Death by 1,000 Stings: Bee Swarm Kills Hiker in County Park

A Louisiana man's life ended Thursday after a swarm of bees attacked him and a companion in Usery Mountain Regional Park, just northwest of Apache Junction.

Maricopa County sheriff's deputies say 23-year-old Alex Bestler and a friend were hiking Merkle Trail when the swarm attacked unprovoked. The friend made it to a restroom, where she was able to take shelter. Bestler was not so fortunate.

Park employees rushed to Bestler's aid but weren't able to get near him because of the cloud of bees, according to MCSO spokesman Joaquin Enriquez. Eventually, MCSO Sergeant Allen Romer and a couple of local firefighters fought their way through the swarm to Bestler, whose prone form was covered in the insects.

"I spoke with Sgt. Romer," Enriquez tells New Times. "He said this guy was completely covered in a mass of them. The park guys didn't want to go near him. Romer took one of those gators [a small off-road vehicle], and him and two fire guys just grabbed him and threw him in the gator and started driving off while they were being pursued by the bees."

Bestler was rushed to Desert Vista Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. A statement released by the MCSO says detectives and medical staff estimated that Bestler had more than 1,000 bee stings on his body. The county medical examiner will perform an autopsy  to determine the exact cause of death.

Enriquez couldn't say what kind of bees were involved, but Justin Schmidt, a University of Arizona professor, bee expert, and author of The Sting of the Wild: The Story of a Man Who Got Stung for Science says the bees undoubtedly were Africanized honeybees, which have been proliferating in Arizona since they first arrived here in 1993.

Schmidt suggested that the medical examiner look for signs of an allergic reaction to the stings, which can be fatal. Death by the sheer quantity of venom in the stings is rare, owing to the number of stings that would be required to kill a man.

"To get somebody that has 2,000 or 3,000 stings, enough to kill you really fast, is almost unheard of," says Schmidt. He suggested that the medical examiner test the remains for the enzyme tryptase, which would suggest an allergic reaction was involved.

What should someone do if they are attacked by a swarm of bees? Run.

"Just get out of there," says Schmidt, who was studying Africanized bees even before they arrived in the U.S. "Preferably downhill, because you can run faster than uphill. The bees are really the most dangerous right near their colony. Once you get as short as 100 yards away, the risk really plummets of being severely impaired or killed."

Not that you should stop at 100 yards, Schmidt added. The more distance you put between yourself and the bees, the better. Schmidt and other experts also advise that you cover your mouth, nose, and eyes, leaving a small slit in your fingers so you can see as you run. (The bees are attracted by the carbon dioxide in your breath, and if you are stung in the eyes, you could be blinded, at least temporarily.)

Dawn Gouge, an associate professor of urban entomology and pest management at U of A, suggests that if you can, pulling a T-shirt over your face can help avoid inhaling or swallowing bees. How should one avoid being attacked to begin with? First, if you see a colony of bees, "give it a wide berth," Gouge says. (Throwing rocks at a colony is a big no-no.) When in the wild, she advises, one should remain "vigilant at all times." Pay attention to what you hear, because you may hear bees (or rattlesnakes, for that matter) before you see them.

Wearing pale or white clothes is better than dark clothes, adds Gouge: Bees will focus on dark clothes. Hike in groups, if you can. And if you know you are allergic to stings, carry an epinephrine auto-injector, known as an EpiPen, which can be prescribed by a doctor. Epinephrine is synthetic adrenaline and can relieve the symptoms of an extreme allergic reaction, such as chest pains, trouble with breathing, and hives.

Death by bee sting is very rare. "There are only about 100 fatalities due to all venomous insects and spiders in the U.S. annually," Gouge notes. "And more than half of them are usually because of allergic hypersensitivity reactions."

Gouge says bees attack in order to defend their colony. When they sting a perceived threat, they release a pheromone that alerts others in the colony. "One you're labeled with that pheromone as a threat, it then triggers this reaction where all of the defensive bees in the colony will empty out and home in and target the threat," she explains.

Steve Thoenes is an entomologist and president of the Tucson company BeeMasters, Inc., which specializes in bee removals. Thoenes tells New Times that since 1993, there have been fewer than 10 deaths by bee sting in Arizona. Still, business is booming at his company, with as many as 9,000 removals from homes and businesses in Tucson in one year.

He says bee attacks tend to be seasonal, coming in April and May, and in October — times when flowers are in bloom in Arizona and bees are gathering nectar and pollen.

"The honeybee population in Tucson and Phoenix is about 30 to 40 times what was 20 years ago," Thoenes says. "It's the opposite of what you hear [from other parts of the country] with honeybees dying off."

Africanized honeybees are far more aggressive than the European version used in the commercial production of honey, he notes.

"It's kind of like having a coyote show up in your backyard," says Thoenes. "You don't say, 'Oh, I have a dog.' It's like a wild animal, versus one that's been domesticated."
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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons