Swarming Trend

The state has given up on trying to save residents from Africanized killer bees that have swarmed into the state by the millions in recent years.

Although the bees have killed three people -- two in the Valley and one in Casa Grande -- and reports of attacks by bees defending their hives are increasing, state officials say there's nothing to do about the aggressive bees except learn to live with them.

The state's already spent $300,000 to try to deal with the bees, which began migrating into Arizona in the early 1990s. By 1993, the bees had killed their first victim -- a Tucson dog.

And they reproduced like crazy -- developing 30 to 33 new colonies a year (each containing thousands of bees), 10 times the rate of their European honeybee cousins.

"In my opinion, there was nothing we could have done to stop them," says Steven Thoenes, the former head of the state Department of Agriculture Africanized bee program.

Agriculture department spokeswoman Jill Davis says other countries have had no luck trying to stem the tide of Africanized bees. So state officials decided that after the 1994 emergency appropriation, it would be pointless to throw more money at the problem.

Now, the department's Web site declares that the state does not handle bee issues. A state bee hot line was shut down four years ago.

Thoenes says the state program was not really aimed at stopping the bees' migration. Instead, it was an educational effort -- telling Arizona authorities and residents how to best handle the aggressive bees when they encounter them. Traps were set not to catch and destroy the bees, but to monitor their travel, he says.

Thoenes, a former scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Carl Hayden Bee Research Laboratory in Tucson, says a parasitic mite also killed European honeybees. That plus the killer bees' rapid proliferation in Arizona means Africanized bees have virtually replaced their mild-mannered kin throughout the state.

Bred in South America, the bees love tropical weather and won't be migrating much farther, says Thoenes, who now operates a bee removal company in Tucson. In Arizona, the bees prefer Phoenix and Tucson, enjoying the same amenities human newcomers do: temperate weather and year-round supplies of food and water courtesy of lush landscaping, pools, canals and fake lakes.

Authorities say they have no better advice now than they did years ago: If you see a hive or swarm, call a bee removal company. If the bees begin stinging you, run -- don't flail your arms and don't jump in a pool. If you see someone being attacked by a swarm, call 911.

A University of Arizona bee project at its Maricopa Agricultural Center hopes to take bee education a step further, offering lesson plans for teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade. The lessons stress the importance of Africanized bees in agriculture as well as how to live with them.

The curriculum includes such things as coloring sheets for younger kids in which they can identify where Africanized bees build nests and journalistic activities for teenagers in which they are taught the meaning of the word "sensationalism."

Phoenix Fire Department spokesman Bob Khan says firefighters have been getting a steady number of calls reporting bee attacks. Last year, he says, firefighters responded to 147 calls; this year there have been more than 60. Firetrucks are equipped with a foam that can kill swarms of bees. They also carry medicine for people allergic to bee stings.

Non-emergency bee calls are referred to bee removal companies. The Valley's Yellow Pages list 48 such firms, some promising 24-hour service.

Thoenes says bee removal companies have multiplied as quickly as the bees. When he started his company in 1994, he says, there were four such services in the Tucson phone book. He was called out on 400 bee removal jobs. Last year, he says, he shared space with 32 competitors in the phone listings and he answered 3,500 calls for service.

He says a new type of trap -- offered by pest control companies for $25 to $50 a month -- has proven effective in catching swarms of Africanized bees.

All the humans killed in the U.S. by Africanized bees have been elderly, Thoenes says, because they can't run as fast and are lighter in body weight than others who have been stung. Thoenes says unless they are allergic to bees, most people can withstand 10 Africanized bee stings per pound of weight.

He contends that only the three fatalities in Arizona -- in the midst of millions of Africanized bees -- proves that educational efforts are paying off.

"Africanized bees are not a major public health issue, they're a pest control issue," Thoenes says.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin