A pest control officer died after he was attacked by a swarm of furious giant honey bees, which stung him mercilessly over 100 times all over his face and body.
The attack was likely a protective response triggered by the death of a single bee, an insect expert said.
At a coroner's inquiry yesterday, the court heard that Mr Mohammad Sallehen Mohd Ali, 30, and two other pest busters had driven to Sherwood Road on Nov 6 last year to get rid of a hive in the Tanglin area discovered by Singapore Land Authority (SLA) officers. Residents had complained that some people were stung by bees near a fallen tree.
Before the exterminators arrived, one of the SLA officers killed a bee hovering around his colleague's head. A cloud of bees gathered over them, and the officers sought refuge in their car, driving farther into Sherwood Road. The bees followed.
More than an hour later, the three pest control officers arrived.
Mr Al-Mizan Kamsan, 35, and Mr Muhammad Nurhazelee Ghazali, 27, were opening the back of the van driven by Mr Sallehen when the bees arrived on the tail of the SLA officers, and attacked immediately.
Mr Mizan managed to dive into the officers' car while Mr Sallehen and Mr Nurhazelee fled down a slope towards Tanglin Road.
Mr Sallehen later tried to get help from a security guard at the back gate of a house in Tanglin Road. The guard and other officers warded off the bees by burning newspapers.
They supported Mr Sallehen, who was gasping, to a sheltered area where he collapsed.
Police later found that his lips were purplish, and he had white specks all over his skin and swollen face. There were also bumps on his body.
Mr Sallehen died at Singapore General Hospital from bee venom. Mr Mizan and Mr Nurhazelee were treated as outpatients.
Insect expert Carl Baptista said in a statement that the giant honey bee species is found mainly in forested areas, and the hive is usually built in exposed places far off the ground, on tree limbs and under overhangs.
He said the venom from stings would set in within seconds of being stung. If multiple stings occur, death is possible within 15 minutes. Venom enters the bloodstream very quickly from a single sting.
Giant honey bees are known to be aggressive, say experts. They defend themselves with powerful stings and, when one attacks, it releases pheromones, or chemical signals. Almost instantly, hundreds or thousands can then launch a mass attack.
Mr Baptista noted that killing a single bee will cause the dying bee to release an alarm pheromone, which will trigger an aggressive response, especially if the event occurs near a hive.
Because of Mr Sallehen's weight - which was 120kg - the expert also felt it was possible Mr Sallehen may not have been able to move away fast enough.
In his findings, State Coroner Marvin Bay said Mr Baptista's advice that the removal of bee hives and swarms be done after sunset should be considered.
The risk of being attacked is much smaller during this time, according to exterminators, because bees are not out foraging where they can spot intruders.
He said Mr Sallehen did not have any protective clothing and was fully vulnerable as his vehicle window was open. "In the agony of the moment, he chose to leave his vehicle but he was unable to find a safe refuge, and was stung repeatedly as he ran to evade them," he said before returning a verdict of accidental death.
This article was published on April 29 in The Straits Times.Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.