Killer bees responsible for brutal Broward attack


Published: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 18, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

FORT LAUDERDALE — The attack was terrifying. As a young woman tried to wash her dog behind her Fort Lauderdale house, thousands of bees swarmed around her and began to sting.

"There's these bees in our backyard — they attacked all of us — they're in the whole house, they're all over the house, and we're inside a room and there's bees everywhere and we don't know what to do," Nicole Sinder, 18, told a 911 operator.

"And they bit me over 20 times and they bit my boyfriend. They bit my sister and my dog. My dog is hyperventilating."

The Dec. 26 attack was confirmed Tuesday as the work of Africanized honeybees, the aggressive variety that have become known as killer bees. While these bees have been discovered 11 times before in Broward County, this is the first known incident in which they've stung anyone here. Everyone who was stung in this incident recovered, including the dog, according to Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue.

Africanized honeybees are the same species as their more docile cousins, European honeybees. The physical differences are so subtle that it took a computer analysis of such attributes as wing length and the angle of certain veins to establish that Africanized bees were responsible for the Fort Lauderdale attack. And the sting of an Africanized bee is no more dangerous than that of an ordinary bee.

But Africanized bees are far more aggressive, both in attacking people near their nests and in seizing territory from other bees. Since arriving in Florida five years ago, they have spread through most of the peninsula, and experts expect them to soon be found throughout the state. Since it would be impossible to eradicate them, agricultural scientists and emergency response officials are trying to find a way to learn to live with them.

"Africanized bees dominate any environment," said Gerald Hayes, an assistant bureau chief responsible for bees in the Florida Department of Agriculture. "In South Florida we're seeing this transition. They're spreading. They're spreading to suburban areas. Barbecue grills. Mailboxes. You're going to see more interactions with the public, pets, livestock. They love water meter boxes. They might be able to get into your attic. We're finding them under overturned flower pots."

Emergency responders are learning how to deal with them. While a bee discovery in Miami Gardens in 2005 left firefighters fleeing with bees inside their protective suits, firefighters are now establishing procedures for handling bee incidents.

Fort Lauderdale has sent some firefighters to classes and has disseminated information on how to deal with them. In handling the swarm last month, firefighters used a chemical foam normally used to suppress fires involving aviation fuel but found to be effective in killing bees, said Steve McInerny, assistant Fort Lauderdale fire chief.

"It's an incident that certainly is a lesson to make our people aware that the bees are here in Broward," he said.

Credit for bringing us these aggressive, stinging insects belongs to a researcher who brought African bees to Brazil in 1956 and crossbred them with European honeybees. Released into the wild the next year, they began swiftly spreading north. U.S. officials tried to erect a barrier of nets and traps along the Panama Canal, but the bees got through. They reached Texas in 1990 and Florida in 2002, with the first sighting reported in Tampa.

In 2005, they stung a city meter reader in Port St. Lucie and stung a horse to death in Hendry County. They stung goats and sheep to death last year in Boca Raton. To monitor the bees, agriculture officials have set about 500 traps around the state, particularly near ports that handle ships from other countries. As pollinators, the bees perform a useful service, agriculture officials said.

What's important is for people to learn to respect them and live with them.

"It's not like we're trying to eradicate them," said Mark Fagan, spokesman for the state agriculture department in South Florida. "They perform well in our type of climate. They get called killer bees, but they're not exactly killer bees. They're very aggressive in defending their territory."

Just as Floridians have learned to live with the state's other forms of wildlife, which can arrange from annoying to deadly, they can learn to live with the bees, said Hayes, the state's bee expert.

"We certainly don't need it," he said. "But then again, South America and Mexico haven't dropped off the map and neither will the United States. Eventually this will become background noise, like fire ants and poisonous snakes."

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