Environment & Science

SoCal's killer bee population is increasing. Here’s how to avoid an attack.

Bees, partly loaded with pollen, return to their hive.
Bees, partly loaded with pollen, return to their hive.
Frank Rumpenhorst/AFP/Getty Images

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A woman walking her dog along a popular path in Huntington Beach was hospitalized this weekend after a suspected swarm of Africanized or killer bees attacked and stung her multiple times.

Shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, Capt. Bob Culhane with the Huntington Beach Fire Department, responded to a 9-1-1 call from a person witnessing Mary Ann Speicher, a 71-year-old grandmother, being stung near Harriett M. Wieder Park. When Culhane arrived, the dog, Max, was off his leash and several bystanders were pointing in Speicher’s direction, he told KPCC on Monday.

“At that point, I was just desperate,” Speicher told KPCC on Monday. “I thought to myself, ‘I’d walk through fire to get rid of these bees.’”

Culhane said he held the woman still as other first-responders doused her with a mixture of water and foam. The mixture, which is meant for dousing small fires, also coats bees’ wings and hinders their ability to fly. Paramedics pulled an estimated 40 bees from the woman’s hair and clothes before taking her to a nearby hospital, he said. 

“I have never responded to a bee attack like that,” he said. “Never a swarm that attacked a person like it did here.”

After staying in the hospital for 24 hours, she was released and reunited with her dog, she told KPCC. On Monday, Speicher was recovering at her home in Ontario.

The attack coincides with a boom in SoCal’s bee population. Heavy winter rains and the wildflower super blooms have likely fueled an increase in their numbers, according to Douglas Yanega, a senior museum scientist at UC Riverside’s Entomology Department.

Africanized bees came to Southern California in 1994, Yanega said. Evolved to be more aggressive than their European counterparts, “killer” bees are more likely to severely attack humans and pets when provoked, he added. 

"It's the difference between a husky [domesticated dog] and wolf," he said. "Genetically, [European and African bees] are almost identical, but they're not the same." 

During the drought, their numbers dwindled, he said, but attacks involving humans still happened. In 2014, a 71-year-old Palm Desert woman was stung about 1,000 times, according to a KPCC report.

Yanega said people should avoid squishing or swatting at bees, if possible. When squished, an Africanized bee emits a pheromone from a gland in its stinger that signals other bees to attack. 

Jerry Bryant, longtime owner of The Bee Man in Mission Viejo, told KPCC Monday his staff is working 7 days a week, 13 hours a day to clean out bee nests in residential and commercial properties around Orange County. 

So far this summer, he estimates his business has had three times as many calls per day as it did a year ago. The calls range from people who spot a bee in their yard to businesses with killer bee nests, he said.

"There's no way to tell you exactly the amount we're getting," he said. "I have not seen an influx of swarms of this magnitude in six to eight years."

Following Saturday's attack, the Huntington Beach Fire Department issued a statement warning the public about how to react if attacked by bees:

"If you come into contact with a swarm of bees, or a bee hive, act calmly and leave the area quickly and quietly if you or anyone gets stung and needs medical treatment, call 9-1-1."

UC Riverside’s Department of Entomology website also recommends sealing cracks and holes in your house that might be good places for nesting, looking for bees coming and going in your yard and, if stung, not to jump in a pool of water. A swarm will wait for you to come back up.