Killer bees, the domestic honeybee's angry cousins, have invaded Virginia.
A renegade swarm of the species, formally known as Africanized bees, was responsible for an attack in southwest Virginia this month that killed a goat and sent four people to the hospital, according to scientists with the federal government and Virginia Tech.
Researchers believe that the bees, more common in Texas and the Southwest, hopped a train or truck before ending up near Low Moor, Va., where they commandeered a native beehive and then angrily defended it. It was the first time the bees had been found in Virginia.
Officials believe they eliminated the Africanized bees by dousing the hive with gasoline, and they insist there is little chance the species still poses a threat.
But scientists are planning to set baited hives for remaining invaders - just in case.
"Our assumption is that it was an isolated swarm and the problem was taken care of," said Keith Tignor, a Virginia Tech entomologist who is soon to become the state's chief apiarist, or beekeeper. "It was much too great a distance for them to fly here. They were probably transported here by accident."
The finding by researchers at the Department of Agriculture lab in Beltsville, Md., came as a surprise to Virginia scientists, who had doubted that Africanized bees could be in the area. The species is slightly smaller than the European honeybee common to North America, but the differences can be confirmed only by lab analysis.
The Downey family, on the other hand, was not surprised at all.
"My husband kind of suspected that's what they were," said Nannie Downey, whose husband, James, was stung more than 35 times. "He hadn't seen anything like that before. . . . We think they're gone, and we hope they don't come back."
Africanized bees, descended from African bees, have been migrating north since they were released accidentally from a Brazilian laboratory in 1957. They crossed into Texas about 10 years ago and have invaded Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and California.
The bees are territorial and aggressive, and are known for their habit of swarming and attacking a victim repeatedly. The insects can become agitated by vibrations from 100 feet away and can pursue a victim for more than a quarter-mile.
Experts advise people to run as fast as possible if confronted with a killer-bee swarm, but not to try escaping by jumping in water; the bees are known to wait until you surface to attack again.
Nonetheless, experts argue that killer bees have an unwarranted reputation and have been responsible for fewer than 10 deaths since their arrival in the United States.
"They will not normally become aggressive toward the individual around them, but they will be very protective of their nest, just like we would be protective of our home," Tignor said.