Killer bees used to be big news. Enough people are nervous around bees (even the pleasant, nearly harmless, garden bees) that the idea of massive stings is terrifying. “Bee venom is a cocktail of biologically active components that are designed to inflict pain. The honey bee stings only defensively — they don’t try to kill, they try to educate,” says May Berenbaum, a professor at the University of Illinois. Unfortunately, the Africanized honey bee sometimes forgets this important rule. Yesterday, four landscapers working at a southern Arizona house were attacked. One man died. The Douglas Fire Department Chief reported, “A witness said his face and neck were covered with bees.” That 32-year-old man died of cardiac arrest. Another man, stung more than a hundred times, was treated at the local hospital and released. The workers were part of a program teaching work skills to developmentally challenged adults. Our thoughts are with the families and friends of the people attacked and with the directors of this worthwhile charity.
It is claimed that the offending bees came from a nest of 800,000, according to the press. If that is true, it would be ten times larger than any colony I ever heard of. Most likely, someone miscopied 80,000 bees (which would still be an enormous hive) and wrote 800,000 and that number has been repeated over and over again in all the news coverage, all of which seem to buy the same story and repeat the same mistakes.
Once an error is published, it takes on a life of its own and is almost impossible to eradicate. If you look at this link, you can see how the number was picked up and unquestionably reproduced. The Weather Channel headlined with the absurdity “Arizona Landscaper Dies After 800000 Bees Attack” – only a small percentage of any hive attacks. Isn’t it enough to report the fact that hundreds of bees attacked the unfortunate workers? The Weather Channel headline is either hyperbolic exaggeration or careless fact-checking – both of which are unforgivable errors from an outfit that reports the weather. Meanwhile, the New York Daily rounded up: Nearly 1 million bees swarm Arizona men, killing one. Others repeating the 800,000 number include Gawker, Inquisitr, United Press International, The Mirror, and NBC News. Interestingly, the reporter closest to the source of the attack (Tucson News Now) wrote, “One person is dead and several others are recovering from bee stings after a huge swarm of about 300,000 bees attacked landscapers working outside a home in Douglas.” Hours after the story initially ran, CBS has written, “A swarm of about 300,000 bees killed one landscaper and critically injured another… The [Douglas Fire] Station initially reported that an estimated 800,000 bees were involved in the attack.” Better, but still not right. And why didn’t the initial reporter ask the fire department which entomologist at the station counted the bees?
Deaths from Africanized honey bees are still rare enough to make front page news as this story did on Canada’s National Post, UK’s Telegraph (which accompanied their story with a picture of a tiny cluster of bees in a tree), and the other sources (or repeaters) that I already mentioned. When the Africanized bee first arrived in the USA, there were concerns that thousands of deaths would quickly follow. This angst was led by an overly eager press and encouraged by researchers (some seeking grants to study the problem) who often were inexperienced around bees. To the novice, three bees chasing after an exposed face may elicit thoughts of a fifth apocalypse horseman. Place a young, untested grad student in Brazil next to an Africanized swarm, and he will live to tell some scary stories about the bees. So, for a few years in the mid-1970s, Africanized bees dominated the press whenever honey bees were mentioned. Today, of course, unfounded rumours of bee extinction lead the news stories. I guess that’s a bit more upbeat than the tales of wonton destruction and fears the Killer Bees once conjured. Nevertheless, exaggeration and hyperbole very quickly become tedious.