POMONA — A woman’s curiosity gave her quite the birthday buzz Tuesday.
Just hours into her 77th birthday, Dixie Soper finished feeding her horses before noticing a small, round hole obscured with hay and sticks.
“I saw it and thought, ‘I wonder what lives in there?’” Soper pondered, picking up a stick to prod the hole. “I figured it was a granddaddy long legs and was interested in it, but I’m not now. ... I took a little stick and [a swarm of insects] came out in mass. They started stinging my arms and hands. I had five in my hair. They were all over.”
Uncertain of what was attacking her, Soper quickly scampered to her house as the swarm of insects continued stinging her scalp and face, she said. Eventually, Soper dunked her head in water in hopes of killing the bugs still latched to her hair.
“I’ve never had anything so aggressive or mean,” she said, adding that the insects stung her repeatedly. “A normal group of bees you’d back up and you’re fine. But this [colony] didn’t stay there — they were after me. I got a black eye from where they got me. They were mean, vicious little devils.”
With her face, hands and arms swollen from the attack, Soper called her daughter for help. The two placed hay and wood over the hole and set it afire with lamp oil, Soper said. The fire, however, was relatively ineffective, as the insects continued to swarm Wednesday through the smoldering ashes.
After some Internet research, Soper and her daughter all but concluded the aggressive insects were Africanized, or killer, bees. Such bees have proliferated throughout Mexico and have steadily made their way north, breeding with European honeybees along the way, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.
The Africanized honeybee’s aggressive nature, the department said, also is likely to carry on in its offspring.
“Recent research indicates the African traits are more dominant, so the bees are not likely to become more gentle from interbreeding with other subspecies,” the department said in a 2006 report on Africanized honeybees. “Under normal conditions, Africanized honeybees move northward about 100 miles to 300 miles a year. They have spread throughout most of Mexico, southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Arkansas and Oklahoma. They have been detected two counties south of Kansas in Oklahoma. They could arrive in Kansas as early as 2006. ... The Africanized honeybee can be extremely aggressive when defending its colony. At any perceived threat, the Africanized honeybee can swarm out of the colony and attack.”
Still curious for an explanation, Soper kept one of the dead insects in hopes an expert could analyze it. To learn more, The Herald sent several photographs of the insect specimen to Chip Taylor, an veteran insect ecologist at the University of Kansas who has studied bees for more than 20 years.
After analyzing the photos, Taylor quickly concluded that the swarm of insects were common, albeit aggressive, yellow jackets.
“I get lots of calls about underground bee nests at this time of year. They are always yellow jackets — as is the specimen in the photo,” Taylor said, adding that Africanized honeybees “are duller, hairier and not shiny.”
In addition, Taylor said, it’s improbable that Africanized bees have migrated this far north in Kansas. The closest of the species, he said, are likely near the Kansas-Oklahoma border “probably nesting in an old tree or some trash along a river or creek.
“[Africanized honeybees] will be permanent residents in some of our southern counties in a few years,” he added. “The numbers of colonies and the incidents associated with them will be few.”
Generally, Taylor said, yellow jacket colonies grow throughout the summer and are usually at their largest and most active in the fall. Asked what people should do if they encounter a large colony of yellow jackets, Taylor said there are a variety of options.
“Leave [the colony] alone if they can. It will die out in a month or less,” he said. “Or, mark the spot of the entrance and spray insecticide inside the entrance after dark and then plug the entrance. There are lots of products on the market that make this easy.”
Meanwhile, Soper said, she’ll give the yellow jackets plenty of space and feed her horses at a different trough.
“I’m just glad it was me and not one of [her grandchildren],” Soper said Wednesday, still with swollen hands and forearms from the bugs’ stings. “That was my stupid birthday.”