Four horses have died in East Sussex after a freak incident involving bees. The horses — aged between two and 20 — died after being attacked by a swarm in Nutley on 9 June.

“It is heartbreaking,” said owner Ann Gerrard, who kept nine hives near her paddocks. “We can only guess at what has happened. Something disturbed the bees — perhaps one horse jumped out and knocked a hive. We’ve never had any problems before — the hives were in a well-fenced field, it was totally unprecedented.”

One of the horses was found dead on the afternoon of the attack, while another died the following day. Both were assumed to have suffered anaphylactic shock [intense allergic reaction] and heart failure. The other two drowned in a pond, presumably fleeing the bees.

“I’ve since been told by the Beekeepers Society that bees don’t like the smell of horses,” added Ms Gerrard. “That’s not to say that a bee is going to attack a horse, but hives should be kept at least a field away.”

“I would like to stress that this was a freak accident,” added Sgt Michael Keeler from East Sussex Police.

Last month, Karen Thursfield from Cheshire wrote to H&H (letters, 19 May) after her horse died from suspected bee stings. He had been kept in a field next to hives for 10 years, but on 10 May she found him “out of control”. The next morning he was found dead of a suspected heart attack.

H&H vet consultant Karen Coumbe urges keeping hives and horses totally separate.

“An incident like this is incredibly rare. I’ve never encountered anything like it, despite being a beekeeper myself,” she said. “Readers should not be alarmed as individual stings are unlikely to cause major problems. In this case, the huge numbers of angry bees would have triggered a ‘fight or flight’ reaction.”

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound (23 June, 2011)