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The Latest Buzz : ‘Killer Bees’ on the Way--Still--but No Need to Panic

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Orange County has been bracing for the invasion of “killer” Africanized honey bees for so long that the dire warnings now sound something like a cheap horror movie trailer.

But county officials insist that the pesky insects are on their way--though they have all but given up trying to guess exactly when the bees will arrive.

“Everyone who’s predicted it so far has been wrong,” said Dennis Loughner, who heads the county’s three-person “killer bee” response squad. “But I’m tell you they are coming. And they’re getting real close.”

Los Angeles County’s agricultural chief is a more daring prognosticator, predicting last week that the bees could swarm into the region within a few months. A utility crew in Blythe was recently attacked by “killer bees"--a sign the swarm is inching north.

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The Orange County Vector Control District is doing little to change the public’s increasingly nonchalant attitude about the bees. Gilbert L. Challet, the district’s director, said he hopes residents will remain calm and clearheaded once the bees buzz into the county.

“Our greatest fear is that the news media hype will be so great that people won’t use their common sense,” Challet said.

So the district has embarked on a tricky campaign to inform residents about how to deal with the “killer bees” without creating a panic.

In the process, officials have tried to soften the insect’s menacing image by reminding audiences of the bees’ many contributions to society, from producing honey and wax to pollinating fruit, vegetables and flowers.

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Officials insist that the Africanized honey bee’s nickname is greatly exaggerated. The Africanized bee is no more venomous than the common European bee and looks almost identical. The newcomers, however, are more aggressive and can attack in massive swarms if they feel threatened. Swarms of “killer bees” have been known to sting their victims hundreds of times.

They have been moving north from Brazil since 1956 when a large group of the insects escaped from a cross-breeding experiment. Americans began taking the bees seriously in 1990 when they crossed the border into Texas.

A Texas rancher was killed by a swarm three years ago in what was considered the bees’ first U.S. casualty. But swarms have also been blamed for at least five deaths in Mexico and dozens of deaths elsewhere in Latin America over the last four decades.

But local concerns seem to have waned somewhat because no one can predict when the bees will land in Orange County. Officials first set 1992 as the arrival date, then pushed it back to 1993. Last year, the vector control district predicted an invasion by this winter.

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Loughner said the bees have been found as far north as the Salton Sea, about 80 miles from the county line. But because the Africanized bees are difficult to identify, he warned: “They could be here already. We just might not have detected them yet.”

The district is constantly monitoring traps in northern and southern Orange County, the bees’ most likely entry points. Workers regularly empty the traps and send samples that resemble the Africanized variety to a state lab for sophisticated DNA identification.

Once the insects are detected, the county’s crack “bee team” will spring into action. Workers will respond in force to calls from residents who report seeing the bees. Their weapon: sprayers that squirt a lethal dose of a soap-like substance onto the insects.

Officials expect to field the most calls in the months just after the bees are discovered. Within a few years, however, the county plans to transfer most eradication functions to private pest control companies.

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As they wait for combat, Loughner and other “bee team” members have embarked on an ambitious public education campaign, speaking to more than 100 schools, service groups and charity organizations about how to deal with the “killer bees.”

To the relief of officials, most audiences seem not to be panicking over the threat. “The public needs to take a balanced view of this,” Challet said. “But whenever you have a lot of hype, there’s going to be a percentage of the population that will get worked up.”

The squad tells children to avoid taunting or throwing objects at the bees. Adults are told that loud noises like those made by lawn mowers can frighten the bees and cause an attack.

Vector control officials urge people to check their backyards for a buzzing sound or other signs of bee nesting before using power equipment or taking part in outdoor activities. Homeowners should also take care when entering garages, sheds and other “outbuildings” that might contain the insects.

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“You just have to prepare and prepare and prepare for it,” Loughner said. “We won’t know how well we did until the bees actually arrive.”


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