LARGO — If you happened to travel the Pinellas Trail just south of Ulmerton Road last week, maybe you saw the orange cones and orange tape marking off two sections of a wall along the east side of the trail. A warning was painted behind the cones.
This section of the trail is where a 74-year-old woman was attacked by Africanized (or, yes, "killer") bees last June. Some neighbors called a local TV station and complained that Africanized bees had returned. There were now two hives in the area.
On June 12, the TV station showed up. Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources staffers came out and marked off the hives. The county had the hives removed, even though they were on private property.
"Because these were so close to the trail, and it had been alleged they were putting trail users at risk, we had them removed," said Lyle Fowler, operations manager for the county's parks department. "But that's really the responsibility of the private landowner."
The county was right to take the hives down, local bee experts say. But while one expert says aggressive bees are taking over the Tampa Bay area and a human death is inevitable, others scoff at the claim that local beehives are more dangerous than ever.
"The Largo/Seminole area has more aggressive bees, a lot more than there were just three years ago," said Jeff McChesney, inspector with Truly Nolen Pest & Termite Control.
When Betty Livernois was stung more than 50 times by bees behind her Largo home last June, McChesney removed the hive. While he didn't confirm it through testing, he said those bees acted Africanized.
In the 1950s, African honeybees were imported to Brazil in the hopes they'd mate with resident European bees and produce a bee better suited to the tropics. African bees reproduce faster and defend their hives much more aggressively than their European counterparts. The more dangerous hybrid bees spread north.
Africanized bees hit Texas in the 1990s and Florida in the early 2000s via the Port of Tampa. In 2008, Florida had its first Africanized bee fatality when an Okeechobee County man died after being stung more than 100 times.
Pinellas County has never had a fatality, but McChesney thinks the attack in Largo last year was an omen.
"More people are going to be hospitalized, and I really think Pinellas County is going to see a death in the near future," he said.
Jonathan Simkins, an entomologist with Insect IQ in Tampa, disagrees. Simkins has the contract for hive removal on Pinellas County-owned property, and he removed the two hives along the Pinellas Trail recently. As Africanized bees have mated with European bees in the Tampa Bay area, Simkins said, he has seen less aggressive behavior than when the bees first arrived.
Pure African bees will attack any disturbance near their hives. Simkins says these bees let him inspect their hive but attack when he starts removing it.
McChesney and Simkins agree it's bad for any beehive to be near the Pinellas Trail and its stream of potential sting victims.
They also agree that locals should treat any bee sting as if it came from an Africanized bee: Run to an enclosed area, like a house or a car, take the stinger out right away and call a professional to remove the hive.
No matter what Simkins says, though, Bill and Betty Livernois are convinced the bees that attacked them last year were Africanized.
Betty, now 75, fell down as she was coming back from walking her dog on the trail and soon was covered in bees. She suffered more than 50 stings while Bill, 87, was stung more than a dozen times as he tried to help. Betty spent four days in the hospital recovering.
The couple have lived in their home along the trail for 32 years. They'd never seen aggressive bees before last June, they said.
Ever since, Betty has been extra careful when gardening, and she altered her dog-walking path.
"Not out on the trail," said Bill.
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.