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Hikers Should Step Lightly, Carry Big Stick

Nature: Warm weather is bringing out snakes, bees and annual warnings from county officials to give creatures a wide berth.


Here's the buzz.

Swarm season has arrived, and agriculture officials are warning Ventura County residents to steer clear of restless bees--including the aggressive so-called killer bees--in their hives and in swarms looking for new hives.

And as if it weren't enough to keep your eyes open to potential threats from the air, spring also brings out a threat from below: rattlesnakes that emerge from hibernation once the weather warms up.

But county officials aren't ringing any alarms, just urging residents to exercise the usual caution for this time of year.

In fact, there have been far fewer snake sightings this year compared with last year, which warmed up early and sent record numbers of snakes into public view.

The Ventura County Fire Department fielded about 135 calls about snakes from January to May last year. This year, there have been about 30, probably a result of recent cool weather, said Sandi Wells, a department spokeswoman. "The heat brings them out," Wells said. "People just need to pay attention to where they're walking."

An 18-year-old hiker in Calabasas was the area's first victim of the season in April when she stepped on a rattlesnake hidden in brush and received a bite that wasn't serious.

Wells said there have been no reports of attacks in Ventura County so far this season.

The snake season typically runs from April or May to November, and most of the calls tend to come from the eastern part of the county, where housing developments butt up against nature.

Meanwhile, concern about honeybees seems to be up, pest control companies say, because of publicity about the Africanized honeybee.

The county doesn't track Africanized honeybees or the number of hives removed, but private companies licensed to handle "killer bees" say calls for bee removals have climbed since a hive of the aggressive bees was discovered in Oxnard in October.

As the weather warms, the calls are likely to increase.

"There's a lot of fear out there," said Barbara Perrier, owner of Green's Entomological in Ventura. "If they see any bee at all, it's automatically Africanized. We treat it that way too."

No more hives have been discovered since October, but county agricultural officials assume the county has been colonized and that the bees will eventually make their way to Santa Barbara.

They are no more venomous and look no different than their European counterparts--which can also be dangerous in swarms--but Africanized honeybees have developed a reputation as killers because they are easily provoked and attack in swarms.

There have been no recent attacks in Ventura County, said Alan Laird, deputy agriculture commissioner, and there has only been one Californian killed by an attack, a Long Beach beekeeper who was stung more than 50 times in August.

"Instinctively, they're on the prowl, on the move this time of year," Laird said, as large colonies break up to form smaller ones. "I wouldn't say people need to be nervous about it. They may see some bee activity, but the best thing to do is just not mess with their hives or nests."

Those concerned about bees should clear their yards of potential spots for hives, Laird said. Experts say the best way to escape a swarm is run quickly in a zigzag and search for the nearest shelter.

But, even at nurseries, where hovering bees are part of the scenery, it's nothing to get too concerned about. Customers may have their bee phobias, and seek out plants that aren't attractive to the buzzing bugs, but nursery owners seem to have a kind of truce with the insects.

"We get along with the bees here," said Saul Spigiel, owner of Nature's Best Tree Farm and Nursery in Camarillo. "We leave them alone, they leave us alone."

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