Dave Jacobsson called on the radio asking which plane I was taking that day. I told him that 9Q-CMP was on my schedule. “Bad news”, he replied. “There is a swarm of Bees in its tail.” This was bad news. I have had a bad bee sting reaction before and couldn’t afford to get stung on a day I was flying and without some meds. Dave, being the helpful guy he is, said he would take the plane around the patch and blow them out. He managed to get in without being stung and flew around Nyankunde a couple of times but the bees were well inside….and now they were mad.
Most of the bees were in the tail when I got there, but for a small group huddled on the windscreen and a bunch flying in and out of the prop spinner. After talking with Dave and Kazi a bit I decided to fly all the way over to Bunia and really rattle them around and hopefully out. I got in the plane without incident and with the group on the windscreen visual, started up, fully expecting the prop blast to blow them off instantly. But after run up checks at 400 on the torque they were stubbornly hanging on to the plexiglass. I always considered that pretty slippery stuff but as I rolled down the runway they were still hanging on at 60 mph, then 80 mph. It wasn’t till I got to 100 mph that they started slipping off one by one. I was amazed. And I knew there were still going to be bees inside the sheltered tail section when I landed in Bunia.
This was not the first time we have had problems with African Bees. They are a hearty and aggressive lot. “Killer bees”. It was our first night at Fothergill Island and although we had visited there many times before, we had just moved in permanently and were settling into our much loved thatched hut. When the game drives began arriving back after sunset one boat was missing and it was starting to get very dark. Frik Maas went out to look for them and when he radioed back that he had found them he told us to be prepared to help with bee attack victims. But there were still people missing so the boat driver was coming back with the others and he was going into the bush to search for the missing mama and baby. The bee’s had attacked the boat as it came in toward shore to view some game. Kariba has many dead tree trunks in the waters and it looks kind of creepy until you start to see the beauty of it. Now the Matusadona shoreline with its stunning sunsets through the shapely black silhouettes is one of our most beloved scenes. The bees must have been in the trees and been annoyed by the noise of the boat because they attacked en mass and everyone on the boat jumped into the crocodile and hippo infested water to get away from them. They would go under water and hold their breath as long as they could, but of course the baby couldn’t be expected to do that so the mother got out of the water and ran away into the bush…where there are lions and buffalos and elephants (Oh my!) and many other dangerous things that the unknowing tourist would be at a loss to react well to.
Cher and I were there when the first people arrived and Janet Conway, a registered nurse and our camp office manager, began directing the triage and dispensing what antihistamines we had on hand. A German man with his 2 young girls had been stung many times and I started in helping him while Cher worked with one of the girls whose long hair was matted with scores of bees. At first glance I thought he was just very hairy but on closer examination all the little hairs were actually stingers. You are supposed to carefully scrape fresh bee stings to keep the little sacks of poison from being squeezed into the person but it had been so long that they were all dried up and I just started pulling them out with my fingers and later tweezers. I picked them out for an hour before I thought to start counting. I picked 370 more out of him before I was finished. This man was so dehydrated that as trays of Coke and water and tea were brought, he would down 3 bottles in a row, just pouring them down his throat without hardly swallowing.
It was this man’s wife and baby daughter who were missing. Frik finally found them long after dark and brought them back to camp were Cher helped remove stings from the baby. She only had about 30 stings but, being so small, that could have been a serious number. They were clustered around her eyelashes and all over her little face. Somehow she managed to coo and smile through the whole thing! It was now too late to fly across the lake to town so someone was posted at their hut to watch that they didn’t go into a crisis in the night and the next day we took the family out to the hospital in Kariba. The husband’s head and hands were hugely swollen and the formerly cheery baby was now miserable. The camp owner, Rob Fynn, was very upset and offered the couple a free week’s stay when they came back. Hmm, not sure that was very tempting at the time but Cher thinks they did come back a year later.
Anyway, when I landed in Bunia I stayed in the plane with the doors closed and with unintelligible hand signals I tried to warn our guys to be careful as they approached. Amayo, one of our long time faithful workers, wanted to check it out so I handed him a can of DOOM insect spray for protection. He went back and fearlessly started spraying. I got out of the plane and, not wanting to get stung, joined the other more cautious members of our team shouting instructions from a safer distance. I will say in my defence that I had a serious allergic reaction to bee stings a few years earlier and, as I had to fly all day, could not afford to get stung. Amayo stayed there emptying the can of spray into the swarm and after over an hour the swarm was down to just a few stragglers. We loaded the plane and took off for Entebbe and on our return, bees that had flown off to avoid the poison spray came to the plane again looking for their swarm mates. On our return to Nyankunde more bees came to re-join their group and were met with yet another stiff dose of spray.
A few days later when I opened the plane for the morning preflight I noticed a funny dead smell. We sniffed our way all along the fuselage and as we approached the back were able to confirm, without a doubt, that the bees were the culprits. Who knew that insects could smell like dead animals? But I guess if you have enough of them they do! We were taking the plane to Kajjansi to pick up some cargo that day so I radioed ahead and asked Mike Shutts, our chief of maintenance, if he could bring the vacuum out to remove the dead
bees. Mike opened up inspection plates and cleaned out dead bees about 2 inches deep in the tail. In the one day they had lived in the plane they had already started to make quite a large perfect piece of honeycomb as well. Busy little things!
It was all an interesting day at the office.