Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The buzz business

Printed in High Country News
by Ray Ring

Some people try to make a killing on killer bees

TUCSON, Ariz. - Twelve years into the killer bee invasion of the United States, Tip Tisdale steers his pickup truck into the driveway of a custom home in the desert outskirts of this desert city. It’s a hot Monday morning in late April and this is the U.S. city where the invaders, also called Africanized bees, are most established

The bright yellow-and-black logo on Tisdale’s truck, repeated on his T-shirt, identifies which side he’s on - AAA Africanized Bee Removal.

With the bravado that characterizes the men on the front lines, Tisdale walks toward the buzzing sound without protective gear, his face, arms and hands exposed. Pausing on the porch steps, he scouts the enemy: a loose cloud hovering under the porch roof overhang, composed of maybe 30 to 40 bees.

Like the symbol for nuclear energy, electrons circling round and round, the bees occupy their air space and emit a feeling of contained energy that might explode any moment.
I’m hanging back a few feet behind Tisdale, here to research how the bees are succeeding in the city, how people are adapting, and why the great national media machine has forgotten this once-sensational topic. Knowing that killer bees can take up residence in any nook or cranny of civilization - in the eaves of buildings, in the cushions of sofas and chairs left outside, under storage sheds, in cardboard boxes, flower pots, light fixtures, old tires, utility boxes, bird houses, culverts, woodpiles, trash cans, towers and windmills, even in vehicles, including airplanes - I’m ready to run.

In a half whisper, trying not to trigger the bees, Tisdale explains what we’re seeing. These must be foragers for a colony that’s hidden inside the wall of the house. He points out that some are crawling into a hole gnawed through the wall. Inside the wall there must be a lot more bees carrying out a range of duties, and a queen. If the colony is only a week or two old, there are maybe 10,000 bees in the wall; if the colony is several months old, there could be 30,000

"The foragers are bringing water in - see?" Tisdale says. Squinting, concentrating on the tiny moving shapes, I can make out water droplets on the bees’ legs. If they were foraging for pollen, they’d have yellow sacks of it bulging on their legs. The water helps them survive the drought that has withered the desert for months; they haul the droplets from swimming pools, hot tubs and landscaping irrigation in this upscale neighborhood. They bring the water inside the wall and use their wings to fan and evaporate it, to keep the colony cooler than it would be otherwise. The insulation in the wall also helps.

"They like houses, because people provide cooling in the summer and heating in the winter," Tisdale says. "They are a tremendously intelligent animal."

He glances around, alert for any patrol bees that might be coming at us. Fully established colonies have storehouses of honey and brood to defend, and it begins with a perimeter of patrol bees. "The patrol bees look for trouble," he says. "They’ll buzz in your face. If you don’t react right or if they get a signal from you they don’t like, they tag you." Meaning, they sting you.

He advises that we’d better stand still and hold our breath if any patrol bees check us out, because one thing the bees really don’t like is any mammal’s breath - mammals are predators who might be after the honey. We’re lumped in with badgers, skunks and bears. Above all, we’d better not swat a patrol bee or even try to brush one off. Just one sting or one smashed or ticked-off patrol bee would send a chemical pheromone signal to the rest of the colony, and in a split second the next level of defense, many thousands of guard bees, would come streaming out.

"Every female with a venom sack would dump on you," Tisdale says.

So far, it’s a Western thing. Since the bees invaded from Mexico, they’ve stung four people to death in Arizona (including one who was allergic to bee stings). As many as eight more people have been killed in New Mexico, Southern California and Texas. There is disagreement about how many deaths the killer bees can be blamed for: Do we count the bulldozer driver in Texas who jumped off to run from bees and got run over by his own machine?

As the bees continue to spread, several thousand people as far north as Las Vegas have been stung, many of them hundreds of times each, without dying. Tisdale, a lanky 53-year-old who has worked the front lines about five years, has been stung too many times to count, at times so severely that his arms swelled up painfully or his eyelids swelled shut for days.

At this house, where a family inside has called for help, only a few patrol bees come forward to check us. Tisdale says it indicates this colony has only been here a short time and doesn’t yet have much stored up to defend. Even so, before proceeding any closer, it’s time for us to suit up - thick cotton coveralls, canvas gloves to the elbows, pith helmets draped with hoods that seal to the coveralls, and strategically applied strips of duct tape.

Getting down to business, Tisdale closes in with spraycans of professional grade pesticides. He whacks down the bees we can see, climbs a ladder so he can spray into the hole, uses a prybar to widen the opening, keeps spraying. Alarmed bees pitter-patter against us, trying to sting us through our gear, but it is not the folklore classic killer bee explosion. In a few minutes the whole colony falls silent and still, and Tisdale presents the customers with the bill: $235.

The Triple-A dispatcher relays another call for help and we drive to another neighborhood, where there is another kind of problem - a swarm. Thirty times a year or so, a killer bee colony divides: Some of the bees swarm away with the queen looking to colonize new territory and the rest stay put and raise a new queen. It is a way they maximize their territory.

We find the swarm in the backyard, clinging to a tree branch. It’s a writhing, solid mass of maybe 12,000 bees surrounding the migrant queen. The swarm is resting on the branch. Tisdale and Paul Gerard, another Triple-A pro who rolls in, discover that the swarm has just split from a big colony under a storage shed. We suit up again and the pros attack the swarm in the tree and then the colony under the shed. They use a smokepot to slow the bees, a soapy spray that clings to the bees and clogs their breathing, and the pesticides. Ripping up the floor of the shed to expose the colony, they find the eerily beautiful fins of honeycomb, pupae in the wax cells, and the emergent queen. It’s sweaty work in the thick protective gear, staving off the bees’ defense. Thousands of dead little bee bodies curl on the ground. But it only takes about an hour and half to do this job and present the bill: $600.

Tisdale’s cell phone keeps jingling. On an average day, he estimates, he does six service calls; on a busy day, he averages 10 to 15. Triple-A’s going rate is roughly $200 per hour per man on the jobs I observe, split between those on the front and the head of the company, who does the dispatching. Triple-A is probably the biggest anti-killer-bee company in the world, with five pros in Tucson and eight in the Phoenix metro area, a statewide toll-free number and 24-hour-a-day dispatching. Even the company’s name is a marketing ploy - AAA to be first in the Yellow Pages when customers under siege are looking for bee removal in a hurry.

I’m beginning to see that this is a story not only of ecology, but also of the good old resilient American instinct to make a buck out of anything that presents itself.

Read the rest of the article posted here:

The Buzz Business

No comments: