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Bees are our friends - but a little caution is also needed

Johnnie Hoeft stands Thursday with some of the beehives he keeps on his property. The weather was cool and windy, so the bees were not quite as active. Hoeft’s beekeeper suit showed signs of the mud he was working in the day before during a hive removal. (JC AMBERLYN/Miner)

KINGMAN - The phrase "killer bees" gets thrown around sometimes when aggressive bees attack people and pets, but local beekeeper Johnnie Hoeft refuses to use the term.

"People need to understand that Africanized bees do everything in a big way - they're super producers of honey," he said. "All bees will defend themselves when harassed and all bees swarm when the hive gets too big. They all emit a pheromone after stinging that sends the entire colony into hyper-drive when disturbed. The best thing you can do is just stay away."

Beginning in March, Hoeft will visit area elementary schools to teach students how to stay safe around bees. He wants people, especially children, to understand that bees are vital to agriculture and need to be protected.

Although Hoeft understands that many people fear a swarm, he's found that bees are least aggressive when swarming.

"They leave the hive on a full stomach and are easier to handle then," he said. "I've actually put bees in a box and taken them away without using a bee suit. They shouldn't be afraid if they see a swarm, but neither should they disturb them. Throwing rocks or trying to spray them with water or pesticides is just gonna upset the bees and cause problems."

According to Hoeft, bees "go native" when the hive reaches a population of 30,000 to 40,000.

"Most hives have around 20,000 bees. When the hive gets too large, bees start raising a new queen. About half the bees and a queen leave the hive and go in search of a new home.

"The swarm will stop occasionally for rest and will cluster in a tree or shrub or on the side of a building while 'scouts' go in search of a location for the new hive. It's during this time when they've clustered that the bees are likely to unnerve someone and they'll call 9-1-1. If they just stay away, the cluster will usually move on in a few hours."

Hoeft, who is registered with the Kingman Fire Department, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the state Agriculture Office for bee removal, has been working with bees for about 15 years. He apprenticed with the owner of an apiary, who was his father's best friend.

At one time, Hoeft had nearly two dozen hives that he collected by gathering wild swarms. All but five were lost to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which has become a major threat to honey producers and the agriculture industry in general.

According to the North America Pollinator Protection Campaign, pollinators are needed for the reproduction of 90 percent of all flowering plants, with about one-third of human food dependent on honeybees to pollinate approximately $10 billion worth of crops in the U.S. each year. It's been estimated that bee poisonings from pesticides result in annual losses of $14.3 million in the U.S. alone, with CCD most likely caused by "the three P's," a combination of pesticides, parasites and pathogens. CCD has reduced the number of commercial honey bee colonies in the U.S. from 5.9 million in the 1940s to 2.7 million in 1995.

"If a cluster hasn't moved on within a couple of days, or a homeowner hears a buzzing or humming sound in walls, it's probably time to call a professional," Hoeft said.

The cost of removal varies, with boxing up a cooperative cluster located close to the city limits starting at about $60. Hoeft says that removing an established hive and bee-proofing all the areas that can make a house look like "home sweet home" to a bee colony can be costly, running into several thousand dollars.

"Sometimes hive removals can be impossible to do without it being a kill situation," he said. "A foam concentrate of dish soap and water kills the bees, but removing the hive can cause damage to the house and getting contractors involved ... As a beekeeper, I'd rather not get involved with all that ... people may need to call a pest control company."

Hoeft tells the students he talks to, as well as hikers and outdoorsmen, to be alert to the environment. He says "foraging bees," those collecting food or water away from the colony, are usually not overly defensive and should be left alone. However, large numbers of bees in an area may indicate a colony nearby, especially if there's a dependable year-round water source.

Hoeft says it's best to withdraw slowly from an area, keeping escape routes in mind, if groups of bees are observed entering or leaving holes in rocks or trees, an underground burrow or culvert - even a piece of pipe. Never swat at bees or flail your arms, as they are attracted to movement.

Also, keep dogs under control when enjoying the outdoors. It's often a dog bounding through brush that disturbs a cluster, bringing the angry bees back to its owner.

Wear light-colored clothing when hiking or working outdoors, as bees tend to target anything that looks like bears and skunks, their natural predators. Also, bees are attracted to the colors orange, yellow and bright green - the colors of plants they recognize.

Avoid wearing scented deodorants and cosmetics when outdoors, as bees are very sensitive to odors. Citrus or lemon scents attract bees so don't wear them, and don't use "lemony" scented insect repellents on pets or similar smelling fly repellents on horses. Cedar, lavender, almond and tea tree oils all repel bees. A few drops of these essential oils mixed with baby oil, mineral oil or sunscreen makes a moisturizing repellent.

Bees are also sensitive to loud noises that produce vibrations, so be careful when operating equipment such as leaf blowers, weed eaters, lawn mowers and chainsaws.

The University of Arizona College of Agriculture has prepared a number of safety and first aid tips specific to bees that are available through the Mohave Cooperative Extension Office and the Kingman Fire Department.

A list of beekeepers, reptile removers and pest control companies is also available at the fire department administrative office, 412 E. Oak St. in Kingman.


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