THE BORDER LIFE
 
KILLER BEES  
Riverdave’s Journal
February 1995

      Our band of fifteen North American ecotourists was quite content as we slowly drifted up a blackwater creek and entered an open area of several acres surrounded by lush Amazonian tropical forest.  As our motorized dugout canoe cut through a tangle of water hyacinths, we trained our eyes upward, looking for movement in the trees that might indicate the presence of monkeys, sloths or other interesting forms of wildlife. I perched myself in the bow as a scout.

      One member of our group suggested to Daniel, our Peruvian guide, that we cut the outboard motor for a while.  Daniel turned and indicated with a hand signal to the boat driver at the rear to cut off the engine. As we slowed to a stop, the lingering motor fumes enveloped us for a few seconds and then were swallowed up by the immensity of the pristine atmosphere around us.

      I suddenly whirled around to find my group of ecotourists stirring with agitation. I felt a sting upon my leg and then my neck. I  saw arms flailing as we became engulfed by a swarm of insects.  With each slap of the body, a dead insect fell to the bottom of the boat. I quickly recognized them as bees.  In less than a minute several of my group had let out shrieks and had wild looks of panic on their faces.

      My own personal reaction kicked in as well.  Several months before I was stung by a lone bee back home in the states and now my body recoiled at the memory of that painful event.  My mind did an instantaneous calculation and multiplied that single painful event dozens of times and the result lit my own alarm button.  This was a serious event.  What was most upsetting and freakish was that the bees were even in my hair!

      I looked to our guide Daniel, seated in the middle of the boat, for a cue.  My first thought was that we should all jump overboard till the bees dispersed.  But then, on second thought, I knew that there lurked amidst these Amazonian blackwater lakes piranhas, electric eels and crocodiles.  We had truly managed to put ourselves “between a rock and a hard place.”  Daniel didn’t answer.  He had pulled his poncho up over his head and leaned forward.

     I called for our driver Julio as I did not see him at the other end of the boat.  Finally someone hollered back to me, “Julio’s in the water!”  I squirmed my way past the line of contorted bodies to the rear of the boat and found the driver bobbing amongst the hyacinths.  He had a life jacket on, so I reached down, grabbed the shoulder straps of his jacket and yanked him out of the water up onto the dugout.  I pointed to the motor and demanded, “Start this motor!”

      Within a matter of twenty seconds the motor was humming. We steered around and headed out the narrow passage that had lead us into the blackwater lake.  We had gone no more than one hundred yards when the bees disappeared as suddenly as they found us.  They chose not to follow us.  I breathed my first sigh of relief.  The flailing of hands had stopped but what remained was a canoe full of moaning ecotourists, several of whom were senior citizens.  I had no idea what the consequences would be for us physically. I estimated that we endured the stinging onslaught for a total of three minutes.

    We all just hung our heads as we pulled out of the creek and our motorized canoe picked up full speed back on the main channel of the Amazon River and headed for our passenger boat, the Arca, that was moored a couple of miles away. Arriving at the boat ten minutes later, I realized that to get these folks out of the canoe and up the narrow plank to the main deck of the Arca would be more like an evacuation than just a simple transfer.  There were now some seriously sick among us that needed assistance to even move.   
 
     Daniel, our leader, did not seem overly agitated by the situation.  He radioed a Peruvian Naval official who offered to evacuate any desperate among us by sea plane.  Fortunately, among our little band of ecotourists was a nurse named Shirley from Vancouver Island, Canada.  She thoughtfully managed to shield herself from the worst of the bee attack by lying on the floor of the dugout  canoe and covering herself with a sarong.

       In a later conversation with me about the event, she recalled, “I remember a strange calmness coming over me, a sensation I have expereinced in a number of threatening situations.  I recall looking out and seeing my fellow tourists engulfed in a swarm of bees, shrieking and flailing.”   Once the bees left us, she quickly inquired if anyone might be predisposed to a severe allergic reaction. Then, once we were all on board the Arca, she retrieved her personal first aid kit which was stocked with syringes, calamine lotion, hydrating powder and a bottle of aspirin and began to check the vital signs of all who were stung.

      The situation on board the Arca was grim.  A decision was made to steer the boat to a nearby village that had a government first aid outpost for Indians.  It was a simple, thatched roof building consisting of a waiting room with a bench and one examination room with a table. The clinic's attendant was not present and we were told by others that she was away at the moment. A young woman showed Shirley the meager clinical supplies, among which were six vials of Benadryl and a single glass syringe. 

      A decision was made among us as to whom should receive this limited medication and the worst off among us got a hit from shirley in the behind. Although I counted over fifty stings on my body from head to toe, I passed up the offer of medication to allow older members of my group to receive it. 

      The Arca’s bee attack victims were sprawled out on the ground in front of a thatched clinic building. Indian children approached us speaking an incomprehensible language but seemed to know exactly what to do . They carefully went through our hair and pulled out the bee stingers still attached to our scalps and proudly held them up to our drooping faces to examine. Many stingers were also still stuck in our clothing. I felt a genuine sense of compassion from the children. 

      Upon returning to the Arca, Shirley divided our ragged crew into two groups.  The first were those with localized reactions including swelling, redness, pain and itching.  The second group had developed frightening systemic symptoms including sweating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness and headache. The energy of the moment was intensifying with the upturn of heat from the early afternoon equatorial sun.  Two men had the most serious symptoms, including lethargy and rapid thready pulses, and were at real risk for developing hypovolemic shock.

      The first group were left to generally fend for themselves with just the occasional check in.  The second group were kept at the rear of the boat near the washrooms where they could be more easily observed and attended to.  They were encouraged to lay down, except when  being assisted to relieve themselves at the rail of the boat or nearby bathroom showers.  When the dehydrating powder was finished, they were given large amounts of water with added salt and sugar and showers were encouraged.  Shirley continued to monitor their vital signs, keeping everyone calm with constant reassurance, touch and cold cloths.
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     I spent much of my afternoon dragging the suffering to the edge of the boat so they could puke overboard or steering them to the toilet where their miseries came rushing out the other end.  By evening I was thoroughly depleted and had to retreat to my cabin to take care of myself and lick my own wounds. I was miserable with dizziness, aches and fever.  Shirley came by throughout the night to bring a cool cloth to apply to my forehead.  It was obvious that the leadership of our expedition had shifted from American to Canadian.

      The Arca headed back to its port of Iquitos, still another 150 miles away.  For those that weren’t negatively impacted by the calamitous morning canoe trip, there were a couple of stops along the way to visit more Indian villages.  I carefully calculated my energy level the next day to see if I had the strength to make the onshore excursions.  I especially wanted the opportunity to ask a local shaman about his interpretation of a bee attack
 
    From the discussion Daniel was having over the radio with government officials, I learned that our attack, by what were probably Africanized honey bees, was not a common occurrence in the area.  The authorities only knew of one tourist group in Peru that had ever been bothered by these bees and that was eight years previously!  At the first aid station there was a report that a couple of Indian children had been recently swarmed nearby and one child subsequently died. 

     As my mind began to clear twenty-four hours after the event, what bothered me the most about our encounter was the nagging question, WHY OUR GROUP?  I decided to pass up the remaining onshore excursions, partly because I feared that the shaman’s answer might not be to my liking ...

      As Arca churned its way back to port, I pulled out my only souvenir of the bee attack - a single dead bee that I had picked up off the floor of the dugout which was littered with his fallen kamikaze comrades.  Once a bee stings, it loses its stinger and dies.  I had emptied my aspirin bottle to find a place to store the insect.  I was only vaguely aquatinted with this insect that was produced by interbreeding between honey bees from Europe and South Africa, and subsequently escaped from a research lab in southern Brazil in 1957.  These “killer” bees have a reputation of being more aggressive in defending themselves against intruders, like ourselves, who haplessly wandered into their territory.

      I opened my pill bottle and a tiny corpse tumbled out into the palm of my hand.  I stepped outside my cabin and held the silent, withered creature in the sunlight for a closer examination.  Superficially it looked just like the common honey bee that I was familiar with in my home state of North Carolina.  I had a friend who was a biology professor at N.C. State University who I thought would be interested to have this little Amazonian memento and who just might enlighten me on what was really going on among us!  I tucked the bottle away in my personal bag and never declared it to U.S. Customs at the Miami Airport.

      When we arrived at the Arca’s home port of Iquitos, we were transferred directly to the airport.  It was a small airport, really a shelter without walls.  Our reputation had preceded us and airport and custom officials were eager to hear our story and gawk at our swollen bodies.  We were all feeling rather weak but at that point no one seemed to be in a danger zone.

      And then whooosh, we were off, our plane banking north over that giant, fluvial anaconda, wriggling through a slush of green mysteries to the eastern horizon.  In Miami I transferred to a hotel and collapsed for two days, exhausted from the ordeal and taking care ot others.  Slowly my energy began to return.  I rented a car and drove to Ft. Myers to the headquarters of the ecotourism company that had contracted me to lead the group. For legal reasons I felt that it was important for them to hear the whole account first hand from their chosen leader. 
 
     With that mission accomplished, I flew back home to Durham.  A week after my return, still suffering from itching and swelling, I sought out a physician for help.  He found nothing seriously wrong with me.  He suggested that I might become hypersensitive to bee stings in the future because of the large quantity of venom that was introduced into my body, and I therefore should cary an epinephrine pen when I am outdoors.

      I bought a pen, carried it with me for a few months and then gave it up.  I have been stung by bees and wasps a number of times since then and noticed that I am less vulnerable to a allergic reaction than I was before the bee attack.  Perhaps I received a protective inoculation from the realms of Amazonia. Or maybe such a big dose of wild venom actually harmonized well my own wild side ...

      I corresponded with members of our ecotour for several months to make sure that all were well.  Realizing the unforeseen dangers that could suddenly overwhelm a group of vulnerable American tourists in the wilds of Amazonia, I decided not to return again with a group. After all, no one had ever informed me that a killer bee attack was even a possibility.  So who knows what else the Amazon might suddenly throw at me and my naive, unsuspecting groups!  I retired from Amazonia guiding after six years of groups.

      The following year I led a group to paddle whitewater rivers in Costa Rica.  Several members of the group took a frightening spill from their raft on the Rio General at what was known as the “whirlpool rapid.”  We all returned home alive, but for me, that experience finally sealed the end of my short career as a tropical outdoor guide. 

      But my love for adventure and my love for Amazonia compelled me to return in 1997 and hitchhike 2000 miles on river boats from Peru all the way through Brazil to its Atlantic delta.  With a friend I returned again in 1998 to get some help from mestizo shamans in the Iquitos area.  I had a number of personal questions to which I was seeking answers.   One of those questions that was still smoldering in the back of my mind was WHY OUR GROUP got hit with the bee attack.  I was convinced that there was some deeper insight to still uncover or valuable lesson to be learned.

      Don Agustine Rivas Vasques was my man.  With an Amerindian mother and father from Spanish Peruvian decent, don Agustine had spent over twenty-five years studying Mestizo shamanic lore and practice with the area’s best teachers.  He was a woodcarver by trade, but  while still a young man he injured his hands after falling from a tree and had to take up another trade as well.  In the process of seeking his own recovery and wellness, don Agustine was drawn into shamanic healing work.  Besides serving his own community of Tamshiyacu, he often invited westerners to join in his plant medicine ceremonies. 

     My long sought after moment finally came when I was alone with this elderly gentleman and I told him the story of the killer bee attack  He listened attentively to all my theories about what I, or what someone else in my group might have done to provoke such a reprisal from the wild.  I proposed past unresolved issues in my life that I had ignored.  I also put forward a theory about a hitchhiker that our guide Daniel had picked up in Columbia.  This odd fellow had a dark and sinister spirit about him and I wondered if his presence had somehow brought the bee attack upon us all. Sorcery is often considered a major cause of calamity in that region.

     Don Agustine pulled out his pipe and began to smoke as I shared.  When I concluded my babbling, he blew tobacco smoke into the air several times before he spoke. He then stated confidently that if the spirits (the sacha runa) of the Amazon rain forest were concerned with punishing all its inhabitants for the sins they have committed, there would be no one left alive.

     He then abruptly changed the direction of my thoughts and said that furthermore,  based on his own observations and experiences in the forest, bees are attracted to sweet things. And Instead of me being so hard on myself and my group, perhaps I should consider that my group caught the territorial attention of the bees because we brought a new and exotic sweetness into their realm!  I was flabbergasted ...

      Now granted there are hundreds and maybe thousands of shamans in the Iquitos area and I imagine that each one, if asked,  might have given me a different answer. And no doubt the Catholic bishop in Iquitos would have provided yet an entirely different perspective as well. For several weeks I carefully pondered don Agustine’s simple and straight forward interpretation of the killer bee attack and then I decided to lay the issue to rest.  For a while, anyway ...
 
Photo: The Arca Amazon river boat from Riverdave's old promotional material