About 70 years ago, beekeepers in South America tried to breed the perfect honeybee. They took European Apis mellifera (which produced good honey but were slow to spread), with an African-strain Apis mellifera scutellata (which didn’t make much honey and were aggressive). However, the resulting cross-breed displayed none of the good traits and both of the bad ones–it made little honey and were very aggressive. They also reproduced insanely fast. When the resulting colony was accidentally released, it immediately began to spread and take over, outcompeting naturalized honeybee hives. To this day, Africanized or “Killer” bees are spreading northward, their range increasing every year.
The population is already well-established in Costa Rica, which means that any honeybee hive must be approached with caution. After all, there is no way to physically distinguish an Africanized bee from a non-Africanized, and by the time you’re close enough to realized that your resident bees are psychotic, it’s usually too late.
The name killer bees is no joke. The sting is exactly the same as an ordinary honeybee, but the sheer number of stings you will suffer if you disturb the nest is literally fatal. Killer bees attack without restraint or mercy, and the attack pheremones released from the stings only incite more to join in the kamikaze onslaught. There is no way to fight them off, and they will chase an intruder for up to a kilometer. It’s one of the few cases where you are perfectly reasonable in simply running and screaming. In fact, I encourage such a response.
So when several volunteers announced that there was a large number of bees outside the dorm, I decided to investigate. However, upon arrival, I was immediately sure that the bees in question were not Africanized since the volunteers were standing well within attack distance, and there was no running and screaming yet. Furthermore, the bees were clustered in a tight ball hanging under the stairs, surrounded by a small buzzing cloud. They were swarming.
See, when a hive gets too large for a queen to regulate, she flies off with about half the workers to establish a new hive. Beforehand, all the bees slurp up as much honey as the can, and spend a few idle days bloated and content until a new nest is established. During this time, they are completely docile since they have no honey or eggs to guard. They will rarely attack, and can be approached. Since I seemed to be having difficulty convincing my volunteers of this, I demonstrated by walking up and sticking my hand into the pile of living bees.
It’s hard to describe the texture of bees, exactly. The bees themselves are fuzzy, of course, and act like grains of sand with little legs, but the swarm functions almost like a collective object. It’s sticky. The bees cling to each other, and the bee ball can stretch like cotton candy. Then there’s the buzzing.
Standing in a middle of a swarm of bees–with or without an outstretched hand immersed in he tiny insects–is an experience that is impossible to describe. The buzzing permeates the air. It goes through you. You feel it in your chest and between your teeth. It’s less of a sound and more of a sensation.
And it can be a little freaky if you’re not used to it. Which is probably why several people asked that the bees be removed. I offered to try to collect the queen and relocate her, hoping the swarm would follow. I did this by the old, tried-and-true method of snatch ‘n grab.
But the bees had arranged themselves under a 3rd-floor balcony in a position where I couldn’t reach down. I had to reach up. I had to stand right under them and scoop around with gloves hands for the queen, with startled bee blobs raining down on my face. Several went down my shirt, so I just whipped it off. But it started to get dark.
So there I was, standing on a balcony, shirtless, arms upraised and covered in bees as the last rays of sun lit up this spectacle for all the volunteers to see. I must have looked like a loon. And it didn’t even work. Soon it got too dark, and then a poor confused bee flew into my ear and stung me out of panic. It was time to throw in the towel.
As it turned out, the swarm moved on the next day. But we hope they’ll settle down nearby. Always good to have pollinators, and there’s talk of building bee boxes to see if we can get our own honey.
So we hope this swarm will show up again and we’ll have more to show for this ordeal than a few poor photos. Except me, that is. Because this morning I woke up with my ear swollen shut and looking like a piece of bacon. Turns out, I may have developed a spontaneous allergic reaction to the sting. I spent the rest of the day strung out on antihistamines, and a hospital run is on the books if I don’t improve.
Just to recap: bees are only safe when they’re swarming. And don’t mess around with the Africanized ones. They will straight-up kill you. Don’t approach any bees unless you’re sure. I’ve dealt with bees before and knew what I was doing. At least, this is what I told me boss, after they learned I’d exposed the volunteers to bees. What can I say? I got an earful.