What was supposed to be a short and easy hike ended in tragedy Thursday morning when a young man died after being stung more than 1,000 times by bees in an Arizona park.
Alex Bestler, 23, was walking along Merkle Memorial Trail in Usery Mountain park near Mesa just before 9 a.m. when he and a friend were suddenly attacked by thousands of bees.
“Without provocation or warning, a large swarm of bees descended on both of them as they continued on the trail,” the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement.
Bestler’s friend, identified in the statement only as Sonya, was ahead of him on the trail. She was able to scramble to a restroom to escape the swarm.
Bestler was not.
When Sonya alerted another hiker to the attack, the man went back to check on Bestler only to find him at the center of a thick, dark cloud of insects.
“Alex was located lying on the ground still covered by bees and he was not able to approach due to the aggressiveness of the bees,” the statement says.
When park employees arrived, they, too, were “forced back by the bees.”
As the swarm stung Bestler over and over again, rescuers tried to reach him several times but couldn’t get close before they were driven away by the insects.
Finally, Allen Romer arrived to the park. The MCSO sergeant jumped on a park utility task vehicle, or UTV, and raced to Bestler’s location.
“With the assistance of two Rural Metro Fire Fighters, Sgt. Romer was able to load Alex onto the UTV and remove him from the scene, still covered with bees, and a swarm pursuing,” according to the statement. “Upon arrival at the emergency vehicles’ location, the bees had dissipated to the point of safety, that fire personnel began life saving measures.”
Bestler was whisked to Desert Vista Hospital but not in time. He died after arrival.
“An examination of the body conducted by medical staff and Sheriff’s detectives estimated over a thousand bee stings,” according to the MCSO statement. “The decedent was conveyed to the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office and is pending autopsy.”
A statement posted to the park’s website at 9:44 a.m. Thursday said the area was closed due to “aggressive bee activity.”
“Due to aggressive bee activity, the following areas have been closed,” the post said, listing Merkle Trail, Vista Trail, bathrooms and the parking lot. “Please do NOT enter these areas. The park has called in the experts to locate the bees. Until we have determined it is safe for park visitor use, the areas will remain closed. In the meantime, we hope you will explore and enjoy one of the many other trails at Usery Mountain Regional Park. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Romer himself received multiple bee stings as well as cacti punctures but returned to duty after treatment.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio praised his deputy for his heroics.
“I commend Sgt. Romer for risking his life trying to save the victim,” he said. “These attacks are becoming more frequent and I urge the public to be aware of their surroundings when out in these areas.”
As if to prove his point, another bee attack occurred the same day in nearby Phoenix, where a 51-year-old man was hospitalized after numerous stings, according to the Arizona Republic. Phoenix Fire officials told the newspaper that the man was experiencing bouts of unconsciousness and he was believed to be extremely allergic to the stings.
It is unclear if Bestler also was allergic.
Bee attacks in the American Southwest have been on the rise in recent years, according to experts. Many of the worst attacks are attributed to Africanized bees, the so-called killer bees that have been slowly migrating north from Brazil for decades. Africanized bees look like normal bees and are no more poisonous, but they are much more aggressive, more likely to attack in swarms and relentlessly pursue their target, according to apiarists.
Authorities have not announced what type of bee was involved in the fatal attack on Thursday. But Africanized bees have been blamed for a string of deadly or near deadly attacks in Arizona and other states.
Earlier this month, bees terrorized a neighborhood in Concord, Calif., after an amateur beekeeper tried to get rid of his hive, according to the AP. Instead, he set loose the insects, which are believed to have killed two dogs. The bees were initially reported to be Africanized bees, although state agricultural officials later said they were regular honeybees, SFGate reported.
A year earlier, a construction worker in a Walmart parking lot in Riverside, Calif., died from an allergic reaction to stings suffered when his crew stumbled upon an underground hive, according to the Desert Sun.
This March, a man in Raymondville, Tex., died after being stung more than 200 times by bees while mowing his lawn, according to local television station KRGV.
Arizona, in particular, has been a hotbed of bee attacks. In early April, more than 20 people were stung by bees at a mosque in nearby Phoenix, Reuters reported. A few days later, an elderly couple in the same area were also attacked while in their yard. The 72-year-old husband, who is allergic, ran for their house but tripped and fell by the front door. The bees swarmed around him, stinging him repeatedly. He survived, according to CBS5.
Two years ago, Africanized bees were suspected in the death of a landscaper in Douglas, Ariz., on the border with Mexico. He and his co-workers had been mowing grass when the insects emerged from a 3-by-8-foot hive in an attic and attacked them.
“A witness said his face and neck were covered with bees,” Capt. Ray Luzania told Tucson.com.
Africanized bees were similarly blamed for a spate of attacks last summer that killed a number of dogs in Arizona. At least three dogs were fatally stung by the swarms, according to the AP.
“I normally get five to 10 calls a day for bee removal, and now you’re getting 30 to 60 every day,” Reed Booth, an Arizona bee removal expert, said at the time.
Booth said the Africanized bees don’t need much provocation to attack.
“They hate any movement, noise, or vibration,” he said. “They hate everything.”
Around 50 to 60 people die each year in the United States from bee, wasp or hornet stings, but the vast majority of those deaths are the result of allergic reactions, not swarms of so-called killer bees.
Bee attacks can quickly escalate, however. Entomologists say the insects usually protect a radius of about a quarter mile around their colonies.
The insects often give intruders a warning by bouncing off them, according to Carl Olson, associate curator of entomology at the University of Arizona.
“If you stick around, then they start to sting,” he told the AP. “Once one stinger is in place, it sends a signal to the other bees. It’s like a target.”
According to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Bestler and his friend didn’t do anything to anger the swarm they encountered Thursday morning.
Bestler’s Facebook page says he grew up in the small Cajun country city of Elton, La., but was living in Fargo, N.D., at the time of the attack. He posted photos of himself traveling to Paris and posing in front of Stonehenge. Last October he posted a throwback Thursday photo of himself at age 7, wearing a T-shirt with insects printed on it.
Merkle Memorial Trail now serves as his memorial, as well.