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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Killer Bees Head for California

Air Date: Week of

Stephanie O'Neill reports from San Diego on preparations for the arrival of aggressive honey bees slowly moving north from Mexico. The so-called "killer bees" interbreed with conventional honey bees. They threaten both humans and the state's number one industry, agriculture.


CURWOOD: In a relentless genetic juggernaut, Africanized honey bees are slowly making their way from South and Central America into the United States. Some swarms of these so-called killer bees have already interbred with hives in Texas, and now as Stephanie O'Neill reports, southern California is bracing itself---both for the threat to public health, and to the state's top industry, agriculture.

(Sound of fire captain on radio)

FIRE CAPTAIN: San Diego Engine 8 is at scene, person down in field, appears to be a swarm of bees around, we're going to have the paramedics stage to the rear two blocks to the north of us and we'll advise.

(Fade into fire engine)

O'NEILL: For the past year, the 900 firefighters in the San Diego City Fire Department have been staging mock rescues like this one, and attending special killer-bee briefings to ready themselves for the imminent arrival of the aggressive Africanized honey bee. To protect themselves from the attacking swarm of insects, they wear full safety gear -- including heavy coats, boots, air masks and hoods. And before going near the bees, they tape down their sleeves and pant legs with gaffer tape, closing off any passages for the bees. Then, armed with water hoses, they move in for the rescue -- washing the bees off the victim.

FIRE CAPTAIN: OK, open it up. Steven, cover us. (Sound of water)
Doin' fine, let's move up a little closer, a little closer, little closer -- come on, knock 'em down. Pressure, Dave, pressure . . . (fade under)

O'NEILL: Several hundred people in South America have died in killer bee attacks since the late fifties, when a few dozen were imported to Brazil from Africa and then accidentally released. The bees are a sub-species of honey bee and are very similar in appearance to the European honey bee we find in our backyards. Their venom is no stronger than the European bee, and like them, they can sting only once. But the behavior of the Africanized bee is radically different. They aggressively defend their hives. If a person or animal comes too close, hundreds of bees -- not just a handful -- will begin attacking the intruder, chasing them for up to a half mile. Some victims have suffered up to two thousand stings. Still, Captain August Ghio, who oversees the killer bee training for the San Diego Fire Department, says they're relatively easy to avoid.

GHIO: If somebody is in an area where there's a bee hive that's attacking, run. Bees are slow-moving insects, and if you can run at a half mile and it doesn't have to be a sprint, you will outrun the bees.

(Sound of bees buzzing)

O'NEILL: But the danger of the bees is of secondary concern to Alan Michaledge, a beekeeper and president of the California Beekeepers Association. Here in a neatly plowed freeway-adjacent field just north of San Diego, Michaledge keeps up to two million bees.

(Sound of bees up and under)

O'NEILL: On this particular afternoon, he shoots puffs of smoke into the hives.

MICHALEDGE: We've smoked the hive so that we can open it. The bees sense that possibly their hive's on fire, so they want to gorge themselves full of honey and it's hard for them to get out their stinger to come out and sting you.

O'NEILL: Michaledge makes some money from the honey these bees produce, but the real income for beekeepers comes from renting the bees to farmers for crop pollination. However, when the Africanized bees arrive, it may mean an end to such service. That's because the killer bees will share hives and interbreed with the docile honey bee. Initially experts believe the interbreeding would lessen their aggressiveness, but so far, it hasn't. Beekeepers, meanwhile, fear health concerns associated with the bees will prompt officials to impose quarantines on hive movement. Michaledge says that could devastate the beekeeping industry.

MICHALEDGE: One of our main concerns is that the state or Federal government might impose a quarantine on us to where we're not able to move the bees for pollination. A lot of these colonies get moved to three, possibly four pollinations in a year, besides being moved for honey.
O'NEILL: So what could that mean for you and the beekeeping industry in the state?
MICHALEDGE: We could be out of the bee business.
O'NEILL: And what could that mean for the state in terms of agriculture and things like that?
MICHALEDGE: It could pose a real problem.

(Sound of office)

O'NEILL: David Kellum, a killer bee expert and supervising entomologist with the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, agrees. Kellum says California has about half the number of bees it needs to pollinate all its crops. That means farmers here must bring in out of state beekeepers to make up the difference. A quarantine could force them to stay away.

KELLUM: We have about 600,000 colonies in the state year-round, and we need another 600,000 to do the pollination for California alone. If pollination is not available, then you will see increases in the prices for a lot of the produce and food that we produce in California.

O'NEILL: And that could translate into higher produce prices nationwide. State officials, who are besieged by the pesky Mediterranean fruit fly, have yet to take action. Texas, which has been battling the bees for more than two years, requires all hives be certified killer-bee free before beekeepers can move them. Those housing the aggressive bees are destroyed. And so far, no human has been killed in a bee attack there. But David Kellum of the San Diego Department of Agriculture says such efforts can only slow the bees. Nothing will stop them from spreading to warm regions of the nation. With that in mind, San Diego is focusing on public education because learning to live with killer bees is the key to safety. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in San Diego.



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