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Bees attacked a woman in St. Pete, but a bee rescue is giving the bees a fresh start

Beekeeper Jeff Johnston in front of the home at 533 First Street NE. [Courtesy of Sheena Derocker]
Beekeeper Jeff Johnston in front of the home at 533 First Street NE. [Courtesy of Sheena Derocker]
Published Jun. 11, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Don Hoover was headed into a client's home near downtown when he saw a screaming woman on the street flailing her arms.

"I thought she was on drugs. She was so crazed, people were stopping because she was running in and out of the road," the St. Petersburg-based dog trainer wrote on Facebook on May 2. Still, he minded his business and went on with his errand.

When he came back out onto First Street near Fifth Avenue NE a few minutes later, there were other people running around yelling, "they're everywhere," and "they're all over you," he wrote. Then he saw the bees. He ran for his car.

"Luckily no bees got in my car with me," he said.

Sheena Derocker doesn't know Hoover, but weeks later she saw his Facebook post and recognized the scene. "I was the crazy girl," she wrote.

She told the story to the Tampa Bay Times, and confirmed his description rang true.

The 24-year-old bartender cut through the alley behind her apartment at Bay Villas toward her car parked on First Street that day on her way to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg for a final exam. She was swarmed by so many bees, she says she couldn't see, and could barely hear over the buzz. She dropped her textbooks on the street.

"I was screaming and crying, and I think that's the worst thing you can do because I heard they feed off the yelling," she said. "I shouted for help to a guy across the street and he was like, 'No, I don't want those bees near me'."

Passing cars slowed, but didn't stop, as she considered jumping into a nearby pool. Finally a woman and her daughter, who Derocker says recognized her from the hotel she works at, stopped and shouted for her to come over.

"They got out and started spraying me with something, hair spray I think," Derocker said. "Then a guy came out of somewhere and told me to close my eyes. He started spraying me with something too, then told me to run. Where was I supposed to run? There were bees in my hair."

Derocker got in the car with the mom and daughter who dropped her off near the door to her apartment. A neighbor drove her to the emergency room at St. Anthony's Hospital.

She was home a couple hours later. She'd been stung eight, maybe 10, times, on her arms, head and face. A doctor pulled stingers out of her scalp. She'd thankfully been wearing long sleeves and leggings that day, despite the heat.

"Luckily I'm not allergic at all or it would have been really bad. I could have died," she said. "I'm fine. I'm laughing now, and I hate to be dramatic, but have you ever seen the movie My Girl? It reminded me of that. So many of them you can't even see. The other day I saw a bee and I freaked out."

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Bay Villas condo association president Peter Rowell said he was very familiar with those bees. They'd colonized a crack in a very old wall that runs along the sidewalk in front of a home at 533 1st Street NE, close to the sign announcing you've crossed into the historic Old Northeast.

In the weeks before the day of the big swarm that got Derocker, Rowell went vigilante on the bees. He bought a can of poison, "the kind that shoots 20 or 30 feet," and stood back in the street blasting at the crack from afar. He emptied a whole can. Eventually he emptied another, and another. The bees, to his eyes, were unfazed.

He'd called the city's code enforcement department to complain, as had others in the neighborhood. Then they swarmed Derocker, and they called some more. These were bad bees, they said.

The homeowner, listed in city records as Timothy Reeser, hired beekeeper Jeff Johnston to make his bee problem disappear, but Johnston is no bee hitman. He runs Johnston's Honey Bees and Honey Bee Rescue, and bee rescuers, it turns out, aren't as judgmental as angry neighbors.

We can't afford to think of them as "bad" bees, said Johnston, because we're in a bee crisis with colonies mysteriously dying around the world, and the global food supply relies on bees as pollinators to produce "pretty much every item on your local salad bar, except for the ranch dressing and bacon bits."

Johnston arrived to find a fairly large colony of about 7,000 bees in the wall. From what he can tell without doing genetic testing — and the 52-year-old beekeeper has been working with bees since age 8 — the wall bees had become Africanized, meaning that at some point their queen may have left the hive and mated with some Africanized drones in the neighborhood — drones being the males that do the mating — which eventually led to Africanized worker bee offspring — the workers being the ones that did the stinging.

Eventually, it appears, the whole hive in the wall transitioned from mellower European honeybees to Africanized bees that are way more aggressive about defending their hive and swarm more often.

When bees are killed, but not removed properly, Johnston said, the smell of decaying bees and honey might be worse than live Africanized bees on your property.

"It's like a necrotic body. You'll smell it from a house away."

In this case, Johnston placed a large nucleus box filled with pheromones on the wall to attract the bees. It's like a funnel, and bees can get in, but they cant get out.

This got the bees out of the wall and riled up, so St. Petersburg firefighters showed up in full gear — jackets, helmets and oxygen masks — and blocked off the entire block from Fifth to Sixth Avenue NE with their trucks. Johnston busted out his bee vacuum and began sucking up thousands of them, about four pounds of bees on his first go-around.

Now the colony from the wall is living in a hive that a furniture maker built from salvaged cypress at Johnston's house in St. Petersburg. The bees are in the "isolation yard" quarantined from his many other bees, going through a sort of rehab. The old queen has been deposed, and replaced with a new queen, pre-mated with non-Africanized bees.

Once the old, Africanized drones and other undesirable bees die off, and the queen keeps repopulating the hive through a couple of life cycles, the colony will mellow and revert to European honeybees, the most common variety on earth.

There will be a state inspection, and the colony from the wall will go up for adoption, possibly to become someone's backyard bees for making honey, since Florida law now allows everyone to have two hives at their home. Or maybe the wall bees will go to work at Life Farms, a community farm in Clearwater Johnston works with, pollinating organic green beans, carrots and cucumbers.

Sometimes, people who have had bees removed adopt them back, this time as welcome guests. It runs around $265 to adopt rescue bees from Johnston, which includes bees, hive, delivery and install. He'll train you on beekeeping.

Johnston averages about 700 bee removals a year. They're not all Africanized, but said he's seen an increase in Africanized bees in south Pinellas County recently. He removed some from a property on Beach Drive in St. Petersburg just the other day.

James A. Corbett, director of codes compliance assistance for the city of St. Petersburg said there have only been 15 bee complaints or cases so far this year, which is on track to be less than last year's 45, and less than the previous year's 63, and way less than the 98 the year before that.

Back in Old Northeast this week, all that was left of the wall hive was a lot red caution tape that had fallen to the sidewalk, a couple of those road barriers with the blinking orange lights and a few dead bees on the wall above the crack, filled in with hardened, bright-orange foam.

Derocker said she wants the owner of the home to pay her $1,500 medical bill.

Contact Christopher Spata at Follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.