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He staves off 'killer' menace

Aggressive bees are spreading.

By LIBBY NELSON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 3, 2007


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In an average work day as a state apiary inspector, Todd Jameson drives 200 miles across four counties in a Department of Agriculture pickup truck.

He gets stung 20 times - on the wrist, under the fingernails, bees sometimes crawling up his jeans all the way to the thigh.

He sticks his hands into beehives without gloves and kills killer bees with soapy water.

"It's not a job that people are jumping to get," Jameson said. "Nobody wants to be stung by bees every day."

Jameson is one of 13 Florida apiary inspectors, a group whose main responsibility used to be making sure beekeepers' hives were disease- and parasite-free.

But when Africanized honeybees, better known as "killer bees," arrived in Florida in 2002, apiary inspectors became the first line of defense against the vicious insects that state officials now say make up the majority of Florida's wild bee population.

"We're here to protect the bee industry in the state," Jameson said. "That's why we do what we do. We cannot have Africanized bees taking over."

Though their stings are no more venomous than ordinary, or European, honeybees', Africanized bees attack in greater numbers. If a colony of European bees is disturbed, about 200 bees will attack. If they're Africanized, as many as 50,000 go after the intruder.

The bees sting inside victims' noses and mouths. Jump in the water to escape, and the swarm will hover above it, waiting, for up to half an hour.

In September, a Texas man died after bees stung him more than 1,000 times.

The best chance of getting away? Run, Jameson said. The bees can fly up to 12 mph for a quarter-mile.

No bee-related deaths have occurred in Florida so far.

"You treat all bees with respect, because you can't tell what they are by looking at them," Jameson said.

Africanized bees are slightly smaller than European bees, but the difference is visible only with a microscope in a lab.

Jameson monitors the wild bee population with 104 bait hives spread across Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

Every three weeks, as long as it takes for a queen bee's eggs to hatch, Jameson checks the bait hives. If he finds bees, he calms them with smoke before killing them with soapy water.

He only needs a few hundred dead bees for the lab techs in Gainesville, but the hive might be Africanized, so he kills them all: 15,000 to 20,000 bees.

"A lot of what we're trapping is coming back as Africanized, and that's scary," Jameson said. "We knew it was going to come to this."

Most days are spent on the road. When the Department of Agriculture got him a new Ford pickup in April, it had 26 miles on the odometer. Now it has more than 22,000.

Next to his cup of coffee is a pint jar of about 300 dead bees, packed in alcohol and waiting to be sent to Gainesville for testing.

A former beekeeper, Jameson does the job because he loves bees. When he was a farmer, he was intrigued by the way a beekeeper worked with the bees pollinating his crops, he said.

"I guess things happen in your life once in awhile, and it gets in your blood," he said.

He and his father started with three colonies - just a hobby. Three became six, six became 12, until they had 1,000 colonies and a business, Grange Hall Bee Corp.

Now he is concerned about beekeeping as an industry. Most of the 130 beekeepers he inspects are hobbyists with fewer than 10 colonies. More bee diseases and parasites exist than did 20 years ago. As the number of beekeepers declines, so does the number of bees.

"It's a vanishing industry," Jameson said. "There are so many problems we've got now that we didn't used to have."

In some ways, the Africanized bees are not the worst of the problem. As long as beekeepers are vigilant, and the inspectors keep up their work, the problem can be contained, he said.

"It's like the fire ants," he said. "We've learned to live with them. We'll have to learn to live with Africanized honeybees."

[Last modified November 2, 2007, 22:37:35]


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