Killer bees, the domestic honeybee's angry cousins, have invaded Virginia.
A renegade swarm of the species, formally known as Africanized bees, was responsible for an attack in Southwest Virginia this month that killed a goat and sent four people to the hospital, according to scientists with the federal government and Virginia Tech.
Researchers believe that the bees, more common in Texas and the Southwest, hopped a train or truck before ending up near the town of Low Moor, Va., where they commandeered a native beehive and then angrily defended it. It was the first time the bees had been found in Virginia.
Officials believe they got rid of all the Africanized bees by dousing the hive with gasoline, and they insist there is little chance that the species will be a threat in the future.
But scientists are planning to set baited hives for any remaining invaders--just in case.
"Our assumption is that it was an isolated swarm and the problem was taken care of," said Keith Tignor, an entomologist at Virginia Tech who is soon to become the state's chief apiarist, or beekeeper. "It was much too great a distance for them to fly here. They were probably transported here by accident."
The finding by researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture lab in Beltsville came as a surprise to Virginia scientists, who had doubted that Africanized bees could be in the area. The species is slightly smaller than the European honeybee common to North America, but the differences can be confirmed only by lab analysis.
The Downey family, on the other hand, was not surprised at all.
"My husband kind of suspected that's what they were," said Nannie Downey, whose husband, James, was stung more than 35 times. "He hadn't seen anything like that before. . . . We think they're gone, and we hope they don't come back."
Africanized bees, descended from African bees, have been migrating north since they were accidentally released from a Brazilian laboratory in 1957. They crossed into Texas about 10 years ago and have since invaded Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California.
The bees are territorial and aggressive, and are known for their habit of swarming and attacking a victim repeatedly. The insects can become agitated by vibrations from as far away as 100 feet and can pursue a victim for more than a quarter-mile.
Experts advise people to run as fast as possible if confronted with a killer-bee swarm, but not to try escaping by jumping in water; the bees will commonly wait until you surface to attack again.
Just last month, park rangers closed off a large swath of Joshua Tree National Monument in California after a swarm engulfed four hikers. Attacks have become so common that some communities in Orange County, Calif., are purchasing beekeeping suits for firefighters and paramedics.
"The repeated stinging and the fact that they keep coming at you is what makes them so dangerous," said Hachiro Shimanuki, who oversees the USDA's bee lab.
Nonetheless, Shimanuki and other experts argue that the killer bees have an unwarranted reputation and have been responsible for fewer than 10 deaths since their arrival in the United States.
"They will not normally become aggressive toward the individual around them, but they will be very protective of their nest, just like we would be protective of our home," Tignor said.
Killer-bee journeys are rare. In 1996, a colony traveled by container ship to Norfolk and rode by truck to Maine before escaping when the shipment was opened. Shimanuki said that in addition to the Low Moor incident, officials have discovered transported colonies this year in Illinois and West Virginia.
Without greater numbers, he and other scientists said, the chances are slim that Africanized bees will become a threat on the East Coast in the near future. The Low Moor colony numbered less than 3,000; European honeybee colonies often have as many as 50,000 inhabitants.
Rene Garcia, a beekeeper at Butterfly Bend Farm in Loudoun County, worked with Africanized bees for 11 years in Nicaragua, where the productive species is used for honey.
Garcia said European honeybees are much gentler. He and his Nicaraguan colleagues had to wear several layers of clothing and were once chased off their land by a killer-bee swarm; in Loudoun, Garcia works with his bare hands.
"They're much more naturally aggressive bees. They defend their hives at a high level," he said. "You have to respect the Africanized bees."
CAPTION: Advancing Africanized Bees (This graphic was not available)