By Kevin Wilson: CNJ Staff Writer
In 1964, long before high school junior Lewis Hightower had decided to choose pest control as a career, he read an article in Time magazine about “killer bees” that escaped a laboratory in Brazil.
He kept up with the news over the years, reading estimates that this species, known as Africanized honeybees, would not reach the United States until 2012.
By the time he bought Southwest Pest Control in 1993, the bees were confirmed in New Mexico’s Hidalgo County. It’s 2006, six years before Africanized honeybees were predicted to reach the United States, and they’re here to stay — changing the public’s idea of what constitutes a pest and how pest control does its business.
To Southwest and others, bees were primarily pollinators and honey-producers as recently as three years ago. Hightower remembered Southwest handling six calls for bees in 2003. Then it was 10 calls in 2004.
In 2005, the company handled 19 calls for bees in a three-week period.
“Up until 2005, we didn’t attribute anything to them,” Hightower said. “We were just dealing with bees.”
In was in July 2005 that Africanized honeybees were first confirmed in Roosevelt County, and nothing has stopped the spread. Southwest has sent 51 samples from a four-county area to labs in Arizona between February and August. Of the 46 that have been returned, 32 (70 percent) were confirmed as Africanized — including nine of 10 samples from Curry County.
“Clovis is hotter than a firecracker right now,” Hightower said.
It’s an impact that’s been felt not just by a bigger business such as Southwest, which has eight branches in New Mexico. It’s also felt by smaller businesses, such as Dave’s Vector Control, where the Yellow Pages listing is the cell phone number for David Gutierrez of Clovis.
In both cases, the businesses are swamped with phone calls.
“If you do that kind of work, they’re going to find you,” said Gutierrez, who has spent most of his 15 years eliminating pests for local dairies. “I don’t advertise for bees.”
Nor does Southwest, which used to handle beehives at night with workers dressed in street clothes. Now, the business gets so many calls it has to handle many during daylight hours, and that means more protection.
“The only change it makes for us is it requires us to wear full protective gear,” said Hightower, who spoke while wearing a collared SPC shirt and jeans. “You take your life in your hands (destroying a colony) dressed like I am now.”
Gutierrez said he also upgraded equipment, noting that a bee suit is a $300 cost on top of normal equipment he uses. He’s recouped his investment with a greater number of calls, but didn’t take much solace in the extra money.
“I think it’s a case where it’s going to hurt the people, and I don’t want to make a profit on it,” said Gutierrez, who said he has given discounts to people with tight finances.
Hightower echoed those sentiments. He said Southwest doesn’t need bee work to have a successful business, but encourages people to seek professional help for what he deems a public safety issue.
“Call somebody,” Hightower said. “It doesn’t have to be us. There are other companies that can do the job as well as we can.”