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Arrival of killer bees brings yawns, not panic

There is no talk of killer bees at Andy's Cafe 2 here, no panicked calls to the City Hall in nearby Alamo, not even a mention of the bee invasion in the Beeville Bee-Picayune. But over the next few years, the Africanized honey bees will have a dramatic impact on beekeepers and agriculture as they cause a reduction in both honey production and pollination.

And their long-awaited arrival here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley this week set off speculation about other possible effects.

Still, after years of films like The Swarm, and Saturday Night Live skits of John Belushi in killer bee regalia snarling, "Your pollen or your wife," the bees' arrival has been something of an anticlimax.

"Here in the Valley, people have been anticipating this for so long, people are just sick of hearing about it," said Dave Mayes, with the department of agricultural communications at Texas A&M University. "People know more about the bee, and their anxiety level has decreased."

The relaxed response is likely to change as the bees become more prevalent and as stings are reported. Beekeepers view them as a serious threat to the $150-million in honey produced in the United States annually and to the up to $10-billion in agricultural products that bees help pollinate.

Still, when the first swarm of aggressive bees finally buzzed into Texas, their debut played out here much as their spread across the country probably will _ an epochal event for beekeepers and a real, but minor, risk for the public.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed Thursday that a 3,000-bee swarm of Africanized honey bees was found and then destroyed Monday in one of the department's traps just north of the Rio Grande.

The discovery means that 33 years after African bees were inadvertently let loose in Brazil, the aggressive strain has entered the United States.

Although the Africanized bees' sting is no worse than that of other bees, the bees are extremely aggressive in defending their hives and have the potential to attack and sting in angry swarms.

There are no precise figures on fatalities. The government of Mexico says at least 16 people have been killed by the bees there in the past three years, and some experts estimate that 700 to 1,000 people have been killed by stings since 1957, when the bees escaped from a Brazilian breeding experiment.

For the most part, the bees' arrival was met with yawns.

"I saw it in the paper, but I just read past it," said Jesse Delgado, manager of Andy's Cafe 2. "No one has even mentioned it."

A hotline set up to give out information on the bees received only about 15 calls, most from nervous residents who wondered if hives near their homes could contain the Africanized bees.

But John Thomas, a Texas A&M entomologist, said some people are so panicked by the thought of the bees they are in a constant state of anxiety.

"They want to sell their home and move to St. Louis or Kansas City or Chicago before the real estate market crashes because of the bee panic in San Antonio."

In Houston, Tom Magliaro of Tom Magliaro's Hair Additions, says he worries that Africanized bees might attack the 60 to 80 clients of his who have used beeswax to attach new hairs to thicken existing ones in thinning areas.

He raised the specter of a terrified client driving along in a convertible with a 3-pound swarm of Africanized bees chasing his hair.

For entomologists, the discovery was as much a source of excitement as a threat.

"Bees are far more interesting than most of the people we know," said Thomas of Texas A&M. "They sting, they die, and they laugh all the way to the grave."