a man in a hazmat standing next to a fire truck
Beekeeper David Lewis arrives outside two hotels on North Roosevelt Boulevard after a swarm of bees terrorized guests on Aug. 16. CITY OF KEY WEST/Contributed

What sent tens of thousands of riled up honey bees into a terrifying stinging frenzy near the entrance to Key West on Aug. 16? 

A horror show with swarms of bees in attack mode started after a beehive had been “improperly removed” from behind a home on 20th Street, which runs behind two hotels on North Roosevelt Boulevard at the entrance to Key West — Hilton Garden Inn and Fairfield Inn & Suites, according to the Key West Fire Department.

The bees did not originate from any of the hotels, but many of their guests were affected.

Instead, someone trying to remove the bees from the home on 20th Street sprayed the hives with insecticide, according to David Lewis, a Big Pine Key beekeeper, who was called in to help.

Lewis estimates a bee count of up to 100,000. 

“They were all in attack mode,” he said. “They were all in a complete stinging frenzy, flying around and attacking.” 

Lewis was the man in the full body protective suit who the city called in, after reports of guests at the nearby hotels being stung repeatedly by bees and forced to flee the area.

While Facebook users reacted in shock and plenty of dark humor – “Did they call in the SWAT team?” – those in the midst of the swarm were frightened; many fled and several people were stung repeatedly.

Police dispatch records included these reports: 

  • “People are being attacked right now.”
  • “There is a Hilton Garden employee having a reaction in the lobby.”
  • “Another one on the ground being attacked.”

The bees were reacting to having been sprayed (with insecticide) in that backyard, Lewis said.

“They went nuts,” said Lewis, who owns Florida Keys Honey and Bees and also runs a plumbing company. 

The result? Hotels at the entrance to Key West turned into an emergency scene for at least two hours. One sent messages telling everyone to stay indoors. Another told everyone to leave the property.

Meanwhile, the city alerted people near the area to stay indoors: “A large swarm of bees is in the area,” the city announced. “The bees are swarming and likely to sting.”

Key West Fire Rescue was already on the scene when beekeeper Lewis arrived at the hotels located at the entrance to Key West, 3852 and 3850 N. Roosevelt Blvd.

Lewis arrived at about noon and worked for 2.5 hours. A hotel manager paid him, he said.

Many of the bees were destroyed in the cleanup process – not something Lewis wants to see.

“Their hive was gone,” Lewis said. “What I could take, I took. What I couldn’t, they had to go away. They were too dangerous. There was no choice. People were getting injured.”

Even after Lewis had finished work, the city told everyone to “be cautious for the next couple of hours in this area for any remaining bees to settle down.”

The Aug. 16 Key West bee attack was a master class in what not to do with bees, Lewis said: Don’t try to remove a hive yourself. Call a pro. Never spray them with insect killer. 

“They pretty much will match your energy,” he said.

Gwen Filosa
Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.