The Africanized honeybee might not arrive in California until 1992 or later, but San Diego and Imperial county officials intend to make good use of the time to plan the fight against the aggressive bees when they do arrive.
The Africanized Honeybee Task Force met Thursday for the first time to begin an 18-month planning mission. The project is a joint effort of San Diego and Imperial County boards of supervisors, said Kathleen Thuner, San Diego County agricultural commissioner.
The members which include government officials and representatives of schools, agriculture and health services, will produce an action plan similar to an earthquake preparedness plan, Thuner said.
"We will produce an action plan for responding so that everyone knows what their role will be," she said. The plan will be a guide for health, fire, police and park officials, doctors and school teachers should they encounter a swarm of the bees or a bee-sting victim.
Task force members will also prepare a plan for getting the word out to the general public about the bees. "We may ask county school districts to take a lead role," Thuner said. By educating children about the Africanized bees, the task force hopes to reach parents too. The Africanized bees are descendants of African bees brought into Brazil in 1956, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Researchers attempting to breed a more productive honeybee than the European honeybee accidentally released the more aggressive African bees into the Sao Paulo countryside. The African bees interbred with the more docile, European bees, producing a hybrid that defended its nests more vigorously and swarmed more often to expand to new locations.
Since then, the bees have spread to Mexico and may cross into San Diego County in 2 to 5 years directly from Mexico if the bees make their way up Mexico's Pacific Coast or through Imperial County if the bees move west from Texas, according to authorities.
The arrival of the Africanized bee is not cause for panic, task force participants agreed. However, the public needs to develop a healthy respect for the bees and avoid bee swarms much as they would a rattlesnake, Thuner said.
"The odor associated with a sting draws more stings," said Eric Mussen, an apiculturist from the University of California, Davis. People who have died from the bee stings have been those who "hung around" entranced by the sight of the swarm, he said. "What they should have done is leave the area as quickly as possible and get into a vehicle or a building."
The effect of multiple stings is similar to a rattlesnake bite, said Dr. David Haynes, a Kaiser Hospital emergency room physician. The venom begins taking effect within 10 to 15 minutes and can cause breathing difficulties, shock, lowered blood presure, muscle damage and death if left untreated.
In Mexico, a joint U.S. and Mexican program has worked to educate the public to report swarms and has slowed the northward spread of the bees, said Mary Yurkovich, spokeswoman for the cooperative program.
The Africanized and European bees look the same, but once people understood the importance of reporting wild swarms to protect Mexico's honey export trade, people were very cooperative, Yurkovich said. The bees were controlled with bait traps and by knocking them down with sprays of soap and water.