Environment & Science

Killer bees likely involved in recent Southern California swarm attacks

File photo: This 1991 photo shows a close up of an Africanized honeybee or killer bee.
File photo: This 1991 photo shows a close up of an Africanized honeybee or killer bee.

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Three people were attacked in recent days by two swarms of bees and were sent to area hospitals. At least one of the attacks has been attributed to Africanized honeybees, commonly referred to as killer bees. But the other also shares similar characteristics.

Africanized honeybees are difficult to distinguish from their European counterparts, requiring genetic testing for an accurate identification. The bees involved in the attacks most likely will not undergo testing. Still, experts said it’s likely they were Africanized bees.

The first incident, which occurred in Palm Desert on Thursday, involved a 71-year-old woman who was stung about 1,000 times. Lance Davis, who owns the bee-removal service Killer Bee Inc., removed the hive after the attack and estimated that 75,000 bees were involved in the attack. He said personal observations led him to believe that the bees were Africanized.

“These are killer bees. That’s what they do. That’s how they react. It’s obvious. [It’s] like you get a Chihuahua or a pit bull, they attack, and that’s a very different outcome,” Davis said.

In the second, which occurred on Sunday in La Cañada, two women were stung by bees after a car collided into a tree that housed a bee hive. One victim, a 17-year-old girl fell to the ground and was saved by a rescue worker who sprayed her with a fire extinguisher. The other victim, a 51-year-old woman, jumped into a swimming pool.

The bees in that attack have not been identified as Africanized honeybees, but an expert on honeybees said that the majority of wild honeybees in the area are Africanized.

“Around the L.A. County area, I would imagine that if you just see a wild bee or a bee that you encounter on a flower or something like that, there’s a greater than 50 percent chance that it’s Africanized,” said James Nieh, a biology professor who studies bees at the University of California San Diego.

Africanized honeybees are commonplace in Southern California. Officials deemed Los Angeles County to be “completely colonized” by them in 1999.

Nieh said that several factors have led to their prevalence: the species is generally feral and therefore more hardy due to natural selection; they are more resistant to parasites; and their hives require less space than their European counterparts.

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Nieh said that the end of winter means Africanized honeybees are getting ready to expand their nests and are therefore more aggressive. He said that attacks will be more likely through the summer until their  next dormant period.