Killer Bees: Firefighters Train To Respond To Attacks

In the spring of 1999, Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Emergency Management Coordinator Bob Cullins hosted a meeting attended by all the emergency response organizations in southern Nevada about a hazard they may face “someday.” Later that year, it actually happened.

On Sunday, Oct. 3, 1999 at 10:30 A.M., 11-year-old Britianie Ensign let her two pet Rottweilers outside before she left for church. She soon heard one dog whining, and ran outside to investigate. She saw the dog lying on the ground. The dog was covered with bees – “The bees covered him like a blanket,” she said. She picked up a garden hose and sprayed water on the dog to get rid of the bees, but many of the bees left the dog and started to attack her. She fell to the ground, trying to escape as a large number of bees surrounded her head. With even more bees joining the attack, she got up and ran back into the house.

At the same time, the girl’s grandmother drove up to take her to church and saw the bees attacking her granddaughter. The woman stayed in her car and called 911 on a cellular phone. Britianie ran into the house and escaped the bulk of the bees that were still attacking the dog.

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue received the 911 call at 10:39 A.M. When Engine 42 and Rescue 42 arrived, the crews saw that the backyard was full of flying bees. As firefighters left their units and dressed in full protective clothing and SCBA, they saw many bees flying around in the street. The captain of Engine 42 requested an additional engine, a battalion chief and the public information officer. The firefighters on Engine 42 were sure that they had encountered the first Africanized honey bee (AHB) or “Killer Bee” attack in the city.

Captain Jess Campbell of Engine 42 took his crew into the backyard to assess what was going on. They discovered that Britianie was in the house and was safe. She told firefighters she was stung several times, but she felt fine. They told her to stay in the house. A firefighter was assigned to stand outside the front door and monitor her condition. The crew also found out that a 21-year-old woman and her 3-year-old daughter were in an apartment atop a detached garage in the backyard. They too were told to stay inside.

The crew of Engine 42 also found a stack of old bee hive boxes in the backyard and it appeared that was where the bees were coming from. They later found out the boxes had been vacant for nearly 10 years. Bee keepers believe a swarm probably occupied the old boxes a few days before. Battalion 4 Chief Doug Johnson arrived and requested another engine company to respond, and to go door to door and alert nearby residents of the bees. As firefighters went door to door, they found that the bees had stung at least six other people and two other dogs.

Johnson set up a perimeter of approximately a quarter mile and closed the street off to traffic. His goal was to make the area as quiet and calm as possible. Public Information Officer Tim Szymanski also arrived on the scene to make sure the media representatives did not go into the danger area. “Killer Bee” stories were making the news in recent times and the media was expected to respond in numbers. The PIO also used a video camera to tape what firefighters were doing at the incident. He then provided the video to the local news media to use with their stories.

Johnson requested the response of an exterminator company. Unable to find an exterminator that could respond quickly, Fire Dispatch located a beekeeper who went to the scene. Escorted by firefighters, the bee keeper went into the back yard to look at the hive boxes and the swarm. When they got there, they found the dog lying on the ground next to the hive box. It appeared the dog had died because of the massive attack. The bee keeper advised Johnson that as long as the dead dog remained in the backyard, the bees would continue to be aggressive.

Honey bees contain a body liquid (iso-pentyl acetate) known as a pheromone. When a bee stings, its insides are left with the stinger, killing the bee. At the same time, the pheromone is released as an odor alerting other bees of the sting, advising them to attack. When the other bees detect the odor, they home in on the source and attack in large numbers. The odor will also be present if you smash a bee. Since the dog was stung several thousand times, a strong odor of the pheromone was present, which made the bees to continue their defensive posture.

It was decided that firefighters using a foam line off Engine 42 would escort the beekeeper to retrieve the dog. When they reached the dog, its remains were covered with foam, then placed into a plastic bag. They took it to an Animal Control unit parked on the street. The beekeeper estimated the large dog had been stung in excess of 10,000 times.

After the dog was removed, the bees continued to be agitated. The beekeeper advised Johnson that it would be in the best interest of public safety if the bees were destroyed immediately, but the he would need the assistance of the firefighters. Again, using the 13?4-inch handline, firefighters entered the backyard using a semifog pattern, spraying foam on the flying bees. The bees immediately fell to the ground and then foam was sprayed on the hive box. As each section of the hive box was dismantled, it was saturated with foam and then placed into a plastic bag. It appeared the foam killed the bees almost immediately. It was estimated that over 25,000 bees were in the hive. After the operation was completed, two other large swarms were found nearby hanging in trees and they were destroyed as well.

After nearly four hours of operations, the area was determined to be safe. Residents were cautioned that some of the bees were not with the swarm when it was destroyed and they would return to the area, looking for the hive box.

Britianie was able to leave the house and was examined by fire paramedics on the scene. She suffered only a few stings. The other occupants in the garage apartment remained in the apartment during the entire ordeal. They were not harmed. The Nevada Department of Agriculture examined the bees and determined that they were Africanized honey bees.

When bees swarm, they are flying around looking for a new place to make a hive. Experts with the Agriculture Department believed that the swarm located the old hive boxes within the previous week and immediately started to make a hive. When the dog went outside and noticed the bees, it probably started barking at the hive box, prompting the attack.

Since then, there have been numerous sightings of bee swarms in the Las Vegas Valley. Although at least one swarm was removed from a downtown casino, the majority of the sightings are in the quiet residential areas. Professional exterminators were having a brisk business of removing the bees from attics of homes and apartment buildings, inside water sprinklers boxes, and from trees and other places. In one case, bees established a hive in a home in October. Concerned, the homeowner contacted a professional exterminator in January. The exterminator determined the hive was well established and the bees had accumulated about 50 pounds of honey. Experts believe they will have to remove the roof of the house to get rid of the bees. Although there were many sightings and exterminators were kept busy, there were no reports of bee attacks on humans or animals.

But that changed on Feb. 9, 2000. Once again, bees attacked a person, this time a 79-year-old man. It was just before noon and firefighters were notified that bees on Saylor Way, near an elementary school, were attacking a man.

LVFR Rescue 3 was first on the scene. Paramedics found the man inside the cab of a city pickup truck and it appeared that several of the bees were inside the cab and still alive. The crew parked the rescue about 150 feet from the pickup and dressed in full protective clothing, then took the man out. They checked him for live bees attached to his clothing and then put him in the back of the ambulance. It appeared he had been stung at least 30 times. Because of his age, he was immediately taken to the Trauma Unit at University Medical Center.

At the same time, Engine 6 arrived on the scene and took command. Not knowing exactly what prompted the attack and where the bees had gone after the attack, Captain Dan Allred called for an extra engine and truck company to close off the street and alert nearby residents of the bees. His main concern was the elementary school, with approximately 900 students, directly across the street from the attack. Allred advised Fire Dispatch to notify officials at the school to activate a “shelter in place” and not to let students out of the building.

As firefighters went door to door to advise residents of the situation, they found that some bees had entered one house. They learned that when the elderly man was being attacked he went to the neighbor’s house for help. When the neighbor opened the door, the man ran into house, his head covered with bees. The neighbor pushed the man back outside, but many bees were left in the house and started to sting pets. Knowing that conditions were worse outside than in the house, firefighters told the neighbor to stay inside and to keep the pets inside. But the neighbor became concerned when one of the pets appeared to be lifeless. He wanted to take the animals to a veterinarian, but firefighters were also concerned about the large number of bees that were just outside his house.

The decision was made to evacuate the man and his pets into a parked car. To ensure that the pheromones did not alert the other bees, the animals were tightly wrapped in blankets and quickly moved to the waiting car. The animals were promptly taken to the veterinarian where they were treated and released, fully recovered.

Within an hour, three professional exterminators arrived and assessed the situation. They found that the bees had an extremely large hive inside a double-side wood plank fence in the backyard. After several attempts to exterminate the bees, they requested the assistance of the firefighters using foam. The exterminators said the bees were the most aggressive they had ever encountered. Because of the large number of bees and their aggressiveness, members of the Hazmat Team, in encapsulated suits, advanced a 13?4-inch handline and foamed the hive. Within minutes, the situation was under control and the exterminators completed their work.

The man, who was stung several times, was treated and released from the hospital. It was later learned that the man tried to exterminate the bees himself. It is believed he used a stick to beat the fence and he was going to spray the bees with an aerosol bug agent as the bees flew out of the fence. But he did not know the aggressiveness of Africanized honey bees and within seconds they overwhelmed him. With his head covered with bees, he ran to a neighbor’s house for help.

The neighbor opened the door for only a few seconds, but that was long enough for bees to be released into the house. The neighbor pushed the man back outside and he began to run down the street, yelling for help. A city public works employee in a truck witnessed the attack. He pulled up alongside the man and opened the door so he could get inside. Once he was inside, the driver parked the truck and went for help.

After the incident, a number of the dead bees were taken to the Nevada Department of Agriculture for examination. Once again, it was determined that the bees were Africanized.

In addition to these two incidents, Las Vegas firefighters have responded to numerous “citizen assist” calls of bee sightings and to assist local exterminators with destroying the bees at difficult locations.

Since the department has responded to a number of calls within the past year, they have learned the following:


2. Try to keep the area calm and quiet. Noises further agitate the bees, especially lawnmowers and weed eaters. Alert neighbors of the situation. Keep traffic in the area to a minimum. Flashing lights and sirens also agitate the bees and should not be used in the area of a reported sighting.

3. The extermination of bees should be left to professional exterminators. Fire personnel should only be used in emergency situations, with life-safety concerns.

4. A soupy foam solution (either Class A or AFFF) kills the bees almost immediately. The foam will stick to their bodies, making it difficult for them to fly and it drowns them immediately.

5. Only a minimum number of personnel should to be in the immediate area. When apparatus is not in use, their motors should be shut down.

Because of the intense summer heat, the Special Operations Division has supplied each battalion chief unit and the Special Operations car with Saranex-coated Tyvex suits. During extended operations, personnel will be able to wear the lightweight suits instead of complete turnouts. The department is also evaluating a lightweight hood with a screened facemask so personnel will not have to wear SCBA.

The Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Public Information Office is working on an extensive public education campaign about the bees along with other agencies in the Las Vegas Valley. The Nevada Department of Agriculture, which monitors all Africanized bee incidents, determined in February 2000 that 75% of all bees in the Las Vegas Valley are now Africanized. They are expected to take over the entire county by the end of the year, and the department expects an increased number of incidents within the next year. But as time goes on, with a better understanding by the public about the bees and how they live and with close monitoring by exterminators and the agriculture department, attacks on humans and animals are expected to be rare. But when they do occur, Fire Chief Mario Trevino feels his members are equipped and trained to handle the situation.