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August 16, 2006

Bees on a Plane — 'They like yellow and jet fuel and are riled by black'

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This is no movie but, rather, happening in real life: Africanized honey bees — the infamous "killer bees" — are the new [feared yellow and] black.

Nick Timiraos, on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal, takes us into the busy, buzzy world of aviation's newest flight hazard.

Here's the article.

    Bees on a Plane Are A Real-Life Problem Vexing Some Pilots

    They Like Yellow and Jet Fuel And Are Riled by Black; Big Buzz in the Southwest

    As pilot Brian Murphy prepared for a quick flight from Burbank's Bob Hope Airport to San Francisco in May, his ground crew alerted him to a problem on his Beechcraft King Air 200: A five-foot-wide blanket of bees was draped over the plane's left engine cover [above]. And many bees were finding their way into an engine compartment and even into the cockpit.

    "I was just shocked," says the 36-year-old charter pilot, who raced to shut the cockpit's open vent windows. "Within just 20 minutes there were thousands of bees that had moved onto the exhaust area." He considered turning on the engines to shoo away the swarm but decided that that might make matters worse by agitating the bees.

    The bewildered crew didn't know what to do, either, but the Burbank Airport Fire Department knew the drill. "I could hear them yell down into their fire shack, 'It's time to go spray the bees again,' " recalls Steven Schell, the general manager for Mercury Air Center-Burbank.

    Firefighters hosed off the King Air 200 with an insecticide foam that suffocates bees. "They were dropping straight to the ground, whole big chunks of them," Mr. Murphy remembers. The bees inside the engine cover, meanwhile, came crawling out through the inner lip once the foam hit the plane. "Once they started spraying, those bees weren't ever able to fly," he says. Then the pilots vacuumed up three dozen bees that had entered the cockpit.

    "Snakes on a Plane" may be the hot horror movie of the summer, but bees on planes are creating the most buzz in some aviation circles. Africanized honey bees -- the infamous "killer bees" -- are increasingly making unscheduled layovers at airports across the Southwest. The aggressive bees, which entered the U.S. from Mexico in the early 1990s, like to travel across open spaces and stop to rest whenever the queen gets tired. Airports have few trees or other natural rest stops. That makes planes, jetways, baggage-loading equipment, terminals and parking garages popular for stopovers.

    Consequently, pilots and mechanics sometimes find thousands of bees burrowing in engine covers, clinging to cockpit windshields or swarming in the luggage compartment.

    "The Africanized honeybee changed everything," says David Marder, the owner of Bee Busters, a Laguna Hills, Calif., pest-control outfit. He says that his exclusive deal with Orange County's John Wayne Airport, in Santa Ana, which he has serviced more than 20 times this year, is a big reason business has soared since the Africanized honeybee arrived in Orange County in 1996.

    Thousands of honeybees made an impromptu landing in May on the engine covering of this King Air 200 at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif.
    That is creating scenes like one that unfolded at Love Field in Dallas last April. Gordon Guillory, a 39-year-old Southwest Airlines mechanic, knew something wasn't right when he arrived at the hangar for his shift: A buzzing noise was coming not from the engine but from the tail of the Boeing 737-700.

    "You really couldn't see them, but you knew there were tons of them in there because there were so many that would fly out," he says. "I've been working on airplanes for 15 years and I've never, ever seen anything like it."

    The mechanics watched from a safe distance as the beekeeper smoked out and vacuumed up the bees. When the beekeeper started banging on a compartment in the tail to chase out the swarm, the mechanics became even more agitated. "The guys started yelling at him. You just can't do that. You could damage the plane," Mr. Guillory explains.

    Scents and colors also attract the bees. At an airport, that can lead bees to cluster on a turboprop that's been recently cleaned with lemon air-freshener. "For whatever reason, they seem to like the smell of jet fuel, and especially the yellow color of the Southwest airplane," says Judy Alexander, senior director of operations at Tucson International Airport.

    Authorities there became proactive in 1995 after a swarm on the outside of the air-traffic control tower led some stragglers into the command center. The problem "had to end there," says Ms. Alexander. "You just can't evacuate the tower." The airport installed traps that emit a bee-attracting pheromone. They capture between 60 and 80 swarms every year.

    Africanized honeybees are hybrids of the African honeybee, which were imported to Brazil in 1956 by a scientist who let them escape. The bees got into the U.S. through southern Texas in 1990 and have spread throughout all of Arizona and the southern parts of California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. Northern expansion of the bees has slowed as they encounter colder temperatures on the high plains, but they are expected to grow along coastal corridors.

    In the southwest, "they're here to stay," says Mr. Marder. And as urbanization spreads through the countryside outside Las Vegas, Phoenix and Southern California, human interaction with bees is bound to increase.

    The Africanized hybrids are dangerous because they are more easily provoked and attack in large numbers. But while beekeepers warn of the dangers of disturbing a colony, they say that the idea of "killer bees" has been exaggerated. "To hear the news media, we were going to be enslaved," says Lewis West, an Anaheim, Calif., hobbyist beekeeper.

    Last year, he responded to a call from a World War II aviation club that couldn't fly out of Ontario International Airport near Los Angeles because an invading swarm of 30,000 bees had invaded the gun turret in the nose of their restored B-29 bomber.

    While bees don't pose a serious threat to planes, bee experts advise against the temptation to use the engines to suck in and kill a swarm of the uninvited passengers. Bees carry a small amount of honey with them when they travel, and if a jet engine ingested a swarm, "it could do some damage," says George Botta, a Las Vegas exterminator who serves on Nevada's Board of Agriculture. "It's not as bad as hitting a flock of birds, but it'd be like pouring a tank of honey into the engine."

    Two years ago, he was called to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to spray bees off the windshield of a Hawaiian Airlines plane that had been preparing to taxi for takeoff. Another time, he watched a swarm attack the conveyer belt as baggage handlers were unloading suitcases. The color black, he explains, can agitate bees, and he sprayed them off the luggage equipment. "People down at the carousel were left wondering why their luggage was wet and soapy," he says.

    While the problem is mostly limited to the Southwest, the bees, as stowaways, can become an issue for everyone. In 2001, a ground crew at an airfield in Greenfield, S.C., discovered an Africanized honeybee colony inside the wing of an aircraft that had just arrived from Arizona.

    And Mr. Murphy, the King Air pilot, found a similar surprise after his trip to San Francisco: Bees had melted to an exhaust stack inside the plane and hundreds more littered the floor of the engine compartment. Only a handful of the stowaways survived. "I couldn't have imagined how many bees were in there," he says. "If I had not been there to see this, I would never have believed it."

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August 16, 2006 at 11:01 AM | Permalink


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Comments

They like apartment buildings too.

I lived in one near the 405 freeway in L.A. and every year they'd invade one of the west facing buildings. I came home on afternoon to see a mass of them - much like the photo of on that plane above - hanging off the side of the apartment building around the third floor. If they had've been any lower I would've gotten back in my car.

And then the year prior to that sighting they camped out for over a month at the top of a stairwell to the same building (near the third floor, where it exited out to the roof). Every morning walking out to the parking lot you'd see dead honeybees littering the floor- just outside the ground floor doorway of that same stairwell. The doorway and stairwell of course were closed with a hand drawn sign - "Warning! Bees in Stairwell"

The Property Managers were too cheap to call the city about the infestation, and this was an apartment building where new units rented for about 1,200/month.

Posted by: TrvlnMn | Aug 17, 2006 12:46:35 AM

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