A bee suit and veil soon might be among the essential gear for South Florida firefighters, as the population of Africanized honeybees keeps growing.
A University of Florida bee expert told about two dozen firefighters, police officers and pest-control technicians at a workshop Thursday that Africanized honeybees have become well-established here -- and things only are going to get worse.
"They're going to become a bigger problem," said Bill Kern, assistant professor of entomology and nematology. "We're going to get a lot more feral colonies in neighborhoods."
The Palm Beach County Cooperative Extension Service held the workshop specifically for first responders, who are most at risk of exposure to Africanized honeybees, said Arthur Kirstein, coordinator of the county's Agricultural Economic Department.
"We don't want to create a panic or anything like that," Kirstein said.
The Africanized honeybees, which came into Florida through its ports in recent years, are extremely aggressive if they feel their nests has been threatened. There have been 14 fatal Africanized honeybee attacks in the United States as of July 2004, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Within five years, Kern said, Africanized bees will be found across the state and will be the dominant bees in South Florida.
School districts and parks departments should consider setting up swarm traps around the perimeter of their properties to monitor the areas for Africanized bees so that the bees will go to the traps rather than set up nests in playgrounds or in the walls of school buildings, Kern said.
"The idea is you're going to get the swarm someplace where you can control the situation," Kern said, adding that some Orlando theme parks already have set up swarm traps. "Swarms need to be destroyed before they go to the walls of someone's home."
Tom Kottke, one of a handful of pest-control experts in Palm Beach County qualified to handle Africanized honeybees, said he's seen an increase in the number of calls about bees. A few years ago such a call would have been rare, Kottke said, but so far this year he's received about a dozen calls from residents in urban areas about aggressive bees.
"The bees are getting into their eaves, their attics or sprinkler boxes on common grounds," said Kottke, of South Florida Pest Protection Services in Lake Worth. "When they get aggressive like that, we destroy them. We don't try to do any beekeeping or relocation program."
About two months ago, Delray Beach Fire Rescue treated a worker who had been stung by what may have been Africanized honeybees, said Lt. Joe Albano. The agency sent several officials to the workshop and will now consider whether to purchase the equipment Kern recommends, Albano said.
To avoid injury, rescue workers responding to a call about a bee attack or a call involving a swarm of bees should approach the scene with a specific plan, said Kern, who works in UF's Research and Education Center in Fort Lauderdale. He recommends rescue workers wear a bee suit or at least a bee veil, because bees will try to squeeze into any exposed area, especially around the face or neck.
Kern also taught the firefighters what sort of foam to use to kill the bees during a rescue, and made recommendations on how to secure the scene of a bee attack: no sirens, horns or flashing lights, because they will irritate the bees, Kern said.
West Palm Beach Police Capt. Allan Ortman said he was unaware that bees had established such a foothold in the area. His department probably will conduct joint training for the police and fire officials who did not attend the workshop, Ortman said.
"It's just an eye-opener," Ortman said.
Members of the public interested in learning more about the Africanized honeybee can attend Kern's lecture July 20 at 7 p.m. at Mounts Botanical Garden near West Palm Beach. Admission is $5. For more information, call Mounts at 561-233-1730.
Staff Writer Fayola Shakes contributed to this report.