Photo courtesy of Erik Wilde/ Flickr. This photo was cropped from the original.
Erik Wilde Photo courtesy of Erik Wilde/ Flickr. This photo was cropped from the original.

On August 3 employees of an electrical contracting company were attacked by bees on a jobsite in Riverside, Calif. The attack left one tradesman dead and two injured. They were grading the site for a parking lot and disturbed an underground sprinkler vault that contained a colony of bees.

Bees swarmed out and attacked 49-year-old Douglas Queen of Los Angeles, who after multiple stings fell to his knees and covered his face. Fellow tradesmen tried to come to his aid but were chased away by the insects. Eventually, someone used a hose from a watering truck to disperse the attacking bees. The fallen man was conscious and speaking when he was taken to the hospital but later died of his injuries. Two other men were treated and released.

A person from Vector Control, the Riverside County agency that deals with insects and rodents told me it’s common for bees to colonize underground vaults (electrical and irrigation) because it’s a cool protected space. And as every carpenter knows, they also like stud bays, soffits, and other hollow parts of buildings.

It’s unclear whether the attacking insects were European honey bees or aggressive Africanized honey bees (also known as “killer bees”). The way to find out is to perform laboratory testing on the bees, and the private company that later came to clean out the vault did not retain samples.

It wouldn’t have mattered if they had, because according to a report in The Press-Enterprise:
There is no difference between the venom in European and Africanized bees. One or two (stings) won’t kill most people, but if you get hundreds of stings, that amount of venom running through your blood stream can kill you…

When hundreds or thousands of bees sting, the tissue damage can be so severe that kidneys – which filter waste from blood – fail, causing death hours or days after the stings. A person can usually survive 10 stings per pound of body weight…

A surprisingly high number of people are allergic to bee venom and can die from a single sting; according to the USDA it’s 1 in 500. In the U.S. about 100 people die each year as the result of allergic reactions to insect bites and stings.

The takeaway is, be careful around bees, even if you are not highly allergic. The attack in Riverside resonated with me because I’ve been attacked twice by bees from underground hives—once as a kid after stepping on a rotted railroad tie and more recently while clearing brush from our property. In both cases I escaped by running away—though not before receiving a good 50 stings. Fortunately, I’m not allergic to bee venom.

It’s unclear what Queen did immediately after the attack. Co-workers say they found him on his knees covering his face with his hands. They tried to swat the bees away before being forced to flee by attacking bees. According to the USDA, fleeing is the correct thing to. Run as fast as you can as far as you can or until you reach the shelter of a car or building. Do not dive into water because the bees will be waiting for you when you come up.

If you are stung there is a right way and wrong way to remove the stinger and venom sac the bee leaves behind. The USDA says to remove them by scraping sideways against your skin; if you grab them with tweezers or fingers it can squeeze additional venom out of the sac and into your body.