Queen of the Desert

Artist. Beekeeper. In Bisbee, Arizona, you can be whatever you want to be.


Rose Johnson came from England and found inspiration in Bisbee. Her newest mural re-creates a dreamscape on a local motel.

Dave Lauridsen

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On the morning of August 4, 1998, all hell broke loose in Bisbee, Arizona. Nothing new in principle ― hell has visited Bisbee regularly for as long as the town has existed--but this time it happened in fresh and sensational form.

A resident of Brewery Gulch, the infamous canyon furrowing north from downtown, decided to spray a beehive wedged in an old brick warehouse. The hive had been a neighborhood fixture for as long as anyone could remember, but its recent Africanized residents, once aroused, formed a weapon of mass destruction. The "killer" bees boiled into the street, attacking people, dogs, birds, even telephone poles. Two women almost crashed their cars into each other trying to escape. A desperate policeman frantically wrapped himself in a blanket. Eight people landed in the hospital. By one newspaper account, it was "a Keystone Cops scramble with overtones of an Alfred Hitchcock horror film."

But in the weird though pragmatic reverse universe of Bisbee, there's always a creative soul to seize the day. In the wake of the media buzz, Reed Booth, the original offender of the Brewery Gulch bees, began billing himself as Bisbee's "killer-bee guy." He self-published a book, and opened a shop on Main Street for his killer-bee honey mustard and honey butter. He says he did about $150,000 of business last year, which in Bisbee's rickety economy is a substantial pile of money.

"I became a killer-bee expert because I was unemployable," Booth quips, then turns semiserious. "In Bisbee, people will tell you, 'I only want to work three days a week, I don't want to get up early' ― they aren't crack-of-dawn people; they're more like crack-of-noon," he says. "But the truth is that this town is full of passionate people. We find something we love and figure out a way to keep doing it."

That's the story of the town, too ― against all rational alignments, it finds a way to keep going.


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