ublic safety officials and insect experts are urging residents to be on the lookout after a series of at least three bee attacks have hit the Town of Oro Valley over the span of a couple months.
The latest of those attacks, which claimed the life of an individual performing contract work in a residential yard, has left a family in mourning.
The Oro Valley Police Department responded to that incident on July 2 along with the Golder Ranch Fire Department. The patient, who has been left unnamed per family request, was found in cardiac arrest after being stung hundreds of times. He was transported to Oro Valley Hospital, but resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. The homeowners and another worker were also stung.
Preceding this attack were two others that took place days apart in May—the first at a residence, the second at the Oro Valley Marketplace.
In the first incident, three dogs were killed after their owners heard them crying and saw them covered in bees. In the second, four shoppers were stung and businesses at the marketplace went into temporary lockdown, with motorists being asked to avoid the area.
Experts point to Africanized honeybees—a hybrid version of the standard honeybee—as the likely culprit. This breed of bee first entered the U.S. in the early 1990s and has become more prevalent since, despite the fact the regular honeybee is dying in large numbers due to pesticides, parasites and poor nutrition.
“The population of feral colonies has not likely increased—in many areas feral honeybees colonies are significantly declined due to the current plight of honeybees, but certainly the more aggressive Africanized honeybees are more common than in decades past, so that could be part of any noted increase in attacks,” said Peter Underwood, member of the Southern Arizona Beekeepers Association.
The Center for Disease Control reports that between 2000 and 2017, insect stings in general have been on the rise, accounting for 1,109 deaths in that period. In 2017, the latest year with data, 89 people were killed from insect stings, the most since 2005.
In the event of an attack, experts agree on a best evasion method.
“The very basic answer is to run, run, run,” said Underwood. “Try to cover one’s face and keep running, as Africanized honeybees can and will pursue for over one-quarter of a mile.” In some cases, bees will chase up to a mile before surrendering.
Scott Svenheim, associated certified entomologist with Truly Nolen, recommends avoiding bodies of water as an escape route.
“Jumping into water—a pool, a lake, a pond—is always a bad idea. You’ll get away temporarily, but they’ll just wait until you surface. And if you don’t? I think you get the point,” he said.
When protecting a hive, Africanized honeybees are provoked by very little compared to their European counterparts, Svenheim notes.
“Loud noises, vibrations, dark colors, and strong odors near their hive will provoke an attack,” he said.
There are some tactics that can be employed to help reduce the chance of bees nesting in or near a residence. These include evaluating the property itself, as well as sheds, wall structures, or utility boxes for any holes the size of a pencil eraser or larger. Steel wool, eighth-inch hardware cloth, and caulking are recommended for this, says Underwood. Expanding foam can be useful as well in conjunction with caulking, since bees can chew through expanding foam.
When outside, situational awareness is important, though evidence shows attacks can come fast and without warning. Listening for buzzing sounds, looking around intermittently for signs of bees, and having an escape route when on walks or hikes can be helpful. Keeping dogs on leashes while hiking or walking can be helpful in preventing animals stirring up a colony, as well as having control of the animal in the event evasion is needed.
Most bee activity and encounters take place between spring and fall, and Svenheim says bees can make homes in several places.
“African honeybees tend to like low, protected places to make their nests, with hives being found in water and irrigation meter boxes, over-turned flower pots, under storage sheds, empty animal burrows, hollowed out tree trunks, old furniture stored outside, and old tires,” he said.
In the event of an attack, immediately dial 911. Fire crews are equipped with proper protective equipment and can use foam to kill off bees.
“In terms of our response, it comes down to rescue. If bees are not attacking, that would be the business of a beekeeper or bee removal company,” said Ian Cassidy, acting battalion chief for Northwest Fire District. “But, if they’re attacking, that’s our business.”
In the event someone is stung by a bee, monitor for an allergic reaction, wash the site with soap and water and remove the stinger using gauze wiped over the area or by scraping a fingernail over the area.