These aren’t the bees you’re looking for.
The forest. My love for the forest spans since before I remember. My grandfather, Martin Farrell, was an avid woodsman and the time I spent with him left me with a great respect and ever-present playful curiosity for knowledge and insight within the wild and forgotten places of the world. There’s nothing like a woodland adventure, but sometimes the curiosity part can get you into trouble.
After high school I was invited to participate in a study for Rutgers focused on a plant named Aconitum, or more commonly known in history and literature as “Wolfsbane”. It’s very poisonous, and can grow in small patches in rather remote areas. I am by no means a plant expert, but I was helpful as a scout and assistant to PhD students acquiring data from sites lightly peppering the very mountainous and mossy terrain of upstate New York. On one such trip, a three-day hike into a wild area near Kingston, New York, my curiosity got the best of me.
My teammates on this adventure were Nancy—a botanist writing her thesis— and her husband Tom. Both were very charming and intelligent individuals who knew their way around the woods. We were two days in and had set up camp. Tom stayed and watched the campsite while Nancy and I headed on our way to our first site of the day. Nancy was also 7 months pregnant with her daughter, and I was there to carry gear and handle plants for her. It was late June, and the temperate rainforest was the thickest and hottest it could muster before September and October would take her foliage away. The brush and bugs were thick, and a dry streambed made for a much quicker route with less nettles and blackberry bushes to walk though. We were going at a nice clip and making great time. The path widened at one point and the large dry rocks made for great seats. We decided to sit and have a snack. I ate quickly and left Nancy for a minute to enjoy her raisins and granola while I took a look up ahead.
Without my pack on I made a quick trip upstream to see what was ahead of us and just generally check out the scene. Then I heard a humming sound. Assuming it was an airplane or some other loud, mechanical thing far away, I didn’t pay much attention. About ten more steps and I realized it was way louder, and close.. and coming from a tree. Bees! I thought to myself. With Nancy far behind eating lunch I decided to take a closer look. The mechanical and beautifully warm fuzzy sound of bees was exciting; not only are they fascinating animals, but the honey bee was becoming scarcer in this area of the world and I wanted to see if they were, indeed, honey bees.
A dead stump of a tree, about 9 ft high, was alive with sound. I crept closer and it became almost electric as I came nearer to the tree to try and spy what was making all that beautiful racket. I placed a confident hand on the tree, to feel the vibration of the insects. I saw one land on my side of the dead wood: a hornet. No honeybees. I stood there cautiously for a moment more to enjoy the experience, and was about to back up when I heard a voice behind me. “Hey Victor, what’d ya find?”, said Nancy, casually.
She had made her way upstream to see what I was up to—I must add very nimbly and much quicker than I expected—and she took me by surprise. Startled, I stumbled backward, leaning back on the tree to keep my balance, imposing just the smallest bit of pressure on this 500lb dead log full of hornets. I hadn’t noticed the entire other side of the tree was almost completely missing, and its structural integrity was grossly compromised. I heard a soft crunching sound as the stump started to fall.
Now I’m not allergic to bee or hornet stings, but I had no idea if Nancy was or not. Not having time to ask this question, I yelled “BEES!” at the top of my lungs and went into panic mode. I knew the only way to really protect Nancy was to not let her be seen. She was wearing khaki and white, whereas I was wearing dark blue jeans and a black t-shirt. I knew they might miss her altogether in the fray as long as I could stand mostly in the way and be noticed. I told her to run down stream as the hollow tree fell, exploding with dismayed hornets. Without a moment to lose I grabbed the long sleeve shirt ’round my waist and started flinging it around so no insects caught sight of my escaping pregnant comrade. She fell off into the brush and made her getaway as I continued to leap and sing wildly in circles, waving a grey surrender flag that was my shirt. Once she was out of sight I made my own exit. About three minutes of running in the opposite direction through the thicket, and many stings later, I was safe— albeit sore and bumpy from attacks. My whimsical curiosity had been injured as well as my ego for foolishly getting that close to a hornet nest that massive.
Nancy and I found each other shortly after and we continued into the mountains. Upon acquiring the data we needed, we headed back to the campsite. Although in the moment the hornet encounter was an emergency, I healed within no time, and everyone was safe. We had a huge laugh later that night retelling my frantic and ridiculous hornet dance and Nancy’s bumbling dash into the rhubarb. I am still close friends with Nancy and Tom, and their daughter is a teenager now.
Author: Victor Santiago is an Animal Behavior Graduate Group Affiliate and Ethogram staff member.