YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

'Killer Bee' Swarm Crosses Into California


RIVERSIDE — A swarm of the feared Africanized "killer" honeybees has finally reached California--landing inside a prison near Blythe, where they were promptly killed, officials announced Monday.

"They're here and we're going to have to live with them," Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner Jim Wallace said of the bees' long-expected arrival in California.

That assumes--as experts do--that more bees will follow.

The ones that prompted Monday's announcement were discovered Oct. 24 and destroyed the same day by inmate firefighters at the Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, 20 miles west of Blythe, authorities said.

A basketball-size swarm of bees landed atop a fence post about 50 feet from the pedestrian entrance to the prison and were doused with industrial-strength foam spray, then drowned in diesel fuel.

Microscopic examinations at three different government labs later identified the bees as the hyper-defensive honey makers that have swarmed north from Brazil since their release there in 1957, creating anxiety and "Here they come!" Hollywood hype along the way.

But the migration turned lethargic as it approached California and local bee experts in September speculated that the bees might not arrive until spring.

The Africanized bees have now settled along the eastern banks of the Colorado River from Yuma--where they appeared a year ago--to Poston, Ariz., 80 miles north, according to Bill Routhier, the bee expert for the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

"When will they get to Los Angeles? I don't know," Routhier said. "But will they get to L.A.? Yes."

It was unknown why the bees crossed the river at Blythe instead of earlier at Yuma--or whether, perhaps, the swarm hitchhiked to the prison grounds aboard a vehicle.

But because of the bees situated across the Colorado River, experts assumed that the prison swarm was part of the migratory front--and thus christened them California's first.

"These are them, the pure, honest-to-goodness thing," said Eric Mussen, an apiculturist for UC Davis Extension.

But the experts offer different scenarios of what is to come.

Cal Kaminskas, the assistant Riverside County agricultural commissioner, said he doubts that the discovery of the Blythe bees indicates that more will follow the same route, which headed the swarm toward the inhospitable Mojave Desert, approaching the Palm Springs region.

He said he believes the main migration will cross into California from Yuma, head north from El Centro and Indio, then go up the irrigated fields of the Coachella Valley. From there, they would presumably cross the desert resort communities and swarm through the San Gorgonio Pass into San Bernardino and Riverside, where they would spread out.

Another scenario has the bees swarming west into San Diego County, then moving north, across suburbs and up the coastline.

But, most scientists note, the bees will do whatever they want to do--and there's no point trying to outguess them.

When the bees were detected in Yuma a year ago, experts predicted that they could reach Los Angeles by spring, 1995. Most are now revising that timetable, however, because the bees have been slowed by various factors, including a voracious parasitic mite that has killed many.

Authorities used Monday's announcement to warn Southern Californians to brace themselves for the threat the bees will eventually pose.

A single, migrating swarm can travel 20 to 40 miles before establishing a new hive, picking almost any cavity for a nest. An Africanized bee colony typically swarms to set up new hives four to six times a year, and can colonize a hospitable neighborhood with 10 times as many hives as the more docile European honeybee.

Although the bees are not considered dangerous when they swarm or forage for nectar, they can be agitated almost instantly--by noises or vibrations as far away as 100 feet--once they have established a brood-filled hive. They sometimes chase their targets up to half a mile.

Moreover, while their venom is no worse than that of the European bees, 1,000 or more Africanized bees may attack a victim. Most normal, healthy adults can sustain up to 1,500 bee stings before the attack is lethal.

The advice for victims: Run quickly, in a straight line, seek shelter in a vehicle or building and then call 911 or seek medical attention.

Since the bees' arrival in Texas in 1990, only one person in the United States has died from an Africanized bee attack. He was an elderly man, allergic to bees, who tried to destroy a colony inside a wall with a flaming torch.

Bee experts say homeowners should search their property weekly for bee swarms and contact removal experts before the bees are settled and become ultra-defensive.

The swarm at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison had not yet established a hive.

The Inexorable March North

Los Angeles Times Articles