Bees are one of man's best friends, pollinating crops and producing honey, like his hive photographed on Dec.r 28, 2018, at beekeeper Yip Ki-hok's apiary in Hong Kong. But bee stings also can kill people. Photo by Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images.
Ripley Fire Department Chief Tony Pfeffer will never forget the morning he saw a black swirl of bees trying to murder an Ohio man strapped to a tree.
“I'd never seen anything like it before in my life,” Pfeffer, 54, told Coffee or Die Magazine.
“He was just hanging there,” Pfeffer continued. “And I'm telling you, it was like a dark cloud was all around. It was so many bees.”
It was just before noon on Aug. 26, in Ripley, an Ohio River town about an hour’s drive southeast of Cincinnati, and the bees’ target — identified by local media as 20-year-old Austin Bellamy — had been pruning a limb two stories above the ground when his chainsaw bit through bark that was hiding a hive.
On Wednesday, Sept. 1, at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Bellamy emerged from a medically induced coma. He owes his life to a team that came together on the Brown County lawn and treated him all the way to the Queen City hospital.
On May 2, 2006, in Seoul, South Korea, bee farmer Ahn Sang-Kyu released more than 140,000 bees and attracted them to his body to protest Japan's sovereignty claims over a tiny group of islands located off the east coast of South Korea called the Dokdo islets by the Koreans and Takeshima by the Japanese. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images.
The Friday dispatch from Brown County Emergency Management arrived at 11:38 a.m., and Pfeffer got to the scene before his ladder truck did.
After the swarm attacked Bellamy, the bees stung two people on the ground watching him: his grandmother, Phyllis Edwards, and his uncle, Dustin Edwards.
To fight their way through the swarm, Pfeffer’s volunteers — in full turnout gear on a sweltering summer day — started suppressing the bees with water, which worked. Sort of.
Bellamy continued to dangle from the tree, grunting and moaning, and that was a good sign because it meant he was still alive. But now the rescuers had to figure out a way to get him down without everyone getting stung to death.
They decided to try to reach him in the ladder truck’s boom.
In 2002, beekeeper Peter Leung Oi showed off one of his Hong Kong hives. Between 1993 and 2000, he treated more than 600 patients with a bee-sting therapy. Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images.
The bees had other ideas.
“We climbed right into a cloud, a dark cloud of swarming bees,” Pfeffer said. “And I'm telling you, there — and I'm not exaggerating one bit — there was thousands of bees everywhere. It was the most crazy thing I've ever seen in my life, as far as something like that.”
With bee venom coursing through his veins, Bellamy had quit moaning. Pfeffer told Coffee or Die that everyone on his crew had known they had “to get this done,” or Bellamy would die. So they waded back into the swarm.
But they wouldn’t do it alone. Because he has decades of experience as a firefighter, Pfeffer began calling for reinforcements only minutes after arriving.
He asked authorities to scramble a medical helicopter crew to fly to Ripley and to send Georgetown Fire and Emergency Medical Services to back his team up.
Beekeeper Frederic Diez recovers a swarm of bees settled on a lamp post in Bordeaux, southern France, on April 21, 2021. Photo by Mehdi Fedouach/AFP/Getty Images.
By noon, three rescue services were rushing to Ripley to help Pfeffer's team.
“They were short-handed. They were needing additional ambulances, and all of them were stung,” Georgetown Fire Chief Joseph Rockey, 49, told Coffee or Die, adding that the sky was still filled with thousands of bees.
“They were angry,” he said. “Very angry.”
Pfeffer and his fire captain, Donnie Koewler, scrambled up the ladder, cut Bellamy loose, and lowered him down. The bees kept attacking the three men as they transferred Bellamy to other firefighters waiting below.
Pfeffer estimates he got stung at least 15 times. Bellamy looked much, much worse.
A swarm of bees delays the start of the game between the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants at Great American Ball Park on May 6, 2019, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images.
Bellamy was in a torn shirt, blue jeans, and rubber muck boots with spurs attached to help him cling to the bark, Rockey recalled. The rest of him was red.
“His entire head and his arms and neck were covered in just hundreds of these stings,” Rockey said.
Rockey’s team began prepping a landing zone for the incoming helicopter. Hanging back near them and waiting for the patient was paramedic Craig Hauke, 36, the operations manager for Ripley Life Squad.
He tries to avoid bees.
“I am highly allergic myself,” Hauke told Coffee or Die.
Bees swarm the Trashed x Coachella recycle bin by Olive47 during the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 15, 2017, in Indio, California. Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Coachella.
While firefighters tried to shake bees out of their turnout gear, two paramedics and a pair of advanced emergency medical technicians from three different departments began working on Bellamy.
Rockey remembered seeing them administering jolts of epinephrine with EpiPens, pushing medication through intravenous lines, and eventually intubating Bellamy’s throat to restore his breathing.
Ripley Life Squad uses “very aggressive protocols” to clear airways, Hauke told Coffee or Die, and it was prepared for about anything, thanks to their video laryngoscopes, ventilators, and paralytics they use to minimize complications when intubating.
Hauke kept treating Bellamy in the ambulance before it rendezvoused with the UC Air Care helicopter. It took off from the nearby Straight Creek Marina for the quick flight to Cincinnati.
She Ping, a 34 year-old beekeeper, poses with a swarm of bees on a small hill in southwest China's Chongqing on April 9, 2014. She released more than 460,000 bees, attracted them to his body, and made himself a suit of bees within 40 minutes, a local newspaper reported. Photo via China Out/STR/AFP/Getty Images.
Bellamy’s grandmother and uncle, along with several first responders, were treated by paramedics in Ripley before they were transported to nearby medical centers, too.
Although it was widely reported that African killer bees might’ve attacked Bellamy, Hauke cautioned that they don’t know what kind had emerged from that hive.
He’s just glad the rescue worked.
“We're so fortunate that this family had the outcome that they did to see tomorrow,” Hauke said.
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Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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