Cochise County's 'killer bee guy' Reed Booth sees recent uptick after slow summer

·12 min read

After a relatively quiet summer for Africanized “killer” bee attacks in Cochise County, recent days have seen around half a dozen major bee sting incidents that resulted in one hospitalization and the death of a dog.

Reed Booth, aka Killer Bee Guy, a well-known figure in Cochise County was called upon to remove a beehive full of bees that stung three Douglas residents on Saturday, one of which was sent to a hospital for treatment. The resident was stabilized and survived the attack.

A few days later, Booth was called to another incident in Naco, a border town 32 miles west of Douglas. A man who had been using a weed trimmer was stung 35 times and his dog was stung to death, according to the Naco Fire District.

Later that week, Booth was called about a bee attack at Bisbee High School and another attack where a man was mowing his lawn and was stung 50 times.

He said he does not know why there has been a recent uptick in aggressive bee activity.

Booth has conducted innumerable bee removal operations throughout the years, and although he knows how to handle the bees, he never goes to a removal without his bee suit.

“In my bee suit I’m superman; without it, I’m a little girl,” he said, noting his vulnerability and the seemingly interminable aggression Africanized bees can present when stressed.

“I feel like I got run over by a Mack truck”

Chris Crucilla and his sons used a weed whacker in front of his mother-in-law’s house Saturday morning, when he started feeling bees stinging him on his neck.

“I left the weed eater. I guess there was a swarm following me,” Crucilla said. He ran into his mother-in-law’s house.

His blue shirt had turned brown as hundreds of bees descended on him.

“I ripped my shirt off and we just started stomping,” Crucilla said. Soon after, the bees began jumping from Chris to his adult son, Josh, who is allergic to bee stings.

Josh said he first felt numb and then felt stabbing pain before experiencing a seizure and falling unconscious. Within 10 minutes, his brother had called 911 and Josh was rushed to the hospital. He was given medicine and his condition stabilized.

Just two days after the attack, Booth drove down to the Douglas residence in his small, red fire truck filled to the brim with tools. He was accompanied by his assistant Yehoshua "Hosh" Sedan.

He spoke with the victims of the bee attack.

“Still not feeling right,” Josh said. “I feel like I got run over by a Mack truck.”

Booth said Josh was lucky to be alive after such an attack.

“There are many that don’t (survive). Every week in this county, they (the bees) kill a dog, a horse or a goat.”

Hosh and Booth were dressed in white bee suits and wearing three-layers of disposable gloves with their wrists and ankles wrapped in duct tape to close any opening in sleeves and pant legs.

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The hive was located under the house next to Chris' mother-in-law's house.

Booth found the entrance to the hive, what he called “the bee’s front door,” and sealed it shut with expanding foam to prevent the bees from pouring out of the hole and attacking the neighborhood.

After, Hosh and Booth locked themselves in the small, one-story house to remove the hive.

They went to work in the 100-degree heat, drilling exploratory holes in the wooden floors, and eventually finding and removing the beehive located in the back corner of the closet under the floorboards.

“Oh yeah, they don’t like us at all. The bomb is about to go off, if anyone gets stung let me know,” he said before he began removing the floorboards.

The beehive was a typical size of about 40,000 to 50,000 bees.

During the removal, bees buzzed around the room, most rushing to the windows since bees are attracted to light.

“When you get trapped in a room with bees, they are no longer a threat to us. A nuisance, yes, a threat, no,” Booth said, explaining how bees are attracted to light bulbs at night and uncovered windows during the day.

Naco man encounters bees

After Booth returned home that night, exhausted, the Naco Fire District called him out to a residence where a man was attacked after he startled a colony of bees in his shed while using a weed trimmer.

Fire Chief Jesus Morales said there were thousands of bees, and the victim was lucky to be alive. The man saved himself by running to his mother-in-law’s house. He was stung 35 times, along with his dog who did not survive the attack.

Why are some bees so aggressive?

Booth said horses, cattle and dogs die every summer because of Africanized honey bee attacks.

He explained that Africanized honey bees are more vicious and stay mad longer than the more docile and weaker European honey bee. Additionally, their territory can stretch for up to three miles from their hive.

Booth said colonies of bees can be calm for years and then something triggers their alarm response and “all hell breaks loose.”

“They can be fine for one minute, one year, 10 years, but they are a bomb waiting to go off,” he said. “You don’t know why. It can be the color of your shirt 100 yards away, it could be weed whackers, smells. They hate everything.”

Shujuan “Lucy” Li, a Phoenix-based public health integrated pest management entomologist with the University of Arizona said the bee's aggressive behavior is how they protect themselves when they sense danger.

According to the publication produced by the university, foraging honey bees are generally not a cause for concern, unless someone is allergic, but groups of honey bees can be alarming.

The publication also stated wild honey bees in Arizona are a hybrid of the western honey bee, the East African lowland honey bee and other bee subspecies.

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Li said they look the same as their more peaceful counterpart, the European honey bee, but their behavior is much more aggressive. They swarm and attack in large numbers, which is how they have become known as “killer” bees.

Li said Africanized honey bee venom is not any different than that of other honey bees. However, due to the large number of bees that attack at once they are more lethal than their docile counterpart.

She said it is safe to assume that all wild honey bees in Arizona are Africanized. By 1997, just four years after Africanized bees first appeared in Arizona, about 90% of the state’s honey bees had been Africanized.

According to experts, the Africanized honey bee colony was first spotted in South America and quickly made its way to the U.S., first reaching Texas in 1990. 

How Booth became a beloved bee removal expert in Cochise County

Africanized bees on a floorboard that has been taken out during a beehive removal in Douglas, Arizona.
Africanized bees on a floorboard that has been taken out during a beehive removal in Douglas, Arizona.

Booth has had a long career in dealing with Africanized honey bees dating back 30 years when he kept his own beehives. In 1996, he opened a store in Bisbee and another in Tombstone in 2010 called Killer Bee Guy, where he sells honey, honey butter and honey mustard, among other products.

In the early 1990s, once Africanized bees began taking over European beehives in southern Arizona, his hives were Africanized and his once docile bees became aggressive.

Booth, who said he was a survivalist, lives on 32 acres of land that stretches from Mule Pass Tunnel to the entrance of Bisbee.

“I used to watch clouds of my bees chase cars down Highway 80 when they came through the tunnel. Isn’t that awesome?” he said with a gleeful laugh.

Then on a more serious note, he said he had to remove his bees.

“I had to kill them; they became Africanized,” he said. "They were evil, honeymoon is over. Romance is done.”

He started getting calls from ranchers about bees stinging their horses and cows. Bee aggression became progressively worse, he said.

In 1998 in Bisbee, Booth witnessed one of the worst killer bee attacks recorded in history. More than a dozen people were stung and half of them went to the hospital. A detective called Booth to help remove the beehive. What he saw was like an apocalyptic scene in a movie.

“Cars parked every which direction, lights on, doors open, no one around, idling,” he said. Purses, socks and blouses were strewn in the street “because people went nuts when they got attacked like that.”

Within 30 minutes, he had removed the beehive.

After three decades of removing hives, Booth has observed how the frequency of aggressive bee activity tends to be cyclic, where every several years activity increases dramatically, then in subsequent years bee activity slows before it begins increasing again.

“I was like oh my god, if it’s always this busy I’ll be rich, or dead, or both,” Booth said about the first high-activity year he remembers experiencing.

Bees on honey comb taken from a hive under a Douglas home during a hive removal on August 1, 2022
Bees on honey comb taken from a hive under a Douglas home during a hive removal on August 1, 2022

“All of a sudden, they are stinging everybody, vicious as hell, they are everywhere,” Booth said, adding that happened in 2020, one of the worst years for killer bee activity he has experienced.

However, the years following a high-activity year, like 2014 and 2020, tended to be a lot slower.

This year has been a slow year for bee removals, that is, until last week.

During the years of high aggressive bee activity, Booth said he might get 10 to 15 calls a day, although not all of them end up in needing beehives removed.

As Cochise County continues to be a hot bed for bee activity, Booth is the go-to bee removal expert for residents and agencies around southern Arizona.

Booth reiterated that Cochise County bees are the "meanest," most aggressive Africanized bees in the country. He said he has seen them become so aggressive they attack tires on trucks, telephone poles and birds in the sky.

Li, the entomologist, said she has not seen scientific data to support that theory, but noted there could be other reasons why residents in the county are seeing more bee attacks.

Li noted the Africanized bee was created in a lab in South America to make more honey and survive in hotter temperatures, which is why they have done so well in southern Arizona, where the winters are dryer and hotter than areas in the northern part of the state.

“Bees stay year-round and are more active year-round,” she said about honey bees in Cochise County. Li also said in more rural areas where there is livestock, trees and outdoor activities, there could be more encounters between people and their animals and wild bees.

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From beehive removals, a TikTok star is born

Bees rush to the window as the nearest source of light after Booth Reed starts drilling holes into the ground to remove their hive. August 1, 2022
Bees rush to the window as the nearest source of light after Booth Reed starts drilling holes into the ground to remove their hive. August 1, 2022

In recent years, Booth has leveraged his job and experience to become a bee removal influencer online.

His theatrical presence and love of the spotlight, as well as popular content has made his TikTok account, Killer Bee Guy 1, boom in recent years. He has amassed 25,000 followers.

Along with his fans, who he calls “killer bee nation,” he has also amassed some hate.

“I am basically Satan. Bee huggers hate me. I used to be a bee hugger,” he said, referring to people who want him to relocate their aggressive bees.

When people ask him to relocate their bees, his answer is simple and direct — no.

“It would be like taking a landmine from your yard and taking it to someone else’s yard,” he said.

Despite the aggression Africanized honey bees present when they sense danger, they are still an important part of the ecosystem, Li said.

She said while beehives should be removed if on people’s properties, honey bees should not be harmed if they are seen in nature and not aggressive.

“Honey bees are crucial pollinators,” she said. “They are still a very important part of the ecosystem. They have their own purpose; we cannot kill them if they are not bothering us… they are still beneficial insects.”

Despite being allergic to bee stings, Li loves watching honey bees in nature. She grew up in a beekeeping family in China.

“It’s really fun to see if they are pollinating orange trees and citrus trees. It is fun watching them enjoy nature,” she said.

To prevent bees from nesting on people’s properties, Li advises homeowners to inspect their land, as bees often nest in walls, or enclosed spaces like an overturned flowerpot or in a shed.

What should I do if I encounter bees?

Li suggests that if the general public sees a beehive on their property they should call a beekeeper and not try to move the hive themselves.

According to the University of Arizona fact sheet, if someone is being attacked by Africanized honey bees they should run and get to the shelter of a house or car as quickly as possible.

Because bees target the head and eyes, someone being attacked should try to cover their head while running to shelter, the fact sheet stated.

It also advised not flailing nor attempting to swat the bees. If an attack victim is far from shelter, experts advise them to run through tall brush. This action will confuse and slow them.

If members of the public see someone being attacked by bees, they should encourage the victim to run away or seek shelter and avoid attempting to rescue them themselves. They should also seek emergency help.

Coverage of southern Arizona on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is funded by the nonprofit Report for America in association with The Republic.

Reach the reporter at sarah.lapidus@gannett.com.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Cochise County's 'bee guy' Reed Booth sees uptick after slow summer