vehicle.

Known professionally as the Killer Bee Guy, Booth's been featured on National Geographic, The History Channel and news outlets across the nation.

Bigger, more aggressive hives are making headlines.

An 84-year-old Oro Valley man was stung at least 2,000 times last month, and a Texas farmer was killed just last week.

Although some experts said the killer bee problem is two or three times worse this year in terms population and the number of colonies, Booth said its much worse than that.

"It is not two or three times," Booth said. "I've been doing this 30 years, it's 20 to 30 times the normal number of bees."

Not only are there more bees and more hives, Booth said he is also seeing behaviors he's never seen before.

If threatened, killer bees release a pheromone that tells the entire hive to attack.

This is happening with greater frequency, he said. When it does, everyone is in harm's way.

"Big bee incidents, where there's so much pheromone in the air, the bees are just going goofy. I've seen them stinging tires, telephone poles, birds flying overhead," Booth said.

Such was the case on June 3 this year, when an elderly man on a quiet Oro Valley street was attacked near his storage shed.

It was so bad, emergency responders couldn't see the man's arms, legs or face, because they were covered in bees.

Miraculously, the man survived thanks to a neighbor who heard his screams and pulled him to safety. But with so much venom to his system, his quality of life may never be the same.

"You've got 50,000, 100,000 bees out, it only takes 500 to equal a rattlesnake bite," Booth said. "The problem is, you don't know what's going to set them off."

"Just like what happened in Oro Valley," Booth said, "it's just a nightmare, you can't outrun them. It's the worst nightmare you can imagine."

In Sierra Vista, Booth has been called to one residence in particular several times in the last few years. An out-building on the property contains at least five or six established hives inside the walls. With roughly 50,000 bees per hive, Booth estimated a quarter million bees are living inside.

The building is used as a personal gym and racquetball court for 86-year-old Dick Pino.

"I exercise in here every morning," said the physically-fit looking senior. "And then when the bee problem came...I was afraid to come down here."

One neighbor has been stung, he said, and there have been countless close calls with kids who walk to the bus stop nearby.

When Pino heard about the elderly man stung 2,000 times in Oro Valley, he said he told his wife to call Reed Booth to get those bees taken care of.

Booth warns anyone who sees bees entering or leaving any size space that there is probably a swarm inside with at least 40,000 to 50,000 killer bees, adding to never spray into the hole or try to handle it alone.

"You're only going to kill those waiting at the front door," he said.

Facts about Africanized Honey Bees (provided by Reed Booth) :
  • Africanized bees are slightly smaller than the European honey bee, but only an expert can tell them apart
  • They defend their hive more rapidly than the European honey bee.
  • They usually sting in greater numbers.
  • They are less selective about where they nest.
  • Africanized bees swarm more often than European honey bees.
  • They also do not have stronger venom than the European honey bees.
  • Eat nectar and pollen and make honey.
  • Are not native to the U.S.; they came from Africa
 General Precautions:
  • Be careful wherever bees may be found.
  • Listen for buzzing – indicating a nest or swarm of bees.
  • Use care when entering sheds or outbuildings where bees may nest.
  • Examine work area before using lawn mowers and other power equipment.
  • Examine areas before penning pets or livestock.
  • Be alert when participating in all outdoor sports and activities.
  • Don’t disturb a nest or swarm – contact a pest control company or the county Cooperative Extension office.
  • Teach children to respect all bees.
  • Check with a doctor about bee sting kits and procedures if sensitive to bee stings.
  • Remove possible nest sites around home and seal openings larger than 1/8” in walls and around chimneys and plumbing.

As a general rule, stay away from all honeybee swarms and colonies. If bees are encountered, get away quickly. If stung, try to protect the face and eyes as much as possible and run away from the area. Take shelter in a car or building. Hiding in water or thick brush does not offer enough protection. Do not stand and swat at them as this will only cause them to sting.

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