Thursday, January 28, 2016

Females sting

When I was 7, I had a huge crush on Molly Snook, the Beyonce of 2nd grade. She strolled around the playground with a possy of older women, 3rd and 4th graders who flipped their hair around a lot and made doing the monkey bars look elegant. One day, I devised a plan to get her attention. I would wait until recess, toss a football into the air, make a sweet diving catch, and land heroically next to her shins. I would then get up, deliver a cool, "sorry, ladies," and strut away with, God willing, a scrape on my elbow and a grass stain on my jeans. This would make me the coolest kid on the playground, a Jay-Z for Beyonce, and Molly would be passing me a note asking to be her boyfriend within the hour.

Sadly, the maneuver was sabotaged by nature. At the top of its arch, a strong gust of wind took the ball off its trajectory and out of my reach. I dove, but could only watch in horror as it fell squarely upon the skull of my beloved. Fully splayed out in the grass, I was just another bystander as she caught the football effortlessly off her beautiful head and chucked it further than most of the boys watching could fathom. "Go get it, idiot" and a soul piercing eye roll were the first and last gestures I ever received from the love of my prepubescent life.

At the time, this seemed like the worst a female could ever hurt me. Then, about a dozen years later, I was proven entirely wrong.

Just like before, it all started with a foolish plot. I would approach a group of females I had no business approaching. And, just like before, nature would screw me. The difference: this particular group of females numbered in the thousands, and they were all equipped with poisonous stingers.

Indeed, a worker honeybee is a formidable female. She attacks in swarms, and, as I would learn that day, she doesn't stop until her target is thoroughly emasculated. And I was, according to Dr. Naug, a rugged Professor of Ecology and beehive rummager who fears the sting of a honeybee like a kid fears ice cream. His University research laboratory, or the "bee lab," as it was known in nerdier circles, had accepted me, an enthusiastic sophomore Biology major, into its ranks. These were a team of honeybee martyrs, emerging from experiments as if from combat, covered in small red welts delivered by smaller winged insects who couldn't figure out the reasoning behind our constant prodding. In fact, their natural populations were in worldwide decline, and we were performing experiments to try and figure out why. In essence, we were trying to save the honeybee, a cause I initially deemed worthy but would soon be forced to reevaluate. 

As the newest member of a team responsible for the lives and deaths of hundreds of thousands of bees, or the "B" team, as it was known in far nerdier circles, I had to first learn the ins and outs of beekeeping. During my first summer in the lab, Dr. Naug took me on a series of excursions to his field site where he could show me the ropes. The day in question was just another of these expeditions, and I was ready to learn.

Learn I would.

When we pulled up to the field site, an open meadow with five bustling hives in the middle, two things occurred that were of crucial importance.

One: we realized we had only brought a single beekeeping suit. A single beekeeping suit consists of a single pant-shirt combo, a single pair of gloves, and of utmost importance, one, single head veil. All of these articles are designed to protect a single human from many bee-sized items in the external world. It took me a few more seconds than one might expect to deduce that a single beekeeping suit cannot thoroughly protect two humans. As the only human present who was capable of beekeeping at that juncture, Dr. Naug was the one who slid into the single beekeeping suit.

Two: in the presence of a single beekeeping suit, which I would not be wearing, I was advised, "you'll be fine, just watch from a distance." Looking back, this was a calamitous oversight. I would not be fine, because, as an amateur bee disturber, I had no knowledge of what constituted a safe distance between angry female honeybees and a human with no beekeeping suit, nor did I understand the frightening speed at which an angry female honeybee can traverse the airspace between herself and her innocent human target. As such, I chose a spot about halfway between the hives and our field truck. My logic was that, that, from there, I could see what Dr. Naug was doing while still remaining safe. This demonstrated a level of naiveté that did not go unpunished.

It all started with sound. When you work with honeybees for long enough, you start to recognize the sound of their wings in flight, their "buzz," if you will. From their buzz, you can determine the mood of a particular honeybee or group of honeybees at any given time. A low pitched, drone-like buzz indicates a relaxed, slow flying bee. This bee is probably foraging, en harmless route to one flower or the next, and carrying no real malice toward anyone. A high pitched, shrill-like buzz, on the other hand, indicates a bee that is on the move. This bee is probably in some state of alarm. Bees that are in some state of alarm are usually pissed off, and bees that are pissed off are bees a human without a beekeeping suit should avoid at any cost.

I was not privy to any of this.

In all fairness, they  gave me plenty of warning. A "fly-by," as I later learned, is a term used in the bee- rummaging world to describe an aerial warning given by an angry female honeybee to back off, and it is given in the second buzz-type manner. After Dr. Naug, thoroughly protected by the single beekeeping suit, had been poking around for a mere matter of seconds, I started noticing a whole lot of fly-bys in my immediate headspace. Then, a thump in my hair. Then, a couple more. Thump. Thump.

My mindset at this point became one of pure denial. I initiated a train of thought that can be sufficiently summed up in two words: no way.

There is no way I just felt something land in my hair....
Ok, maybe I did, but there is no way it was alive...
Ok, it might have been alive, but there is no way it was a bee...
Ok, even it was a bee, there is no way it can be mad at me, someone standing so far away from its problems.

No. Way.

It's amazing how quickly the human brain can go from denial to acceptance, no way to oh, shit. This is what we have come to know as our survival instinct in action. For me, it kicked in as soon as physical pain became part of the equation, in the form of a pinprick above my left eye, followed by numerous prods on my scalp and around my ears, all in neat succession. It was only then that the full realization of what was happening kicked in, and it was exactly then that I began disobeying every rule for getting swarmed by honeybees, a necessary protocol that was stressed when I joined the lab:

·         No frantic movements
I ducked, danced, swatted the air, and generally epitomized franticness.
·         Keep your eyes and mouth closed
I didn't blink once, and made involuntary small girlish shrieks that required an ajar mouth hole.
·         Don't run, but briskly walk away towards water or a wooded area
I ran the fastest I ever ran in my entire life away from the only patch of trees in the area and toward our field truck, which, upon entry, became a confined bee hell as an irate sisterhood of hive defenders had already nestled in my hair, searching for access to any area of exposed scalp.
·         Don't panic
In other words, don't be human.
·         Don't squish bees stinger first into your own body
I added this to the protocol after spending a couple of hours excavating bee body parts from my head including stingers that, even upon separation from host bee, continue to inject painful poison into your body until removed.

After spending a sufficient amount of time "scampering around like an idiot" while Dr. Naug, cool as a veritable cucumber in the single beekeeping suit, relayed inappropriately calm instructions from the eye of the bee hurricane, (Stop running. Calm down. You're freaking out. No, don't get in the truck.), and after an even more sufficient amount of time hiding in the trees like a mental patient, continuously rousing my hair and flailing my arms toward imaginary noises, we made our way back to campus. In the field truck, I could have sworn Dr. Naug brandished a slight grin as he recounted with me (again) every way I went wrong, which ended up being a laundry list of sorts. I took note as much as I could, but most of my attention was focused on my pulsating cranium and every remotely buzz-like sound emitted by a vehicle in motion, each one causing me to involuntarily spasm in fear.

Molly Snook taught me early on that the human female is a formidable species that can impart strong emotional damage onto the human male. However, the latter group of females taught me there is a stark difference between an emotional sting and many, many physical ones. And, having experienced both, I can confidently say there is really no comparison. Human females may have the ability to sting, but they have nothing against the female honeybee.


  1. I've missed you. Glad you're back, better and funnier than ever.
    Certainly the humor comes out long after the physical pain is gone!