Then there’s killer bees. Like a rabid St. Bernard, they force us to wrangle with the question: what happens when a beloved creature turns its powers against us? No one likes to think about it.
Unless of course, you’re Reed Booth, the self-styled “Killer Bee Guy.” For nearly 25 years, Booth has pitted himself dramatically against the Africanized honeybees of Cochise County, Arizona (15 miles from the Mexican border). Modern Farmer caught up with Reed as he was shedding his protective gear; he had just removed a hive from an elementary school.
Modern Farmer: Busy time?
Reed Booth: It sure is! In the past 10 days, my team has gone out on 40 calls: elementary schools, Border Patrol, an old mineshaft, you name it.
MF: Is this level of activity typical?
RB: Right now, winter just ended and we are in the peak season. We’re in a high mountain desert area, and some years we get real winters, with snow. Then when it gets nice and the flowers start to bloom, the bees come out full force.
I mean, some of our winters are warm and I stay busy all season. But a cold winter like this one, I tell you bees are just like people; they hunker down, light a wood fire, watch a movie.
Hah hah, I am full of ’em. Dealing with what I do, you gotta have a sense of humor.
MF: What percentage of your calls are for killer bees?
RB: One hundred percent. At this point, all wild honeybees in the state of Arizona are Africanized. It’s a done deal; they’re all killers now. [Editorial Note: Modern Farmer verified this and other scientific claims with Dr. Osman Kaftanoglu, a bee researcher at Arizona State University.]
MF: When did the shift to killer bees begin?
RB: They were first introduced to Arizona in 1993, and they started breeding quick with the European bees. I started getting calls from ranchers like “We’ve had bees on our property for 60 years, we like bees, they never bothered anybody. But now they’re stinging the horses and everything else!” When I’d tell them their bees had breeded with the Africanized honey bees, they’d say, “Well come and get the doggone things!”
MF: What do you do with the hives?
RB: That depends. If they’re the wall of your home, I’m going to seal up the hole and kill them all. I call it nuke and seal. I’m not going to smash up your whole house for one beehive.
MF: That’s nice of you.
RB: Isn’t it though? I like it better when you get a hive back in an old shed or something. We’ll go in there, remove the bees, move them to one of our wide-open spaces in the desert. Then it’s okay if we tear things up. And we get to keep all the honey.
“I tell people I’m like a paid juvenile delinquent. I get to tear the hell out of people’s homes, then they’re like, ‘Do you want a beer?'”
MF: Do you sell the honey?
RB: Hell yeah, look at my website! I got honey butter, honey mustard, all that stuff.
MF: Got it. So you’ve been doing this job for decades. You must really love it, yes?
RB: I tell people I’m like a paid juvenile delinquent. I get to tear the hell out of people’s homes, then they’re like, ‘Do you want a beer?’ I can’t believe I’m 54 and a half years old and I’m still getting paid to do this.
MF: Any close encounters?
RB: Oh yeah. One time the History Channel was taping one of my removals and we found a hive that was especially hot. I almost got the camera man killed! I’ve had some real angry bees; one time they chased my truck for two miles. It’s a rush, I’ll tell you.
MF: Should people be worried?
RB: I think people could definitely use more education. We’ve got droves of people moving down here to Arizona because of the cheap real estate and nice climate, but no one tells them about the bees. Killer bees are spreading north, too. They just found killer bees in Madison, Wisconsin, and Northern California.
MF: So you battle killer bees every day, but they’re your living. Do you have mixed feelings towards them?
RB: No mixed feelings at all. I love ’em, plain and simple.
This is part of Modern Farmer’s Bee Week. Click here to see everything from our entire week of coverage all things honeybee. Bee Week: It’s like Shark Week, but with bees.