An aerial lift truck slowly hoists bee extractor Reed Booth skyward toward a massive antenna at the U.S. Army’s Antenna Test Facility at Fort Huachuca in southeast Arizona. A huge hive containing 50,000 angry killer bees doesn’t take kindly to his intrusion. Within seconds, Booth is attacked by a swarm guarding the hive housed within the structure.
"Come to daddy," Booth coos from inside his protective suit.
The week before, test facility chief Allison Kipple made an urgent call to Booth—one of the nation’s few experts on the removal of killer bees—following an attack on her and two other base personnel.
"One of our people had to go to the hospital," Kipple says. "We needed somebody to take care of it, so I called some companies in Tucson that I knew and they recommended the killer bee guy, Reed Booth."
The extraction was Booth’s most challenging removal since he began working with bees more than 15 years ago. At the time, a U.S. Department of Agriculture bee inspector had suggested Booth cultivate bees in his backyard because she knew of Booth’s passion for making homemade mead, a wine made with fermented honey.
"She called me up one day and said, ‘I have a gunnysack full of bees for you,’" recalls Booth, 47, of Bisbee, Ariz. (pop. 6,044). "I told her I didn’t know anything about bees. She said, ‘I’ve got an old beekeeper that will give you a couple of hives and I have a bee suit for you.’ That’s how it started."
Booth’s education on his new profession was not without trial. "I got stung a lot," he says, estimating he’s endured thousands of stings since his first killer bee extraction in 1993. "Observation and experience have been my greatest learning tools," says Booth, who charges an average of $195 to remove the dangerous insects.
When it comes to killer bees, there’s been a lot to learn, Booth says, calling the aggressive bees the result of an experiment gone wrong. "Man tinkering with nature once again," he says. "In 1956, Dr. Warwick Kerr, a scientist in Brazil, went to Africa and procured 36 African queen bees. He brought them back [to South America] for experiments and crossbreeding, hoping to come up with a calmer bee that would produce a lot of honey and be resistant to disease. Well, they got two out of three on that one."
The bees escaped and by 1990, the "killer bee" hybrid arrived in the United States. "They estimate today that in the state of Arizona alone there are between 4 and 5 million wild Africanized hives," Booth says.
The Africanized bee, slightly smaller than its European counterpart in America, also is surprisingly less toxic per sting. However, victims don’t get stung just once. Within seconds, a swarm of aggressive killer bees will attack any living thing—from livestock to humans—that gets too close to a hive, and they’ll chase a victim for up to two miles. As far as nesting habits, killer bees are erratic.
"I’ve removed them from some pretty strange places," says Booth, citing broken TV sets, old couches and even a computer monitor left outdoors. "Wherever there’s an eighth of an inch hole or more, you’ve got a potential home."
Booth attempts to save the killer bees when possible, relocating them to one of several hives he maintains in the surrounding Cochise County desert and harvesting the honey for his retail honey shop on Main Street in Bisbee.
While at Fort Huachuca, due to high winds and the great height of the hive’s location, Booth is forced to employ a "nuke and seal" approach, killing the queen bee and closing off the entrance hole with steel wool and a foam-like substance that hardens over the wool, ultimately killing the remaining bees inside.
"Once Reed got up there, he was so quick and efficient. You can just see his knowledge," a pleased Kipple exclaims. "He had a very fine touch, which is nice around all the expensive equipment."
In Booth’s line of work, the pay is sweetened by the gratitude of his customers.
"I get thanked a lot," he says.
Visit www.killerbeeguy.com for more information.