By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/25/2004 12:16:29 PM ET 2004-06-25T16:16:29

It's become a seasonal rite in Texas since the early 1990s. Residents stumble upon a nest of killer bees in their backyard, an abandoned tool shed or in the bottom of an old seat cushion. There have been a couple of bad movies made about Africanized honeybees that swarm over their victims relentlessly stinging any exposed skin. But these bees are no joke.

Consider this: They migrated north from Brazil in the 1950s killing at least seven people along the way. By the time they reached Texas more than 10 years ago, they were killing small animals and critically injuring a number of people. The victims included a man named Juan Flores, who was mowing his lawn in South Texas, and J.C. Johnson Jr. and his elderly father in their Georgetown, Texas, backyard.

This week, a Roby, Texas, man was hospitalized in critical condition after suffering about 200 bee stings. Eugene Shipp, who's believed to be in his 60s, was mowing some grass Tuesday when the bees attacked him, officials said.

Officials believe the swarm of bees went after Shipp when his lawnmower hit a tree. A passerby stopped to help Shipp and was also attacked. Bees stung that man several times, but he was treated and released.

The strain of bee wasn't identified by officials, although the attack bore strong resemblance to past killer bee attacks in Texas.

Killer bees can now be found in more than three quarters of the counties in Texas and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, California and as far north as Las Vegas, where in 2000 they stung a woman more than 500 times, leaving her in critical condition.

More aggressive
Africanized bees are a little smaller and much more aggressive than their domestic honeybee cousins.

Yet they will chase their victims up to a quarter-mile, attack anybody who tries to help rescue a victim, and they can only be smothered with soapy water.

Swatting at them only makes them more aggressive. Experts say the best thing to do when attacked by these vicious little critters is to run into someplace dark, where they become disoriented and stop stinging their victim.

So far this year, the largest concentration of killer bees in the United States has been in Abilene, Texas.

That's where Barbara King and her son Billy were attacked earlier this year by the bees that were nesting inside their barbecue grill.

"I just thought I was gonna die," Barbara said.

"I couldn’t do nothing," said Billy. "Every time I'd run toward my Mom trying to get the bees off her, they would attack me."

In Abilene, commercial beekeeper Mel Williams expects 30 to 40 killer bee calls a week during the "swarming season," which runs until early July.

"When they go on the attack," Williams said, "they come in hundreds. They cover you up, they go for your mouth, up your nose."

As Williams was in the midst of clearing out a nest of killer bees at an abandoned tool shed, he explained the bees are aggressive because each sting attracts another bee with an odor, or pheromone. Williams said that the more odor is created, the more killer bees are attracted to the skin and sting.

Bees here to stay
For many years the experts did not believe killer bees would spread north of Texas. Now they have reached Las Vegas. But Texas state entomologist Paul Jackson said, "their northern movement has been slowed down."  But not stopped, he added.

So a growing number of people, in the millions, have to be more vigilant than ever about killer bees.

According to experts, people shouldn't try to remove a nest without the help of a professional beekeeper with a smoker and protective clothing.

The big concern now is cross-breeding between the Africanized bee and the domestic honeybee.

Scientists aren't certain whether this cross-bred insect will be aggressive or more docile, more dangerous or less dangerous. But one thing is certain. Killer bees are here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Jim Cummins is the NBC News bureau chief and lead correspondent in Dallas. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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