Deadly bees likely came from Florida

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga. -- A master beekeeper who has been actively involved in researching the state's first-ever report of Africanized honeybees says that the bees likely arrived in Dougherty County by hitching a ride on a vehicle headed north from Florida.

On Oct. 11, 73-year-old Curtis Davis was killed after being swarmed by bees as he was attempting to clear land in unincorporated Dougherty County. The bees, which were exterminated and sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Agriculture and the University of Georgia for testing, were later confirmed by those entities to be the more agressive Africanized honeybee.

Dale Richter, a master beekeeper who exterminated the bees and has been involved in researching their migratory patterns, told the Dougherty County Commission Monday that it isn't likely the bees migrated into Southwest Georgia on their own.

"We're trying to figure out how they got here," Richter told the commission. "Given that location's proximity to U.S. 19 ... they could've hitched a ride onto a vehicle headed north up from southern Florida and hopped off when the vehicle made a stop."

Richter said he's been in near-constant contact with state and federal authorities, including NASA.

"The game has changed," Richter said. "No one believed we would see them here first. Everyone was focused on Lowndes County because there are some colonies near the Georgia line."

The slightly smaller but fiercely more agressive species of bees has been taking over and running off the more docile European honeybee colonies throughout South and Central America for decades.

Dr. Wayne Esaias, a NASA scientist who has monitored honeybee trends and their impact on ecosystems, said the bees first appeared in southern Texas in 1990 and now have known colonies in south Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California.

"That's most likely the case," Esaias said when asked about the possibility of the bees being inadvertantly transported to Southwest Georgia by vehicle. "I say that because the nearest known colony is hundreds of miles away, and this appears to be the only incident around so, while it's feasible they have migrated, it's unlikely."

While they are a member of the honeybee family, Richter said Monday that the Africanized bees have tendencies more like those of yellow jackets in that they often have nests in the ground or low to the ground and their eagerness to swarm and attack.

"Whereas the European honeybees will follow you for a short distance if you walk up on their nest, the Africanized bees will chase you much farther ... up to a quarter- or half-mile away," Richter said. "And, another thing: If you think you can jump in a pool or something and they'll leave you alone ... they'll just sit there and hover above the water waiting for you to pop up to the surface."

The bees have caused residents in the southeastern Dougherty County area where the attack on Davis occured to be fearful and uneasy, an area resident said.

Melvin George, head of the South Dougherty Community League, said Monday that bees had been spotted at various places throughout the area and that residents were nervous.

"They're in our neighborhood, and we're very concerned," he said. "In our neighborhood, we have tractors and we're just concerned that if they are prone to nesting in the ground that this could happen again while we're out working the land."

Richter said that while the presence of the bees did surprise many in the entomology community, it's not something to panic over.

"They (Africanized bees) can be managed," he said. "People do it all the time. We're just going to have to be more aware now."

While it may sound simple and a little silly, Richter advised people to simply run as fast as they can if they come into contact with a swarm of bees and avoid the temptation to stand idle and swat the bugs away..000

While Africanized bees are dangerous and deadly when a hive has been disturbed, many in the entomology field caution against wiping out bees wholesale.

For the last several years, federal and state authorities have watched as the number of pollinators -- such as honeybees -- has begun to decline.

The numbers of bees are dwindling for a multitude of reasons. One is the spread of the parasitic Varroa Mite, which feeds on the blood of the honeybees. Naturally hygenic, the uninfected bees will toss the infected larvae out of the hive, causing the eventual collapse of the entire hive.

Scientists have now developed a genetic trait that makes bees resistant to the parasite.

Bees have also been threatened through human development of their habitat, use of toxic pesticides and other means.

While it may seem like a small impact given the tiny size of the insects, NASA estimates that bees and other pollinators are responsible for pollinating $14 billion worth of crops each year. Without them, they say, many flowering plants and crops would be unable to flourish.

"Oh, they're crucial," Esaiais said. "The agricultural community depends on pollinators like bees. They are absolutely mandatory for most ecosystems to function."

That's one reason Albany resident Kathy Brinson, a beekeeper, is rallying support for a local beekeepers' club, to help promote managable bee colonies.

"The Africanized bees, if they take over, it would be devastating," Brinson told The Herald earlier this month. "The more European bee (populations) that are established, the greater the defense against Africanized bees."

Esaias said that Georgia, and south Georgia especially, plays a vital role in the nation's bee population efforts.

Without temperate climate, many beekeepers around the country pay significant money to buy Georgia queen bees to repopulate their hives each spring in areas where winters are just too harsh for most hives to survive.

If Africanized bees were to take over the queen populations in Georgia, the impact could be dramatic, he said.

"It's important to the Georgia economy, and it's important to the nation as a whole to keep European bees in Georgia," Esaias said. "It's something your legislators and leaders should know and understand."