BISBEE — Bisbee resident Reed Booth stands out in a crowd.
Even when not wearing his usual work attire — a baggy suit with a screen helmet, resembling something Neil Armstrong would wear to walk on the moon — he is usually distinguishable by the angry bee or two crawling over his head.
After spending several decades upending the hives of one of the world’s most aggressive insects, the “Killer Bee Guy” is used to having a few persistent hangers-on. The nationally recognized Africanized (or killer) bee expert has made a name for himself by removing beehives in Cochise County, one of the many parts of Arizona heavily infested by the invasive species.
In early July, Booth executed one his largest hive removals to date at a lime plant outside Bisbee — all under the startled eyes of a visiting Japanese television crew.
“Every couple of years some big production company calls and says, “Oh, we wanna get scared to death,”” said Booth, who has made appearances on National Geographic, Fox, and the Discovery Channel. “So I say, ‘OK, lets do it!’”
The production, “Samurai Busters,” is a popular pest-removal show that airs exclusively in Japan, and features Japanese animal experts traveling all over the world to learn about other countries’ dangerous and pesky creatures. After hearing about the killer bee problem in the southwestern United States, the show’s producers began looking for a local expert to meet up with. Booth’s name popped up immediately, which led them to Bisbee, said the crew’s translator.
“We don’t have Africanized bees in Japan, so it’s totally something different,” said Tomo, the translator. “It’s very scary, but pretty exciting working with Reed.”
Killer bees have spread voraciously through Arizona since the 1990s. A hybrid between African bees and European honey bees that was first developed by a scientist in Brazil in 1956, they made a steady migration northward during the latter half of the 20th century.
After arriving in the U.S., they began to thrive in Southwest’s warm and arid climate. They now make up 100 percent of Arizona’s bee population, said Booth.
“They’re as tough as nails,” he said. “They are a blessing and a curse, because they do every job that a European bee does, but better. They pollinate better, they make twice as much honey, they swarm more often, and they defend the hive better.”
Killer bees’ tenacity when it comes to defending their hive is why they present such a threat. Although they resemble European honey bees in appearance, they are far more aggressive, and have been known to chase victims for miles, said Booth.
Killer bees were responsible for eight deaths in Arizona last year, and regularly kill pets and livestock, he said. They are also more active in the heat of summer than in cooler seasons, which is when calls for hive removals tend to spike, Booth said.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all where they live. We’ve removed them from anything you can imagine — from old couches, bulldozers, to outhouses,” he said.
At the bee removal attended by the crew of “Samurai Busters,” the bees had settled in piles of massive tires at the Bisbee-area lime plant, which Booth described as concealing “chimney-like” columns of the writhing insects.
“Even in my 30 years of doing this, it’s one of the biggest, which is really saying something,” he said.
With out-of-town visitors and media members present, Booth and his team took no chances in ensuring everyone’s safety. Members of the Bisbee Fire Department were parked nearby, ready to smother attacking bees with foam if necessary.
“It’s so remote out here, so that’s why they have us,” said Fire Chief George Castillo. “The only time we’ll react is if somebody’s life is in danger.”
There was some reason to worry: One member of the Japanese crew, a beekeeper and an expert on giant Japanese hornets, had been stung already during a smaller-scale killer bee removal earlier in the morning. His homemade bee suit hadn’t been up to the barrage from the Africanized bees, said Booth.
“I told them right off the bat, ‘It ain’t gonna work here,’ which was why I wanted to start with a (smaller) job,” he said. “Because this is going to be 10 times worse than anything they’ve ever seen before.”
The removal was certainly unlike anything that the hornet expert, Susumu, had seen before, he said.
“Japanese honey bees, they’re really calm, they rarely attack you,” he said, through the help of a translator. “But here in Arizona they’re very aggressive. It’s not something I’m used to.”
The Arizona bees proved their mettle that morning, obscuring Booth, his assistants, and the Japanese crew in shrill, buzzing clouds as a forklift operator upended the massive tires that housed their hives.
Later that afternoon, Booth reflected on the removal.
“It was excellent for one primary reason: No one died,” he deadpanned.
There was an average of 50,000 bees in each of the 10-plus hives, requiring a second removal attempt the following day, he said.
Although Booth often takes a lighthearted approach to his dangerous work, his voice grew serious as he explained why he continued to educate people about killer bees.
“They adapt very quickly to climate change, which European bees don’t. They killed a beekeeper in Connecticut. They found their first Africanized hive in Alberta,” he said. “They are not going away.”