They were sitting on the bank of the Rio Taquari when the bees attacked. Minutes later, after countless bee stings that made their bodies balloon, horribly, Honorio and Otavio Frisco de Almelda were dead - the latest victims of the feared "killer bees" that have plagued Brazil since that day in 1956 when 26 bellcose, African queen bees were accidentally turned loose by a technician at a genetics lab in San Paulo.
Tuesday, Oct. 11, was a beautiful spring day, sunny with clear skies, and the Almeidas,father and son, had decided to go fishing. They followed the river out of their hometown of Pedro Gomes, a village of 5,000 on the plains of the Brazilian frontier state of Maro Groso do [WORD ILLEGIBLE], and were peacefully casting in the quiet stream, when they were suddenly beset by the swarm of bees.
"It was their own carelessness that did them in," says Mozart Mendonca de Silva, former mayor of Pedro Gomes. "We've known for months that those bees have been around, and with all the plants and flowers blooming now, they've become even more aggressive than usual. Those African bees will attack anything that gets in their way, be it animal or man."
The first known incident of a person being stung to death by Brazilian killer bees - actually a cross between the African apis mellifera adansonii and tame local varieties - took place in 1966, in the south of Brazil. In the ensuing 11 years, the killer bees have compiled a record of ferociousness that makes the hospitalization this month of more than a dozen people in Pedro Games seem like small stuff.
In Rio, the killer bees have disrupted funeral processions, invaded apartments and taken over movie theaters. At border crossings of Argentina and Uruguay, they have attacked tourists and trucks loaded with ripe fruit. In the town of Suzano in 1975, they overran the main square on market day, retreating only after a seven-hour battle against soldiers armed with flame throwers, tear gas and hand grenades.
"I have been around bees all my life," says Leonardo Weinschenk, a farmworker who lives in Fazenda do Facao, a tiny settlement in the mountains, 50 miles north of Rio de Janeiro, "and there was never any trouble until about 10 years ago." The first human fatality in his area was in 1967, and it was about five years ago that Weinschenk himself had two dangerous confrontations with the African strain, which he says is "redder" that the bees he raised as a child.
Weinschenk's first encounter with the killer bees came when he returned home from work one afternoon and found dozens of his chickens, goats and geese dead in his yard, on ground that was thick with the corpses of "hundreds and hundreds" of bees. "My burro and some chickens were still alive," he says, "but their bodies were swollen," and they were stumbling around. They all died within hours."
Inside the house he found his wife and childred huddled in the bedroom where they had fled when the swarm of bees attacked the barnyard animals without warning. "They were terrified," says Weinschenk. "Some of the bees had gotton into the house. My wife said she could bear the rest of the bees buzzing outside the window, trying to get in."
The 30-minute adventure that nearly cost Weinschenk his life occurred soon afterward. A friend had told him of a newly arrived colony of bees that was swarming nearby, and Weinschenk went up the side of the mountain, into the dense thicket of bush and shrubs, to investigate.
He cleared an area with his machete, intending to come back in two days with his wife and transfer the bees to one of the reserve hives they kept for such wandering swarms. But when he returned and tried to approach the swarm he was immediately attacked.
"I was 10 yards away, when all of a sudden they came at me," he recalls. "I had a plastic bag over my head, but otherwise I was unprotected. I'd never needed anything more than that in the past, and there was nothing to make me think that this would be any different."
But it was. When the bees began their onslaught, "I started running up the mountainside, away from the swarm, because it's always been my experience that if you leave the bees' territory, they'll leave you alone. Not these, though. They came after me, following me whereever I went, stinging my arms and legs, getting under my clothes. So I started screaming to my wife to start a fire."
Smoke tends to pacify bees, but Weinschenk found that when he stood near the fire, the bees became even more aggressive. "That's when I really got scared. They were getting under the plastic and they weren't behaving like any bees that I had ever seen before."
He began running again, the bees still in hot pursuit, and eventually came to a small cliff. He decided to jump. As he leaped, he throw the plastic bag in the air, hoping the bees would attack that and him alone. Most of the swarm, though, continued to follow him. He eluded them only by throwing himself into a river and swimming away underwater.
"Jumping into that coldwater probably saved my life," says Weinschenk, with a smile that shows the gaps in his teeth. "It helped keep the swelling down." As it was, he had to crawl home: His arms and legs were so swollen that he couldn't walk.
"I can't tell you how many times I was stung," he says. "There were too many to count. It had to be at least a couple of hundred times."
His limbs continued to swell once he reached home, where his wife was waiting, but he stubbornly refused to go to the hospital. "Round here we don't go to the hospital except to die," he says, "and I didn want to die." Instead, he was laid for days home, with his wife a tending him with herbs and other hom remedies until the swelling in his limbs and face subsided.
That was the end of his beekeeping career. "I had always gotten pleasure from giving some of the honey back to the bees," he says. "The feeling of the tame bees taking away the honey that I had poured on my han was something I enjoyed. But couldn't do that any more, and neither could anyone else. None of us around here keep bees anymore."
It's been much easier to keep the killer bees under control in the cities. When a swarm of the hybrid bee occupied the roof the Rosy Theater in Copacabana, firemen with flame throwers were able to drive them away. And across the bay from Rio in Niteroi, the bees have even come to the aid of the public authorities albeit inadvertently.
It seems that a swarm of the killed bees attacked the Niteroi jail, invading the cells and stinging the prisoners. The robbers and thieves though it was all part of some kind of fieldish new torture devised by the police - and within minutes the cell block was echoing with the shoute confessions of prisoners.