Tuesday, February 21, 2012

African killer bees-all they're cracked up to bee?

Preparing the smoker.

Walking towards the hive, which is under the
tall tree at the far end of the shamba. (garden)

A few days ago I had a truly singular experience: I was attacked by killer bees... no kidding.

Recently it came to my attention that we have some beehives here at City of Hope, and that they had been unharvested for some time. Now, I have made some attempts at beekeeping at home, mostly with dismal results, but I am at least familiar enough with hives and bees to be able to figure out how to get the honey out. Honey would certainly be a welcome addition to our sometimes too healthy diet here, and the collection of it would be a welcome diversion on a Sunday afternoon.

I have heard that African bees can be on the aggressive side, and what is more, I had the good fortune of locating a couple of protective beekeeper's suits, so I decided to use one. One of my friends here heard I was going to collect the honey. His response was, “During the day?!” (Bees are more docile at night). I didn't want to bother with the hassle of not being able to see well, so I didn't want to wait for night. My answer to him was a confident, “Well, I have a beesuit, so what could go wrong? I'll be fine.” I said all this knowing that the African honey bee is infamous for its malevolence. We even refer to hostile bees in America as having become Africanized.

I carefully put on the suit, and even started a fire with cornstalks in a smoker—an apparatus that looks like a tin teapot with a bellows attached that is used to blow smoke onto a beehive. The smoke desensitizes their sense of smell (which they use to communicate) and has a soporific effect. I don't have any boots, but I was careful to put on shoes and socks, thinking this would be adequate. “They won't bother to seek out the only chink in my armor, and it's only a few square inches. It won't be a big deal even if they do sting me a few times there,” I thought. I couldn't have been more wrong.

To put things into perspective, in two summers of beekeeping at home, I never wore any protective clothing except sometimes gloves, and in total I was stung probably four times. Moreover, any time our docile Italian bees became at all agitated, all I had to do was walk fifty feet from the hive and they gave up totally.

I smoked the hive carefully for perhaps two minutes, a precaution I rarely took at home. The bees did not seem to be excited. Then I removed the lid from the hive. Now I know. What I later found on Wikipedia is true:

"African bees are characterized by greater defensiveness in established hives than European honey bees. They are more likely to attack a perceived threat and, when they do so, attack relentlessly in larger numbers. Also, they have been known to pursue their threat for over a mile. This aggressively protective behavior has been termed by scientists as hyper-defensive behavior. This defensiveness has earned them the nickname "killer bees," the aptness of which is debated. Over the decades, several deaths in the Americas have been attributed to African bees. The venom of an African bee is no more potent than that of a European honey bee, but since the former tends to sting in greater numbers, the number of deaths from them are greater than from the European honey bee. What makes Africanized honey bees more dangerous is that they are more easily provoked, quick to swarm, attack in greater numbers, and pursue their victims for greater distances. An Africanized bee colony can remain agitated longer and may attack up to a quarter of a mile away from the hive. One or two deaths per year in the US can be attributed to the African honey bee."  (A much larger but unknown number in Africa, to be sure.)

They found my ankles almost immediately. Now I've been stung by bees many times in my life. As a kid I was given a box of empty pill bottles and spent the summer collecting bees for “my collection.” I've never been afraid of them, and even when stung, I am apt to ignore it. One bee sting just doesn't bother me. But this was different. Within ten seconds my ankles started to burn. “How can they have found my ankles already?” I wondered. I looked down. My ankles were completely covered with bees.  Bee suits are made of material so tightly woven that is feels somewhat slick. The bees can hardly light on it, much less sting through it. Not so with my socks. There were a few hundred bees crawling on my suit. There were a few hundred more in bilateral bands around both my ankles—living anklets of angry bees. And they were fighting mad.  Now I've been close to a lot of infamous animals, (lions, cobras, mambas, crocodiles, hippos, a rugby player named Spike) but I've never seen raw agression like this.

After a few seconds I thought, “Okay, this is starting to hurt. I'll walk away and brush these guys off.” Brushing them off only made them more mad. Plus it killed some of them. When bees are killed, including if they die whilst stinging a victim, which they invariably do because their stingers are barbed--thus they lose a body part when they are swept away--they give off a chemical message indicating, “Danger!” Trying to brush them off just made it worse.

“Grrrrrr. This really hurts,” I said. Soon I was aggressively giving my ankles a dust bath by rubbing them firmly with dirt from the garden. “I can't believe how aggressive these things are,” I breathed. By now I was a hundred yards from the hive—unthinkably far from the hive for them to attack me in my mind, but instead of subsiding the assault only grew more intense. I must have had a thousand bees on the suit. They peppered the sides of the head covering incessantly. I sounded very much like popcorn when it's cooking on full heat. The kamikaze collisions were that frequent and that loud at such close range to my eardrums. And the buzzing was louder—almost deafening. It was very disconcerting. “No wonder people panic from these things. This is scary.” I thought.

By now I had washed them from my ankles with a bucket of wash water that someone had fortuitously left outside our house. My ankles throbbed. My mind was reeling from the incessant dive-bombing. I couldn't get help; who could help me? I couldn't even approach anyone to ask for help, since they would be attacked if I got close.

J., who had watched this whole escapade from a distance, provided me with a can of insecticide and another of repellant. I emptied both of them onto myself to little effect except that it gave me a headache. Soon I began to hear noise from the other side of the house. The bees had decided that I was difficult to kill and so had found others to assail. I later heard that as many as twenty people were stung—all hundreds of yards from the hive.

Eventually I enjoined J. to pass me a book out the window. I spent about an hour just sitting on a tire reading “A Brave New World,” waiting for the bees to go away and thinking that it's no surprise that horror movies have been made about these miniature kamikazes. When they were finally down to two or three assailants, I ran inside and shut the door. Thankfully none of them were able to follow me.

My ankles were a swollen mess when I peeled the suit off. I had less than ten square inches of unprotected skin. When I got to 100, I stopped trying to count the stings. I washed my feet and slathered my ankles in toothpaste, which I've heard helps. At home I know what weed to put on bee stings, but that weed doesn't grow here. I don't think the toothpaste helped. By dinner time I was shaking and vomiting violently. I had a fever. I was prostrate on the couch. J. looked it up. According to the Mayo Clinic website, bee envenomation from more than ten stings can cause these symptoms. It lasted most of the night—from ten square inches of skin! What if I hadn't had that suit on!

The next day I asked Baba about it. (He and his wife were both stung in the melee). “Yes,” he said. “They can even kill people. I know a man whose wife was killed by them. They were attacking her goat. She tried to save the goat and they attacked her. She died.” Wow. According to Wikipedia, the aptness of the name “killer bees” is debated by some. I don't find it debatable.

The next morning a five gallon bucket of honey appeared on the doorstep. My dear friend Zekaria had succeeded where I had not—and with no bee suit. He's the same guy who fixed the clutch with thread and superglue. He's kind of an African ninja. He just went in the night and was only stung a few times. Bless him and Baba both for not berating me for ignorantly plunging ahead when they had subtly warned me not to go in the daytime.


  1. Wow. I have to admit, I did kinda laugh a little. Great storytelling! JRo

  2. !!! Incredible! So glad you had a beesuit to wear! That was definitely providential! Have you all figured out a way to extract the honey from the comb? I sent Joi an article but haven't heard back from her if it was helpful or not.

  3. oh my goodness!! I am so glad they could only get to your ankles. how terrifying. I loved the ending of your story, with Zekaria (so easily) bringing you honey!

  4. I would love to hear Joi's version of the story! JRo

  5. Sounds like if you had a covering for your sock and shoe area, you would have been fine. I can't believe it led to 20 other innocent bystanders being stung! I hate bee stings. -Shane

  6. I too would like to hear J's version of the story and little t's. Great storytelling! Glad you are alive to tell it. As your Mom you had me really scared. I even forgot you are alive to tell the tale. I thought you were working up to telling us you died. I was thinking that if I had known you wanted sugar that bad I would have over nighted it to you. Remember just before you left I told you not to do anything. crazy! Can't wait to hear about your next adventure. Thanks for sharing. Love your tales! What's next?

  7. Wow! What a story. So glad you are okay. You are a great story-teller... I was completely wrapped up in it and there with you. I'm with Shane, how crazy to have affected 20 bystanders!

  8. That is an amazing story! I am terrified of anything with a stinger, fangs, etc.