ST. PETERSBURG — The hive grew a foot, then another, and another. For years.
The Africanized bees lived in front of Robert Porter's tiny one-bedroom house. Forty thousand of them, in an 8-foot-tall hive that stretched 30 inches wide. Sixty pounds of honeycomb.
He knew they were there. But rather than pay a beekeeper to get them out, he ignored them.
The bees and Porter, they had an understanding.
"I was living with them," said Porter, 66. "They don't bother you if you don't bother them."
Tuesday, they were bothered.
An empty bookcase and boxes, too close to a gas water heater on Porter's back porch, caught fire about 9 a.m., said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Lt. Joel Granata. Flames erupted, destroying the porch and spreading throughout the home at 1661 29th Ave. N.
The fire burned a power line, which fell and electrified a chain-link fence in the back yard.
In the commotion, the Africanized bees burst from the hive. But they didn't leave. In self-preservation, bees attempt to gather honey rather than scatter when something threatens them, said beekeeper Rodney Tyoe, a retired firefighter summoned to help.
When rescue workers arrived, Capt. Bernie Williams saw the bees and told firefighters with bee allergies to get back. That's when he felt the prick on his right shin.
"I looked down and I saw the bee sting me," he said. "I knocked him off my leg."
After firefighters controlled the fire, Tyoe sprayed pesticide and removed the burned beehive and dumped it in a box. The rest of the bees will gradually die from the pesticide, he said.
A bee stung an ABC Action News camera operator, said Granata. Tyoe also had several pricks on his arms.
Africanized bees, also called "killer bees," are common. When they sting, their bee friends flock to the scent and swarm, said Tyoe, 71, who has been "playing" with bees since he was 19.
But he hasn't had a call like this in years.
"Oh, now, I've seen bigger than that, but it was up there," he said. "It's pretty good when you get one that's 8 feet long."
Porter is an unemployed former soldier, salesman and construction worker living on Social Security. Neighbors said he loves to greet newcomers and leave Christmas gifts on porches.
"This is what happens to the nicest people in the neighborhood," said his friend James Mock.
Tuesday morning, Porter ate a bowl of Smart Start cereal, peaches and strawberries and walked to get a newspaper. Back home, his cat Black Beauty Marie (named after Marie Osmond) mewed incessantly. She had just lost two babies from her litter. Porter figured she was upset.
"Stop it," he told her. "You'll get over it. I will bury your poor babies."
He took a nap and woke about 9 a.m. to flames. Officials estimate about $30,000 in damage was done to the home, worth $79,500. Porter retrieved bills and a painting of red poppies and a Japanese geisha. The Red Cross put him up at a Ramada Inn.
Porter wasn't concerned with the bees Tuesday. He just wanted to get clean clothes and food for his cats — Scrappy, Lightening, Sabre, Scruffy, Black Beauty Marie and Zippy. By the time the fire was out, he had seen only Scrappy.
"They probably skedaddled," said firefighter Nicki Walker, allergic to bees and clad in protective gear. "There was too much going on with all the noise. We didn't see any inside."
Porter stayed upbeat, glad to be safe. He figured he'd get lunch at Denny's.
He just ordered Marie Osmond's new book, he said. It's called Might as Well Laugh About It Now.
Times staff writer Emily Nipps contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857.