Death by Bee: When Killer Bees Attack, From Utah to Shaanxi to Wutang

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, April 10th, 2015

In the past two years swarms of bees in the U.S. have killed dogs, hens, humans and even horses.

Spring has sprung and summer is fast approaching, that means pool parties and potato salad and sleepaway camp and killer bees.

Unlike grizzlies which lazily slumber winters away inside a hibernation cave, honey bees spend the winter deep inside the hive, actively huddled into a “winter cluster”, continuously shivering and fanning their wings in order to keep the Queen warm—the cluster center stays at a remarkable 80 degrees Fahrenheit. As weather warms the bees begin the Sisyphean honey gathering ritual that is their lives. But some of them get thrown off track, some of them appear to go insane (or just get defensive), some of them attack, and kill: humans, dogs, hens, even horses.

Last month three Australian shepherds were stung to death by a swarm of bees in Santa Ana, California. Australian shepherds, mind you, are powerful 60 pound dogs known for their toughness, so this isn’t like a poodle or chiweenie being attacked. Owner Linnea Chapman walked outside to check on her dogs, Bailey, Bartlett and Remy in the wee hours of the morning only to find them non-responsive and bees entangled in their fur. A bee specialist was brought in to assess the situation, unfortunately the dogs were dead.

In Pantego, Texas, bees actually managed to kill a pair of horses. Kristen Beauregard was with the animals and her boyfriend in the backyard when killer bees descended. She was stung 200 times, her boyfriend was stung 50 times. “Unfortunately,” reads an article in Nature World News, “her two horses, named Trump and Chip, were killed after they were literally shimmering with bees.” More than 30,000 killer bees joined in the assault. To save their own lives Kristen and her boyfriend jumped in the pool. “It got all dark, like it was nighttime there were so many bees,” she told reporters. “Every time we stuck our heads out for air, they would cover us and start stinging us…in the face and in the nose…I watched that horse look up at me in so much pain and thrash around and look at me like, why aren’t you fixing this?” Firefighters tried to save the horses, but it was too late. The bees also stung their dog and killed five of their hens.

Hens bring us to Larry Goodwin, 62, who was on a tractor clearing land on his Moody, Texas property when he pushed over an old chicken coop and all hell broke loose. He had accidentally disrupted the home of a giant clan of Africanized honey bees. His daughter and neighbors rushed to the scene but couldn’t save him. “When we got to him, he was purple,” daughter Tanya told CNN. “He had thousands and thousands of bee stings on his face and arms.”

Killer bees: Africanized honey bees can attack in swarms of 20,000 to 30,000.

Africanized honey bees can attack in swarms of 20,000 to 30,000.

In between those two locales we find the state of Utah, and another gruesome bee tale. Just a few weeks ago, Jay Francis, 89, of Bountiful, Utah was stung more than 400 times by a swarm of bees that attacked him at a baseball game. The swarm came “seemingly out of left field”, reported the Desert News. According to his son, pops was “covered in bees,” including in his eyes and mouth. Other people in the stands were attacked too. Using water and foam, the St. George Fire Department destroyed the aggressive bees.

“My whole head was just swollen,” Francis told reporters at the hospital, feeling lucky to be alive. “It was like a bee swarm out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.”

Note this bee attack story from British backpacker, Havana Marking, who at the time was on a trip around India:

“I heard a low hum, which was growing louder, but I still didn’t know what it was. From a distance, the swarm looked almost like smoke, an opaque mass vibrating somewhere above me. As it got closer, I realised that this strange cloud was actually thousands of bees, each one an inch long and heading for me.”

Havana put her hands over her face, curled up in a ball and pretended she was a rock, trying to make herself invisible so the bees couldn’t find her. It didn’t work. “Each sting was like a wave of agony,” Havana writes. “I later found out that these were giant honey bees and that, when provoked, a swarm of them was easily capable of stinging a human being to death.”

Eventually Havana scrambles down a rock face, the noise of the bees, “so loud and terrifying, my instinct was to scrunch up my eyes and keep them closed,” and jumps into a river with her friends, bobbing up and down for three hours while the bees swarmed above. Every time the travelers lifted their heads out of the water the bees would attack. In the end Havana was stung 15 times, her friend John, who was “lethally allergic to stings” was stung twice, causing his arm to swell up to the size of a melon.

How can we talk horrible bee attacks without talking about China? We can’t, although our story from China actually involves hornets, and not just any hornet, the Asian giant hornet, whose venomous sting destroys red blood cells, resulting in kidney failure and eventually, death. The hornets killed dozens of people in China in 2013, namely in the northern province of Shaanxi, and are the largest hornet species in the world. In coloration and striping the hornets resemble a honey bee. They are roughly the size of a human thumb. They have a single fearsome black tooth they use for burrowing. They feed their young the larvae of other insects. According to one entomology professor, the hornets resemble, “the wasp analog of a pit bull…with a face that looks like you just can’t reason with it.”

Unfortunately for humans, the hornets are attracted to sweat, alcohol and sweet flavors and smells. Both people and animals running, fleeing or flailing only seems to piss these thumb-sized hornets off even more, causing them to swarm. Victims have included farmers in their fields, and even children in their classrooms.

The Asian giant hornet, whose venomous sting destroys red blood cells, resulting in kidney failure and eventually, death.

The Asian giant hornet, whose venomous sting destroys red blood cells, resulting in kidney failure and eventually, death.

“The hornets were horrifying,” a woman named Mu Conghui who was attacked in Ankang City told China’s state-run news agency. “They hit right at my head and covered my legs. All of a sudden, I was stung, and I couldn’t move. Even now, my legs are covered with sting holes.” Two months, 13 dialysis treatments and 200 stitches later, Mu still remains hospitalized and unable to move her legs.

Why so many hornet attacks of late? Authorities blame unusually dry weather, which makes it easier for hornets to breed, urbanization, which displaces hornet habitat and the decrease of hornet enemies, such as spiders and birds.

Bee horror movies are a particularly rich genre. The movie poster for The Swarm tells you all you need to know; a dark tornado-shaped torrent of bees funneling out of the sky and into some unsuspecting city in Texas. The film featured an all-star cast that included Henry Fonda, Patty Duke, Michael Caine and Katharine Ross, although it did horribly at the box office. The plot involves a mysterious explosion at a military base, a military cover-up and numerous scenes of small town folks fleeing for their lives. It is all-out war, and the bees stage attacks on schools and trains filled with residents desperately trying to escape the area. The ending is too good—SPOILER ALERT—not to note: According to Wikipedia, “Sonically altered helicopters successfully manage to lure the bees out to sea, where they douse them with water and oil and set the swarm ablaze.” But the question remains, did they really get them all!?

There is more. In the 1974 made-for-TV movie, Killer Bees, a strong-willed California vintner has psychotic control over a swarm of killer bees that reside in her vineyard. The 2002 made-for-TV movie Killer Bees! involves a corrupt small town mayor in Washington, a showdown at the local honey festival and a swarm of ‘Latin American killer bees’. Finally, and I think this film has the lowest IMDB rating of pretty much any movie I have ever looked up, there is Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare, in which bees attack a family in an isolated country home.

A scene from "Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare", in which bees attack a family in an isolated country home.

A scene from “Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare”, in which bees attack a family in an isolated country home.

No bee death movie is more tragic than the early Macaulay Culkin film, My Girl. Culkin plays an unpopular young boy named Thomas J. who is “allergic to everything”. He befriends Vada, whose widowed father runs a funeral home. One day in the woods the pair stumbles across a beehive and decides to knock it down. In the act Vada loses her mood ring and when Thomas J. returns to find the ring he is stung by a bee, has an allergic reaction and dies. There is no grotesque image of a bee-smothered body, no bee swarms so thick they look like clouds, just one shy boy getting stung by one angry bee (or was it a few bees..), and dying.

Just where did the Africanized honey bees that have taken on the label killer bees and become so terrifyingly common in some parts of the southern United States come from in the first place? The answer involves nefarious human malfeasance and actually makes a better film plot than anything we find in the myriad killer bee movies.

In 1956, according to the Smithsonian Encyclopedia, Brazilian scientists imported bees from southern Africa, an attempt to cross-breed them with local South American populations and increase honey production. The following year, twenty-six African queens, along with swarms of European worker bees, escaped from an experimental apiary about 100 miles south of Sao Paulo. The escaped bees formed hybrid populations with both feral and commercial groups of European Honey Bees, and the race of killer bees we know of today, Apis mellifera scutellata was born. The hybrid species multiplied and swarmed north at a rate of 200 miles a year, racing through South and Central America. By the early 1990s the bees had reached the United States. The first death was an 82 year old man named Lino Lopez, who was stung at his ranch near Harlingen, Texas. Back in Brazil, where it all began, the bees have killed more than 1,000 people.

Interestingly, the venom Africanized honey bees carry is no more potent than that of regular honey bees. Attacks are lethal because the bees swarm in such exceptionally large numbers. And in true horror-movie fashion, they also pursue their enemies for great distances—up to a quarter of a mile—and long amounts of time—as long as 24 hours!

There is no better way to end an article about deadly bee attacks than linking to the 1998 Wu-Tang Clan song Killa Beez:

“Mommy… Daddy…It’s the Killa Beez!”

Oh yes it is, and they are here to stay.

 

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