WELLSWOOD — It was August when a wind gust split open a tree in his front yard, revealing the massive beehive. Eddie Gomez, 45, had noticed a few bees flying about as he mowed his lawn but never guessed he was harboring thousands.
The honeybees must have lived in the oak tree near Fairway Drive for years.
The swarming buzz shocked Gomez. His neighbors, too. They worried the bees might be dangerous, perhaps Africanized "killer bees."
But Gomez, an anesthesia tech at St. Joseph's Hospital, had also heard of the plight of honeybees, how they had been dying of a mysterious disease. He kept watch. The hive was a well-run cooperative and the bees were, well, busy. They went about making honey, and Gomez went about clearing the tree's fallen branches.
Then someone called code enforcement, and an officer stopped by one day. He left a citation: The city is no place for wild bees. They must go.
Gomez had grown to trust them, though, even daring one day to touch the hive. They swarmed about him, never stinging.
"Little fat bees," he said. "Almost like pets."
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Bees get a bad rap, said Florida bee expert Jerry Hayes, thanks in part to entomophobia, or fear of insects. But they play an important role in the ecosystem.
In Florida, more than 17 million pounds of honey is collected annually, Hayes said. Because of the regional plants that bees feed on, Florida honeys, like wines, are distinctive and include flavors like Brazilian pepper, Spanish needle and tupelo.
Bees also pollinate about a third of the food we eat, said Hayes, who is chief apiary inspector for Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "No honeybees, no watermelon," he said.
In recent years American beekeepers have lost colonies to parasitic mites, fungi, agricultural chemicals and the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, where bees desert their hives.
But their good deeds don't mean they're safe.
Wild nests like Gomez's should be exterminated because the insects could become dangerous, Hayes says.
Africanized or "killer" bees originated in the 1950s in Brazil as an accidental hybrid between an aggressive African subspecies and European honeybees.
A queen bee mates in flight with about 40 male drones in a week. Her body stores the sperm separately and goes about using each mate's in a particular order, laying up to a million eggs in her lifetime. If even one drone happened to be Africanized, all her worker bees would be affected when she gets to that sperm. The entire hive, then, would become aggressive.
In Florida, swarms of Africanized bees have killed 46 dogs and a 900-pound horse, Hayes said. In 2008, they killed a man in Okeechobee County.
If the queen in Gomez's yard had mated with an Africanized bee, Hayes said, "next week they could kill a neighbor's Shih Tzu or attack a child waiting at a bus stop or a postal worker."
This is where Jonathan Simkins comes in. He's an entomologist who owns Insect IQ and has been killing bees and other insects for 15 years.
Africanized honeybees were first noticed in the Tampa Bay area in 2001, at the Port of Tampa, Simkins said. Three years ago he averaged one angry bee call a month but now deals with them daily.
Today in the Tampa Bay area about 60 percent of wild nests are Africanized, Simkins said, although he prefers to call them "angry." He keeps a map of their hives. They tend to cluster in zones, he said, near canals or along the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg.
The central Tampa area near Hillsborough and Rome avenues are hot spots. That's where Gomez lives.
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Begonia Moradiellos rerouted her daily walk away from Gomez's house after seeing the bees. She worried for her 1-year-old grandson and her 5-pound dog. She hoped her neighbor would find the bees a new home.
None of the neighbors ever complained directly to Gomez, though.
As an early October deadline passed and a potential fine from the city loomed, he relented to get rid of the bees, despite his attachment to them.
"It's kind of sad," he said. "I never really liked bees before, but I was amazed at the way they lived together in a community."
He considered wrapping a garbage bag around them and setting them free in the country. But when he heard that they might turn on him in anger, he finally decided to take the state's advice.
A friend called Simkins.
On a recent morning, Simkins wore a white suit with a net around his face. Hundreds of bees swarmed about him. They could each fly 20 mph and sting.
They didn't, though. As it turned out, Simkins could tell that these weren't aggressive enough to be killers. At least not yet.
He sprayed foam into their honeycomb and pulled sections of it from the hollow of the old tree.
Finally, there she was. In 15 years, he had never found a wild queen. She was twice the size of her worker bees.
He took a picture and slipped her into a plastic bag.
She had presided over about 5,000 bees in Gomez's yard. A few doomed stragglers continued to linger around the oak.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.