The killer bee man of Bisbee

An Africanized bee pollinates flowers on Agua Caliente Trail in Tucson, Arizona. Photo by McKinzie Frisbie / Arizona Sonora News Service.
An Africanized bee pollinates flowers on Agua Caliente Trail in Tucson, Arizona. Photo by McKinzie Frisbie / Arizona Sonora News Service.

We’ve all seen the cartoon. Some loony character, flailing his arms, jumps into the lake to escape a swarm of raging bees.

But since Africanized hives are spreading further north into the states, here’s some life advice: Don’t jump in water.

“They’ll wait all day for you to come up and breathe,” said Reed Booth.

Booth (a.k.a. the Killer Bee Guy) is a bee exterminator and owner of killer bee honey shops in Bisbee and Tombstone.

He is constantly on call, waiting to respond to multiple law enforcement agencies about bee problems in the area. And it’s a good time for business.

Luisa Valencia of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department said that calls about hives and attacks have been unusually high this particular bee season (May through October). All bee calls to the sheriff’s department are directed to Booth.

He is the “go-to” bee guy of Cochise County. And he’s been busy.

Reed Booth.
Reed Booth.

This year, the highly aggressive Africanized bee population has risen by at least a thousand percent in Arizona, Booth said. He usually receives an average of five to ten service calls every day.

At one point this bee season, he was swarmed with 30 to 50 calls a day, a staggering number in his almost 30 years of experience.

“With the Africanized bee, it’s always a good time for business,” said Booth.

Bee swarm populations exploded in late March, Booth said, and nobody knows why. Swarms have increased at a rate of “biblical proportions,” Booth said, and the bees are setting records.

“This has never happened before,” he said. “A bomb went off—a bee bomb.”

Exterminators are seeing 20 to 40 percent more swarms than they’ve ever seen, Booth said. The current estimated population in Arizona alone is 4 million to 8 million wild swarms, with anywhere from 7,000 to 10,000 bees per swarm.

And they’re damn mean.

Known religiously as the “killer” bee, this hybrid species is known to defend its hive relentlessly when disturbed, viciously attacking anything—or anyone—in their path.

They are even known to attack inanimate objects like tires and telephone poles.

The barbed stinger design allows the venom vessel to remain implanted in a target, while the bee disembowels itself in its suicidal struggle to fly away. Venom continues to pump from the extracted sack into its victim.

But what gives the killer bee its infamous reputation is not its venom nor body style. In fact, killer bees produce slightly less venom than European honey bees. And both bees’ barbed rods execute their missions the same way.

It’s their violently territorial attitude– the relentless pursuit and fight to the death– that warrants the name “killer.”

Once a killer bee stings, the injected venom emits pheromones that trigger a bulls eye for the rest of the swarm to target. It only takes seconds for a full swarm to assemble, stingers out and ready for battle.

The Africanized bee is a hybrid mutation—considered one of the most successful invasive species in the world—that originates from Brazil, where a scientist named Warwick Kerr became interested in importing African bees for his studies.

Kerr asked the Brazilian government to allow him to bring in African bees, and his wish was granted.

The African bees were imported into South America for two reasons, Reed said. First, they are excellent producers, making twice as much honey that is twice as sweet than the European honey bee.

Honey samples outside of Booth's killer bee honey shop in Bisbee, Arizona.
Honey samples outside of Booth’s killer bee honey shop in Bisbee, Arizona. Photo by McKinzie Frisbie / Arizona Sonora News Service.

The African bee was also noted for its physical strength, ability to survive harsher environments, and resistance to disease compared to its sicklier European counterpart. The hope was that African bees could be cross-bred, allowing an increase in crop pollination.

But one day in 1957, 26 African swarms accidentally escaped captivity.

The African bees, frolicking in their newfound freedom, bred with the land’s existing European bees to produce the new species Apis mellifera scutellata Lepeletier.

Or, the killer bee.

Booth makes a point to clarify that African bees are not aggressive, and neither are European honey bees.

Their offspring, the Africanized or “killer bee,” is the one with a raging temper. Reed tells people the swarm attacks are “ten times worse” than the Hollywood movies portray them to be.

The hostile species has since migrated its way north, finally crossing the southern Arizona border in 1993.

There are an estimated four million to eight million hives in Southeastern Arizona, Booth said, of which averages 40 to 60 thousand bees per hive.

And each hive produces up to 30 swarms each year.

As swarms search for a new place to make home, they form a large group on a branch to rest.

Resting bees in between established homes are usually docile. But this year, responders are witnessing a significant increase in aggressive behavior of resting bees, Reed said.

Danger comes when the bees are assumed to be in a calm state, but may actually swarm and attack within seconds.

Africanized swarms are more likely than European swarms to settle in unlikely places, causing friction between the rightful residents and intruding occupants. With lower standards, they may choose to build unsuspecting dwellings near residential or business areas.

Booth gives two reasons why bees attack. The first cause is the honest ignorance that a bee or hive was nearby, and someone accidentally provoked the swarm.

Booth at work. Courtesy of Reed Booth.
Booth at work. Courtesy of Reed Booth.

And the second reason?

“People are dumbasses,” Booth said.

He recommends bee removal for trained professionals only. People are often stung by bees because they attempt to get rid of the problem themselves.

And these bees are resilient. Booth recalled an extreme example of this resiliency, describing a client who had a persistent killer bee hive fastened on the bumper of her car.

She finally called Booth after trying to get rid of the bees by driving 80 mph on the highway on three separate occasions.

The bees didn’t budge.

Each time Booth responds to a bee complaint, there is always the chance of getting stung—even through the carefully designed bee suits. And it hurts.

“If I get stung on the arm, I cry like a little girl,” Booth said. “I’m Superman in my suit. Without it, I’m a little girl.”

Bees are still able to penetrate the mask, and once the venom’s pheromones (which Booth says smells “almost sexy”) is released into the air, the swarm quickly assembles and the havoc begins, Booth said.

“If it didn’t make bees want to kill you, I’d make a cologne out of it,” Booth said.

The first question Booth asks when arriving to a scene is: “Has anyone been stung?”

If homeowners are stung by a bee, Reed warns them to not go near bees for a week. The venom circulates through the body for about seven days, which causes an immediate alarm for bees to attack the designated target zone.

Each time a person is stung, they become more susceptible to the bee’s venom. Physiological response to enough venom can cause the body and organs to fail, Booth said. He’s been stung thousands of times.

Killer bee venom isn’t all bad, Booth said. It is used to treat multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

The average person is able to survive 15 stings per pound of body weight, Booth said. However, it is possible to die from just one sting.

To survive an attack, the Department of Agriculture recommends covering your face, head, and neck with clothing while running as fast as possible, in a straight line, away from the bees.

The department also advises to avoid stopping to help anyone else. Run for a building or vehicle, and call 9-11 immediately.

Bees that are unresponsive to smoke used to calm their behavior can not be saved for later release. Booth hoses down tens of thousands of bees with hot soapy water, killing the attackers instantly.

As the angry swarm decreases dramatically in number, they soon give up, forming a small cluster of what was once a massive army.

Then, the Killer Bee Guy really gets buzzing. He extracts around 20 pounds of honey per job, but has been in the business long enough to score hundreds of pounds from a single site.

Booth says honey is referred to as “bee barf.” Nectar is brought into the bee’s honey stomach, and is exchanged hundreds of times between bees back at the hives. Each time it mixes with an enzyme that creates honey. The process takes about a month.

Almost all bees used for farming in the United States are Africanized, Booth said. And people know the pollination benefits of having a hive around. However, Booth helped authorities write the law in Arizona that states it is illegal to have a hive in a town or city limits.

Booth attempts to save as many bees as possible from these missions so that he can release them into uninhabited areas.

“These bees are resistant. And the fact that they swarm so much, it’s a blessing and a curse,” Booth said. “They’re doing the pollination and they’re making the honey, but they’re mean as hell.”

McKinzie Frisbie is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at mckinzief@email.arizona.edu.

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos.

One comment Add yours
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    Ward Johnson

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