64. Two Bees or Not Two Bees (10/2013)

by brettthevet

A sliver of moon glistened above the dark clouds hanging over the ocean upon our arrival on site in twilight. In the secluded garden behind the house the white box, eerily suspended on a wire frame, glowed in shadows. We approached surreptitiously to inspect the hive’s entrance for bees, observing a few stragglers that hadn’t yet settled in for the night. Detecting a threat, these guards became agitated as we stupidly lingered: intrigued, gazing, mesmerized, and somewhat dumbfounded that the bees weren’t all tucked up for the night in preparation for their journey to the new location beyond two mountain ranges of which we had summarily informed them.

Aroused, the bees drifted towards us to investigate, casually encircling, our motionless forms. I turned, leaped over the bushes and bolted up the pathway to safety, I recalled a childhood situation when I had stood absolutely still while an entire swarm, that had been provoked by others, enveloped my body, crawling under my shirt, tickling my skin until I could no longer tolerate the excruciating sensation and fled succumbing to multiple stings as I ripped the shirt from my torso. Meanwhile a persistent pair interrogated Anna, who remained calm throughout. One bee explored her hair while the other ventured provocatively under her circumstantially inappropriate long skirt and vented its sacrificial warning jab the moment it sensed intent to apprehend.

The prospect of receiving a gift of a ‘proper’ thriving beehive for the farm, despite not being a honey bear, seemed very exciting at the time, but I neglected to fully consider the bees’ well-being. The instructions from an expert apiarist seemed simple enough: a half an hour after sunset block the access gap with crumpled netting before transporting. But after three failed attempts at plugging the opening, despite allowing time for them to settle in between, defenders of the realm were not surprisingly on high alert. A half dozen little stings to my hands and the escalating consternation inside the box finally persuaded me, to my chagrin, to abandon the operation for another time.

It was already late for embarking on a three hour nocturnal car journey, so I hastily set off into the night, alone. Thirty minutes later while idling at traffic works, strange sensations began to grip my body affecting groin, perineum, and armpits which soon began to itch intensely, followed by swelling and warmth in my ears, eyes and throat. It was difficult to remain calm suddenly overcome by acute anxiety. I called Anna, then sped to George Hospital where I was confronted with an overcrowded, chaotic waiting room, and virtually dismissed by nonchalant officials. By then I realized that my intense symptoms were subsiding and I didn’t appear to be in a critical condition. I think my own adrenaline surge had counteracted the anaphylactic response. Later I discovered that severe reactions (occurring in 3% of the 10% of people who suffer from allergy to bee stings) can cause death within ten minutes!

I was mortified by my own ignorance and lack of grace surrounding our misadventure with a peaceful colony of Apis mellifera capensis. The ensuing disruption of harmony has been playing heavily on my mind, not least because of the ongoing effects of my potentially fatal systemic reaction, but also repercussions in other spheres of life.

It was foolish and rude of me to rush in without paying homage to the queen and engaging politely with the colony. My attempt to seize and relocate the hive to a completely different geographical zone where the Cape honey bee does not naturally occur lacked insight. The Southern Karoo region is populated by a different, hybridized (with A.m. scutellata from the North) species of which there is a wild colony occupying an old poplar trunk near the river on my farm. The Cape honey bee is specifically adapted to fynbos vegetation, and would have also parasitized my local colony. A.m. capensis is unique and fascinating in many ways particularly in their unusual reproductive possibilities: Cape workers produce diploid eggs, known as thelytokous parthenogenesis whereby the worker bees can produce males and females parthenogenetically (http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/cape_honey_bee.htm).

Bees represent a microcosm akin to that of the white ant where the colony behaves as a single, unified organism (a phenomenon so beautifully evoked by Eugene Marais in his ground breaking book ‘The Soul of the White Ant’). This interconnection also links into the broader collective consciousness on earth experienced by all living organisms. Those bees understood the implications of what was happening and the potential consequences. It would have been another great disaster for the bees, who as a nation have already suffered so tragically at the hand of man, if we had succeeded in abducting them against their wishes. The group clearly communicated their annoyance, halting our intervention while exerting their power through a few individual martyrs, encouraging us to reconsider the ramifications of imposing our rampant human will on the once harmonious living world that we inhabit.