SAN ANTONIO -- A swarm of Africanized 'killer' bees has reached its first large U.S. city, where health officials are warning residents the feared insects will set up housekeeping in trash heaps and abandoned buildings common in urban areas.
'They would love to build a house in that pile of junk,' Texas A&M University spokeswoman Kathleen Davis said. 'It's undisturbed, and they can build a really huge nest. It is a perfect place.'
Most of the 22 stingings -- none fatal -- by the dreaded bees since they first made their way into Texas in 1990 have been in open rural areas, where the insects set up homes in such places as drainage culverts.
A spokesman for San Antonio's metropolitan health district, Sam Sanchez, points out there are more people in the nation's 10th-largest city.
'San Antonio is a metropolitan city, and we have different conditions than the rural counties where they have already stung people, ' he said. 'It's really open as to where they might pop up.'
The city has no plan to destroy potential nesting sites such as trash heaps and empty buildings, but will establish a system as necessary, Sanchez said.
One or more people will have to be stung by bees confirmed as Africanized before any strategy is formulated, he added.
'Without trying to jump ahead of the story, we're taking the wait- and-see approach. We don't want to circle the wagons,' Sanchez told The San Antonio Light newspaper. 'But I also don't want to play it down (the trash problem) as if there's no danger, because we know they are already here.'
Code Compliance Director Martin Rodriguez said the city has more than 38,000 abandoned houses. It could take several days for the department to force owners to clean up rundown houses or trash-filled lots, he said.
'If a health hazard is there, then we'll give them three or four days to clean it if the owner is local,' Rodriguez said. 'If it is not cleaned up, then we'll have to start legal procedures against the owner. '
Experts say Africanized bees will nest almost anywhere, as long as the hive they build is protected from the elements. They are most defensive in protecting their hives, ready to attack anything they feel threatens the honeycomb.
But Davis said the Texas attacks generally have resulted in relatively few stings. Most of the 21 people have suffered between 10 and 20. Only twice have people been stung more than 300 times.
'If you run like crazy, you can get away from them,' Davis said.
Davis said a person is just as likely to be killed by an attacking swarm of Africanized bees as he or she is of being killed by lightning.
The first U.S. swarm was found in Brownsville, Texas, in Oct. 15, 1990. Bees reached San Antonio last month, April 22.
Africanized honey bees look like domestic honey bees, but they are more defensive in protecting their hives.
The bees acquired the name 'Africanized' because they are a genetic mixture between wild African bees and domestic South American bees similar to the European variety popular in the United States. The bees reached the wilds of tropical Brazil in 1956 when 26 experimental colonies escaped with their African queens, thrived and spread.
The sting of the Africanized bee is not more venomous to human beings than that of domestic bees, but the attack is much more aggressive and painful.
Some entomologists say the 'killer bee' reference to the insects is a product of the media.