An angry swarm of bees killed two dogs and chased two people for a quarter mile about a week ago in Round Valley.
Bee experts speculate the mass attack could mean that the super-aggressive Africanized bees have gotten a buzzing toehold in the Rim Country, despite an apparent overall decline in the number of honeybee colonies.
A Round Valley teenager was hospitalized with more than 100 bee stings, as was her rescuer — a visiting veterinarian who took off his shirt and ran backward for a quarter mile, using his T-shirt to swat at the bees that swarmed her, said firefighters.
The vet, Clell Usher, had been treating a horse nearby when he heard Skyler Johnson’s screams and rushed to her assistance. He was only stung twice, but firefighters took him to the hospital when he developed trouble breathing, said Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi.
“He’s the hero of the piece,” said deMasi of Usher, who at one point fell and bruised himself.
Johnson was taken to the hospital for a potential allergic reaction to the massive number of bee stings she received.
Later, her mother found the family’s two dogs dead as the apparent result of the bee stings they suffered.
Beekeeper David Jones said that even though the number of bee colonies in the area has declined sharply in recent years, the number of aggressive, apparently “Africanized” colonies has risen.
He said about one in five calls he gets now involves behavior associated with a strain of African honey bees, introduced into Brazil more decades ago and and making their way north ever since. The Africanized bees have displaced or bred with the less aggressive European honey bees as they spread north, but experts hope that the bees won’t be able to spread into areas with cold winters. They look identical to European honey bees, but attack much more quickly and persistently when someone comes close to their colony.
“Tonto Basin has got them pretty bad,” said Jones, “and so does Phoenix. But judging from the colonies I’ve gone to capture, we’ve got very few Africanized bees in Payson.”
Still, he said, the behavior of the swarm in Round Valley matches the pattern for Africanized bees.
The incident started when a man on Southfire Road removed the wooden cover from a well, said deMasi.
A huge swarm of bees came boiling out of the well.
The man fled into his house, but the Johnson’s two dogs were apparently caught out in the open in the yard.
Beset by hundreds of bees, the two dogs began scratching frantically on the screen door to the house.
Skyler Johnson came to the back door, saw the swarm of bees, paused long enough to put on a coat and then rushed out to try to save the dogs.
Unfortunately, the bees then turned their attention to her.
She fled the yard and ran down the street, screaming as the bees pursued her.
Usher, who does chiropractic manipulations on horses, heard her cries and rushed to help.
Seeing her hair, face, back and shoulders covered in bees, he pulled off his shirt and began swatting at the bees as he ran backward down the street.
Most of the bees gave up the chase after about a quarter mile, just as fire crews arrived on the scene — summoned by neighbors who heard the girl’s screams.
Paramedics examined both victims at the scene. Usher initially did not seek treatment, but once firefighters figured out his role, they discovered he was having trouble breathing. So they sent both the girl and her rescuer to the hospital, where Usher was treated and released and Johnson was kept overnight for observation.
Firefighters don’t normally respond to calls about bee swarms, unless the call involves injuries to people. However, the department keeps on hand a list of professional bee handlers like Jones.
Ironically, despite last week’s attack, the big problem with bees these days lies in their mysterious disappearance, said Jones.
“What I’ve experienced is a large decline in the number of calls,” said Jones. “Every year we get fewer and fewer.”
He attributes the apparent decline in Rim Country bee colonies to the still mysterious “colony collapse disorder” — the abrupt and unexplained disappearance of between a third and half of bee colonies in many areas.
Experts have been complaining of a sharp decline in wild honeybee colonies and the disappearance of many commercial colonies since about 1972, with rates of decline peaking in the past decade. Usually, beekeepers find all the adult bees simply missing in the spring or fall, even though the queen and often the brood stock remains.
Experts have so far failed to isolate a single cause and some suggest it might involve the intersection of several factors. Suspects so far have included a mite, cell phone signals, a bacteria, a parasite and pesticides. At least half of U.S. states have reported incidents. One survey of 384 beekeepers nationwide said the disorder seemed to have eliminated between 25 and 50 percent of all colonies.
A host of other countries worldwide have reported similar problems, but experts don’t know if all the reports stem from the same cause.
Fortunately, reports of colony disappearances have dropped in the past two years, with a loss of about 30 percent of commercial colonies over last winter, about half of those with signs of the colony collapse disorder.
Jones said that the decline in the number of honeybee colonies worries him a lot more than the scattered signs that some colonies of Africanized bees have set up housekeeping in the Rim Country.
Even if Africanized bees have arrived, high country winters will likely limit their spread further north.
“There seems to be a bit of resistance to them wanting to live in colder climates. Payson’s not super cold, so they do exist here — but not too much.”
On the other hand, gardeners and growers have already noted the lack of European honeybees. “I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Where are the bees?’ They say that in years past they’ve always seen their peach trees buzzing with bees in the spring, now the fruit’s not even getting pollinated.”