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Rescue Officials Prepare to Cope With Killer Bees : Invasion: The inexorable northward march of the Africanized honey bee, scheduled to reach San Diego County within two years, has many concerned.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The briefing at the San Diego Fire Department last week turned from the routine to the unthinkable: Africanized honey bee. Killer bees.

And even these hardened veterans of crisis and fear couldn’t contain their anxiety.

“Jesus Christ,” one old-timer muttered as he contemplated the kinds of rescue missions his men may be called upon to perform, tactics not found in existing training manuals.

Fire Capt. Jeff Carle went through his color slides and showed the video from Texas where the bees already have claimed a third of the Lone Star state.

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Carle talked of how thousands of agitated bees will attack a single target in defense of their hive, and how firefighters in full gear--with duct tape closing openings to their skin--will pull victims to safety.

Another fireman sighed a vulgarity, and a vial containing two Africanized honey bees was passed from one to another for close inspection.

Slow but unstoppable, the front is moving toward California’s second-largest city, their first metropolitan stop in the state.

The bees heading this way now are in the Mexican state of Sonora, 170 miles south of the U.S. border. Given their 300-mile-a-year flight, they’ll be in Tucson by next year. Experts figure one flank will veer west and follow the Gila River to the Colorado River near Yuma. Then they’ll spread north and west again, swarming across Imperial County, from one irrigation canal to the next, and claim San Diego County as theirs.

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And it will happen by sometime in 1994, if not sooner.

Within six months of their arrival in San Diego, authorities worry, 10 million people in Southern California will be exposed to the ravages of the Africanized honey bee, this hyperactive misfit that mistakenly was let loose by a Brazilian beekeeper in 1957. It has wrought damage and hundreds of deaths along its path ever since, multiplying from the initial 26 renegade swarms to more than 2 million colonies today.

Now all those wisecracks about killer bees in South America, those visions of B-grade Hollywood horror films, are evolving into serious government talk about how to prepare for the bees when they enter Southern California.

State officials say San Diego County is, for good reason, leading the preparations.

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* Kathleen Thuner, San Diego County’s agricultural commissioner, went to Washington on Friday as California’s task force representative to meet with federal officials for an update on the bees and to try to wrest money to deal with the problem here.

* Service organizations are being asked to “adopt a school” by donating $50 or more to help pay for materials to educate children on how to avoid the bees, and what to do if caught in a potentially deadly swarm.

* County officials are looking to recruit and train volunteers to answer telephone hot lines, knowing the existing bureaucracy is understaffed to handle the kinds of calls they expect when the bees get here. In Texas, hot lines are handling 700 bee-related calls daily, and the numbers are increasing.

* The San Diego Fire Department is training its officers and writing a bulletin for other public safety agencies on how to rescue victims from bee-swarm attacks by knocking the bees down with high-pressure water sprays.

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Entomologists are plotting just how far north these warm-climate Africanized bees might travel. Some say no farther than the Los Angeles basin. Others paint a worst-picture scenario that finds the bees hugging the Pacific coastline all the way to Vancouver, Canada, perhaps dying off in the cold of winter, only to be followed by new waves the ensuing spring.

Los Angeles County Health Department, Agriculture Department and Fire Department officials are mapping their own strategies in regular meetings.

Entomologist Bill Routhier wants to slam the door on the bees near the state line by luring them into tens of thousands of traps at a bottleneck along the Gila River in Arizona.

Still, “probably nothing will stop them,” said Routhier, state Department of Food and Agriculture manager for San Diego and neighboring counties. “We’ll have to learn to live with them. The sooner we learn that, the better off we’ll be.”

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San Diego County officials talk of preparing for the bees in much the same way they discuss preparing for The Big One. They use terms like emergency preparedness, coordination, public education. And trying to avert panic.

“Panic isn’t appropriate,” said San Diego County Supervisor Susan Golding, who chairs a task force to confront the Africanized honey bee’s arrival.

“In San Diego, we’ve accepted the fact we have poisonous, potentially deadly rattlesnakes in our back yards and canyons, and that, when children go out to play, they need to watch for that. That’s going to have to be the same when the bees come.”

Still, it’s hard to deny the potential for fear because this “bee with an attitude” comes with a long rap sheet.

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The singular Africanized honey bee is virtually undistinguishable from the docile European honey bee that now hovers from one flower to the next. Only under a microscope does the Africanized bee show its smaller size. Indeed, it packs slightly less venom than its European counterpart that was brought here by the Pilgrims.

But here’s the kicker: The European bee, which is not easily prone to anger, might only send out a dozen bees on a stinging raid if its hive is upset or threatened within a few feet. The Africanized bee hive, though, is sensitive to incursions within 30 or 40 feet, and will immediately send out thousands of bees in defense--and still more if the threat isn’t considered neutralized. Moreover, after the first bee finds its target, it plants a banana-like scent on the victim to act as a beacon for the other raiders.

“You can walk away with 500 to 1,500 stings,” Routhier said. The healthiest of persons probably can’t survive 2,000 stings, and for those whose allergies can cause major illness from even a single bee sting, the fear is justified.

Also, unlike the European bee, which tends to hole up in trees or under structural overhangs, the Africanized bee will make its home just about wherever there is protection from rain and direct sunlight: under mobile homes, inside tires, beneath abandoned cars, inside irrigation pipes, under tile roofs, in water-meter boxes, in crevices that lead to the insides of walls, beneath shrubbery or even simply in protected ground holes stolen from skunks or coyotes.

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Taken alone, the foraging Africanized bee, making its rounds among flowers, isn’t considered dangerous. But the established hive must be avoided.

“More than half of the stingings we’ve had are associated with mowing the lawn, weed whacking or the use of other motorized equipment. The noise and the vibration sets them off,” said Kathleen Davis, a spokesman for Texas A&M; University, which administers that state’s bee programs.

Once the hive is set into defensive attack, the advice is simple, Davis and others said: Run like hell in zig-zag fashion, and then run some more--for 200 yards or more, if necessary.

The bees cannot keep up with a running person over long distances. If you can, cover your head as best as possible without blocking your vision. Try to find shelter, in a house or a vehicle.

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Do not jump in water for immediate relief because the bees will be there waiting for you when you come up for air.

So far in Texas, no one has been killed by these bees, which first arrived in the border town of Hidalgo in October, 1990. But the incidence of bee encounters is rising markedly. From then until a month ago, about 35 stinging cases had been documented. But in the past month alone, an additional 65 cases or so were reported.

Death estimates in Central and South America range from 100 to 4,000.

San Diego officials have turned to Texas for advice and help, including models of school education programs. That education program, Davis said, went far in quelling potential panic in the face of the oncoming bees.

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After the bees appeared in San Antonio, the city trained volunteers to serve as “bee masters” to conduct public education forums, and health officers hired a worker to remove suspected Africanized bee hives.

Their methods include smoking the bees to quiet the hive, then dosing it either with insecticide or with soapy water that removes the bees’ exterior wax protection before drowning them.

“Having funds available to hire people to remove hives goes far in stopping public panic,” said Davis.

San Diego County officials say they don’t have the resources to remove bee hives here.

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The San Diego Fire Department, for instance, says it has neither the money nor the inclination to get into the beehive-removal business.

“Of the first 70 beehives removed by fire departments in Texas, none turned out to be Africanized,” said San Diego Battalion Chief George Stepanof, who sits on the local bee task force. “They were the equivalent of false alarms.”

Said Thuner, county agricultural commissioner: “Ten years ago, government would have raised the tax and built a new empire to deal with a problem like this. Instead, we have to go after this piecemeal, and we recognize that the time-line is actually really short. We have two years to address both the fears and the reality.”

One fear is held by the agriculture industry, because Africanized bees are less effective pollinators and honey producers. Growers worry too that the public will clamor for a wholesale eradication of bees, which would cripple the industry because of its reliance on the pollinators.

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There is no pesticide that selectively eradicates the Africanized bee, and little hope is held that these angry bees will be subdued by cross-breeding with the docile, virtually domesticated European honey bee. Scientists, however, are studying ways to sneak the European queen bee into an Africanized hive by trying to chemically cloak it as an Africanized queen.

“Politicians have to realize that 300 miles a year is a tremendous distance, said Routhier of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Once the bees cross the Colorado River, they can be in downtown Los Angeles in a year, he said. “A lot of people are thinking we still have time. You don’t.”


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