Patrolling the California-Arizona border near Mexico, Jolene Carson is keeping watch, a modern-day Paul Revere prepared to sound the alarm.
The bees are coming! The bees are coming!
Carson, an Imperial County Department of Agriculture biologist, and her assistants are regularly checking blue cardboard boxes hanging from the creosote bushes and tamarack trees that speckle the landscape. They are looking for any evidence that the much-hyped Africanized honeybees have made their long-fretted arrival in California.
The inexorable northward march of the bees has titillated filmmakers, awed scientists and conjured visions of dark clouds of invading swarms among the rest of us since the bees were unwittingly released from an outdoor laboratory in Brazil in 1957.
Colonies of Apis mellifera scutellatus are now established just a few miles from here, across the Colorado River in Yuma, Ariz. They are expected to start showing up in traps on this side of the state line any day now.
In fact, some may already be here, undetected by biologists and yet to claim their first stinging victim.
Whenever the bees arrive, Southern Californians will soon get their wake-up call. And the bees notorious for their hyper-defensive attitude may start showing up in the Los Angeles Basin by fall, maybe sooner.
Public policy-makers have known for years that the bees were headed this way. But now that the bees are at the state’s back door, many agencies--their budgets bruised by fires, floods and earthquakes--are scrambling to prepare for their arrival.
Some public agencies are more prepared than others.
* In San Diego, the Fire Department began training in 1992 on how to rescue stinging victims. Schoolchildren will start receiving educational material this month on the bees. And a countywide task force is staging “Bee Smart Week” this month to educate San Diegans through a series of public displays and media public service announcements.
* In Orange County, where fears about the deadly and mysterious hantavirus last year triggered more than 600 calls daily to the Orange County Vector Control office, officials are now worried about being overwhelmed by even greater public distress when the bees arrive. The vector district, which historically worries more about mosquitoes, flies and cockroaches, is hiring four people specially trained to respond to bee calls, and a fifth to staff a bee hot line.
* In Los Angeles County, an Africanized honeybee task force has only decided in recent weeks which public agencies should respond to bee calls--local vector control districts. If a person is under bee attack, 911 should be called. The Los Angeles City Fire Department has ordered 1,000 bee hoods so every firefighter will have protection during rescue attempts and the county Fire Department has just developed a training manual on how to deal with the bees. Informative videos will be shown to children in the Los Angeles Unified School District on its educational channel.
* In Riverside, where the city Fire Department has not yet prepared a training manual on how to deal with the bees, one anxious firefighter quipped: “I guess we’ll wait until they get to San Diego before we start training.”
Experts do not know how quickly the bees will move north into California once they cross the Colorado River. Unlike European honeybee colonies, which separate and divide once or maybe twice a year, the Africanized bees multiply 60% more quickly and separate from their mother colonies up to six or eight times a year to establish new colonies. Because they may swarm up to 50 miles before they settle down, the bee front can move forward up to 300 miles or more in a year. Others may hitchhike on trucks, trains and ships and make the trip much faster.
Yuma is about 225 miles from Downtown Los Angeles. The bees may come by way of San Diego and hopscotch up the coast, or move through the Imperial and Coachella valleys and head west through the San Gorgonio Pass and into the Inland Empire. They may do both.
Once here, the bees are expected to find Southern California--with its ample vegetation, water, shelter and accommodating climate--quite hospitable.
Because the bees do not go out looking for trouble, most people will never confront them, experts say. When they are foraging up to two miles from their hives for nectar and pollen, or swarming to establish a new colony, they appear to be no different from, and are as benign as, their docile cousins, European honeybees.
It is usually only after the bees have had two to three weeks to establish a hive and become fully dedicated to protecting their brood and honey stockpile that they become hair-trigger sensitive to perceived threats--from up to 150 feet away.
Public safety officials say they are not sure how Californians will react to the Africanized bee threat: in fear and panic, or by stoically adding “killer bees” to the list of floods, fires, earthquakes and other unsettling disruptions that have racked the California good life.
“You’ll have to learn to live with them--and it can be done, with a minimum amount of disruption to your life,” said Elba Quintero, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist and coordinator of the national Africanized honeybee monitoring program.
Dr. Shirley Fannin of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, who is also a member of the county’s Africanized bee task force, said: “I don’t think these bees will be something we can’t master.”
The challenge to county, state and federal agricultural and health safety officials is to generate respect and concern for the bee without creating paranoia.
“There’s a fine line between preparing and scaring,” said Jennifer Tierney, San Diego County’s Africanized honeybee coordinator.
Nonetheless, the rap sheet on the Africanized bee invites fear, and public officials do not want to understate the threat.
The bees will defend their hives with ferocity if they feel they are threatened. Fickle and unpredictable, they may quietly tend to their colony for weeks or months. But if startled or upset--whether by a barking dog, a weed-whacker or a baseball gone awry--the colony can become instantly irritated and send half its members on kamikaze missions to eliminate the perceived enemy.
You may not know you have upset the bees until they’re already after you.
The bees can stay angry for an hour or longer, chasing their prey for up to a quarter-mile before giving up. In unrelenting fashion, they can plant scores, hundreds, even thousands of stingers in their target. The stingers release not only venom--which is no worse than a European bee’s--but also a scent that acts as a homing signal to draw other attackers.
It is the mass, sustained attack of the bees that won them the popular name “killer bees"--a moniker that makes biologists cringe.
But for those who have had the misfortune of raising the bees’ anger, the nickname may seem well-earned.
Three California men vacationing in Tucson survived an Africanized bee attack in January, and said it was an experience right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic “The Birds.”
The three returned from lunch and drove into their carport--and into the midst of a colony of angry bees that had already killed the family dog.
“Our (car) sunroof was open and they started diving at us like dive bombers,” said Jonathan Hartzler.
Of the trio, one man got stung 20 times; the others, less. More than 2,400 stingers were pulled from the head of the German shepherd puppy.
The bees have a propensity to go after animals more than people and to focus primarily on dark fur or hair, the colors of its natural predators, skunks and bears.
Indeed, the incidence of lethal attacks on people attacked by “killer bees” is relatively minimal. Since the first Africanized bees arrived in Texas in 1990, only one person in the United States has been killed by them: a man in Texas who, last year, tried to eradicate a colony with a flaming torch.
Since the bees arrived in Mexico in 1987, an estimated 150 people have died from Africanized bee attacks. Most victims have been elderly or young, unable to run away from the bees, and distant from emergency medical care. Some might have been allergic to bee stings and would have succumbed to even a single bee sting.
Medical experts say that half of the healthy adult population can survive as many as 1,100 bee stings; a person is more likely to die from a bolt of lightning, bee experts note. Although fatal attacks on penned livestock and domestic pets are not unusual, there are few recorded incidents in which humans have been stung more than 100 times in an attack.
In Texas, thanks to widespread public education, the incidence of bee stingings is now less than the national average. Nonetheless, California officials are braced for the worst because they believe the public is expecting it.
“I’m absolutely convinced the biggest problem will be public panic,” Bill Routhier, an Africanized bee expert with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, told 150 vector control specialists at a training seminar last month at Cal Poly Pomona.
“The media will be a problem,” he warned. “They’ll say, ‘The killer bees are here,’ and the public will flood the 911 system to the point of making it unusable.”
The pest management specialist for the Los Angeles Unified School District worries that the public will become “insect-phobic,” and overreact to all things carried on wings.
Some people would assume that the easiest defense would be to kill the bees. G. Fred Beams of the Orange County Vector Control District said a legislative aide called his office, asking that golf courses be sprayed to eliminate the bee threat. But there is no pesticide that acts on only Africanized bees, and to kill all bees in wholesale fashion would cripple the state’s agriculture industry--and drastically alter our eating habits.
Bees are deemed beneficial, if not downright necessary, to human beings; a third of a family’s grocery list consists of items that require bee pollination in some form.
Among the few chemical agents that can kill bees is soapy water, which clogs the bees’ breathing pores with a film, suffocating them. But in California, where there are insecticidal soaps on the market for use on garden-variety pests, it is against the law for such products to be used on bees.
State officials are now awaiting approval to label several products for use against bees, under certain conditions. But for now, it is technically illegal even for firefighters to use soapy water to knock down bees.
“Until there’s a product that we can legally use, we’ll use foam,” said Capt. Vern King, who heads training for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. “We’ll save lives, and take the consequences.”
People are advised not to try killing the bees on their own.
To spray an insecticide on a bee colony might kill the outer layer of bees but it could send the other bees into action, said Veda Federighi, spokeswoman for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation.
“We don’t want to give homeowners the impression that anybody other than professional exterminators should deal with the bees,” she said. “The problem is, we can’t regulate against stupidity.”
Ultimately, the experts all have the same advice about the bees: Learn to live with them because they are here to stay.
The Africanized bees will mate with wild European bees that are established in Southern California and their offspring are expected to adopt the aggressive traits of the more dominant Africanized bee. That has been the evolution since the bees began their northward march from Brazil in 1957.
“There’s no question that all of Southern California will be occupied by established Africanized bees,” said Routhier, of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. “They’ll like living with man and all the nesting sites we’ll provide.”
And Michael Pearson, the bee expert with the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, said people will have to display the same attitude about Africanized bees as they do about rattlesnakes.
“Respect them, and know their environment,” he said. “Yes, there will be a danger, but we can avoid the danger by taking certain precautions.”
Arrival of the Killer Bees
Africanized honeybees, the so-called killer bees, are now on the Arizona side of the Colorado River in Yuma. They are expected to show up in California soon and in the Los Angeles Basin by fall.
HISTORY: Honeybees are not native to the Western Hemisphere. They were brought to the New World by the early European settlers. In 1956, Brazil attempted to breed bees better suited to hot climates. But African bees brought in for the experiment escaped. The escaped bees formed the nucleus of a wild population that has since spread 200 to 300 miles per year through Latin America and into the United States.
PRECAUTIONS: Clear your property of piles of rubbish, abandoned appliances, vehicles or other items that go undisturbed for weeks at a time and could provide shelter for bees. Cover openings to water meter boxes and cover holes in drainpipes, exterior walls and foundations. Inspect your property every week or so. If you find bees, have them removed by a professional exterminator as soon as possible.
IF YOU ARE ATTACKED: Run as far as you can or get indoors or inside a vehicle. If shelter is not available, protect your head. If you are stung, do not try to pull the stingers out; pinching the venom sack will worsen the effects. Scrape the stingers out by brushing the skin sideways with something hard, such as a credit card.
ANATOMY OF A BEE Abdomen Thorax Simple eye Head Compound eye Antenna Front leg Claw Middle leg Pollen basket Hind leg Stinger Fore wing Hind wing Sources: Bill Routhier, California Department of Food and Agriculture in San Diego; Leon Spaugy and Michael Pearson, Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner/Weights and Measures; U.S. Department of Agriculture.