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Panel Mulls State’s Next Assault on Killer Bees

Times Staff Writers

State agriculture officials, frustrated in their effort to hunt down and destroy missing swarms of Africanized honeybees, appointed a five-member scientific advisory committee Monday to help decide the next step in dealing with the so-called killer bees.

The committee, headed by Norman Gary, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis, considered among the leading experts on the bees, will make recommendations to Food and Agriculture Director Clare Berryhill on all aspects of the problem, including the politically sensitive issue of whether to destroy thousands of hives of domesticated bees in a 400-square-mile quarantine area of Central California.

Officials moved to play down the possibility of wholesale destruction of domestic bees on Monday, saying that it is a “last resort” option.

A committee recommendation could come as early as today, when the panel is to hold its first public meeting in Bakersfield.

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The decision to convene a scientific committee is similar to one made during the 1981 effort to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, which represented a major threat to California agriculture.

Deukmejian Keeps Distance

In that case, the committee recommended aerial pesticide spraying over vast areas of the state. Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. hesitated, delaying the spraying, a decision that haunted him for the rest of his term and during his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.

Gov. George Deukmejian has kept his distance from the bee problem, allowing day-to-day developments to be handled by Berryhill, who recently handled problems created by discovery of tainted cheese and watermelons.

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Announcement of the committee’s formation came as scientists revealed evidence that the colony of Africanized bees discovered in this tiny community about 45 miles northwest of Bakersfield is an active and reproducing hive containing at least four queen bees. Scientists believe that at least three of the four queens escaped the nest with swarms of the insects and may have established colonies elsewhere.

The bees, thought to have been brought into the country with oil equipment shipped from South America, are called killer bees because, although they are no more venomous than the European variety of domestic bees, they are much more aggressive and likely to attack animals and people who disturb them.

Close study of the nest indicates that the original queen and two “emergent queens” hatched in the hive left the burrow about June 20, several days before a skip loader driver found the swarm in a burrow and covered the insects with asphalt. Researchers said another queen apparently stayed behind but may have burrowed to safety along with a small swarm of bees.

A team of 25 scientists and state officials has blanketed the 400-square-mile quarantine area surrounding the discovery site but has turned up scant evidence of where the queens and their swarms have gone or if they are still alive.

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Len Foote, who is coordinating the search for the state Food and Agriculture Department, said preliminary tests conducted on 97 apiaries in the quarantine area, containing a total of 9,200 hives, turned up one “positive reaction.” The test used in the search consisted of striking the hives with a hammer and observing the bees’ reaction. In only one case did the bees appear excessively agitated, in a manner typical of Africanized bees. State officials took samples from that hive for testing but did not destroy it.

The Africanized and domestic honeybees are impossible to distinguish by sight, and Foote said it takes an average of 30 hours of testing to determine whether a particular bee is of the Africanized type.

Hundreds of Calls

Foote said the department also received hundreds of calls from people who have claimed to see wild bees or unusual swarms in the area.

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At one point on Monday, Gary, who was helping lead the search, was chased by a swarm of wild bees found in a steel pipe in the Lost Hills area.

A department spokesperson said the fact that the bees pursued Gary with great vigor was “a real indication” that they were of the Africanized variety. Gary later said, however, that there is a “high probability” that the insects are domestic honeybees.

The hive has been covered by screens to prevent the bees from escaping until scientists can positively determine whether they are of the Africanized variety.

“We are on a search-and-kill mission,” Gary told reporters at a press conference earlier in the day, adding that the state is following all leads, killing wild swarms of bees that are found and sending samples to state laboratories for testing.

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At the same time, however, Gary said he recognizes the possibility that one or more swarms of Africanized bees may have already flown out of the quarantine area and established colonies. He said, however, that the state does not have the resources to expand the search beyond the existing boundaries.

Although officials including Berryhill had raised the possibility of aerial spraying of the bee quarantine area, scientists say that would do little to penetrate underground colonies like the one discovered in Lost Hills.

On Monday, state officials also began to deemphasize earlier predictions that all domestic bees in the area would have to be destroyed if officials fail to locate the Africanized colonies. That option could cost the state an estimated $500,000 in compensation for beekeepers and put a permanent dent in the state’s bee-related agricultural business. Domestic bees are used for pollinating crops and for producing honey and beeswax.

During Monday’s press conference, Gary called reports of wholesale bee destruction “rumor, only rumor. This is not in our plans at the moment.”

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Queens May Be Removed

Instead, Gary and others said it may be possible to simply remove and destroy the queen bees from domestic hives in the area periodically and exchange them for European honeybees. That would gradually eliminate queen bees that might have mated with Africanized drones, and any Africanized bees that result would be far outnumbered by the European variety.

Beekeepers in the area were dismayed by reports that destruction of domestic bees was under consideration, despite assurances that they would be compensated by the state. The president of the Kern County Beekeepers Assn. warned that some beekeepers might try to smuggle their hives out of the area if they were displeased with the compensation offered.

In 1984, California beekeepers earned $27.8 million in pollination fees and $19 million in honey sales. The state’s production of 31 million pounds of honey accounted for 15% of the national total.

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State Sen. Ruben Ayala (D-Chino), chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee, said he is glad that officials are turning to experts for advice, but he warned that delaying the final decision too long on a plan of attack could have political consequences similar to the Medfly case.


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