The Africanized honeybees swarmed the tree trimmer’s head and within seconds, his whole body.
“They were inside my ears, my mouth, my nose – everywhere,” Ralph St. Peter said Monday, two days after the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said he was stung as many as 150 times. “They had to cut my clothes off. My whole body was encased in bees.”
He said the stings of the bees felt “like a 1,000 hypodermic needles” or “a tetanus shot.”
Co-worker Michael Foster, who swatted off the bees with his bare hands and also was stung, said St. Peter was swollen to the point that he looked like another “one-and-a-half persons, like he got hit by a truck.”
Both men were taken to Mease Countryside Hospital. Doctors treated St. Peter on Saturday and released him Sunday.
Monday morning, sting marks still dotting his body, St. Peter returned to Kelly Leavy’s Safety Harbor home to finish the work he started.
By afternoon, St. Peter wished he had just listened to his wife and stayed home.
St. Peter, 44, has been around trees, bees and snakes for 30 years. His dad worked in the industry in his native Connecticut, and St. Peter usually accompanied him on jobs. He said he became a certified arborist and forester in 1986.
St. Peter has his own company, but recently took on additional work with Johnson Lawn and Landscape Service in Tarpon Springs to supplement his income. One of his first assignments: cutting down Kelly Leavy’s dead oaks.
He said Leavy told him there was a nest of honeybees. That didn’t faze him. He thought there were only 200 or so domestic bees, not 50,000 Africanized ones.
“If you work in trees,” he said, “you’re going to be stung.”
St. Peter, who moved to Florida in 2003 and lives in Weeki Wachee, estimates bees sting him at least 10 times a week. He said he’s been bitten by rattlesnakes.
Doctors “said my immune system was really good for bites and stings and stuff like that,” he said.
St. Peter said he’s heard of the Africanized honeybee, but all of his encounters have been with domestic honeybees.
Florida’s Africanized honeybee population is increasing, according to University of Florida researchers. They are referred to – often and inaccurately – as aggressive killer bees. The bees do not plot attacks on humans, James D. Ellis Jr. and Faith M. Oi said in a 2006 study. They react to human invasion of their environment and defend themselves when necessary. Attacks occur when people get too close to a nesting colony of bees.
That’s exactly what happened about 1:45 p.m. Saturday. St. Peter leaned a ladder against a tree and climbed to the top. He attached a safety line to his body so he could rappel down the tree in the event a swarm of bees emerged. His line got stuck in the limbs.
“All of a sudden 50,000 bees came out of the hollow log,” he said. “And it’s like they came right towards me. It was amazing. The cloud of bees was so thick you couldn’t see through it.”
He screamed to his colleagues for help. “But every time I opened my mouth, my mouth would get full of bees and I’d have to spit more bees out,” he said. “And finally they understood to get me a knife so they got me a knife and I cut myself down and we all ran over to the picnic tables over there.”
Doctors gave him pain medicine, and the swelling subsided. His wife begged him to stay home Monday. He said he was fine, that he could work through the tingling feeling in his skin.
St. Peter said he couldn’t afford to take a day off. He’s the sole breadwinner and the father of four. He only earns $15 an hour.
He didn’t think anything else would happen.
Around midday, St. Peter revved up the orange chainsaw.
The first limb fell without incident. Then he moved to the next.
He tied one end of a rope around the limb and the other on the front of the company truck. He told Foster, the co-worker, to put the vehicle in reverse.
The limb fell to the ground, but not before taking out a power pole and live electrical wires.
“This is like the job from hell,” Foster said, just before Safety Harbor Fire and Progress Energy arrived. “I don’t want to see this place again.”
There were no injuries, Safety Harbor Fire Chief Joe Accetta said. Progress Energy spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the company couldn’t find any evidence of an outage in its system.
St. Peter put down his chainsaw.
“This has never happened to me before – ever,” he said.
“What a nightmare. I just wanted to finish the job.”