Bees at Vumbura!

After twenty-five years of bush flying, I might be forgiven for thinking I had covered most angles.  The aircraft, ZS-MMD, is parked in a veritable kraal of thorns to ward off hyaenas, engine air intakes are plugged against excessive dust, even the tiny aperture of the pitot head (required for airspeed readings) sports a little cap, lest insects nest in it.  Controls are locked into place.  

What more can one do?  Go into api-culture, apparently!

One fine November day at Vumbura, we arrive at the airstrip, luggage-laden, for a short flight to Mombo.  “MMD” is abuzz with bees.  The nose gear well has been taken over, the aircraft is about to be turned into a apiary.  An ominous,  ‘Auw, you have some trouble there’ from Rex, the guide, does nothing to gladden my heart.  We approach cautiously.  Advice from the passengers competes with the buzzing of the bees. Rex remains silent.  The bees are not aggressive, intent on establishing their new territory.  I wonder how far they have progressed in making house, and have they started manufacturing yet?  There’s no manual in which you can look up the effects of beeswax and honey on sundry electrical junctions, hinges and the like! Not to mention beestings on the pilot! Since Rex persists in maintaining silence, we decide to try our own natural method first.  I manage to slip into the door without taking half the swarm with me, start up and taxy up and down a bit.  In a single-engine aircraft this might have worked, but there’s not much prop wash out front in a twin, certainly not nearly enough to deter an army of workers, so very proud of having found their queen a house to brag about to future generations!  Thankfully our little manoeuvre does not make them mad, only more determined.  When I shut down, they come back in force.

Rex remains silent. I become a little exasperated with him, expecting a miracle cure.  Ever mindful of passenger priorities, I decide to fly to Mombo gear-down, and if I import some bees in the process, so be it!  However, luggage needs to be loaded in front!  Well, they haven’t stung anyone yet, so I brave the buzz, moving oh-so-slowly, to open the luggage compartment.  This is what I should have done in the first place, for all is now revealed:  This was the object of their desire, here’s where the swarm has decided to settle and raise the little ones; the wheel well is merely the entrance and supply port.  Somewhere in here is the queen, attended by thick bunches of devotees!

The sight jolts my memory.  Bees have a fatal attraction for a certain cupboard at Vumbura and I have witnessed frequently the only way to keep them at bay. Rex speaks at last. ‘Elephant dung’, he commands, ‘and matches’.  Smoking dung is the age-old way of raiding hives in the wild. We’ll smoke them out gently, no harm to man, craft, or insect.  Elephant dung abounds.  The same, alas, cannot be said of matches. Pilot curses her adherence to the admonishments of the lecturer at a (very) recent ‘Dangerous Goods Course’.  Before such enlightenment, a selection of matches could have been found in her flight case, a cigarette lighter, even! It seems one has to be practical about these things; tomorrow stocks will be replenished.  In the meantime, passengers-turned-boy-scouts go to work with assorted lenses, binoculars and bits of toilet paper (always to be found on Land Rovers.)  Before we resort to rubbing dry sticks, we take a more modern approach and radio the nearest camp for equipment – matches and some flat object on which to set the dung alight, far from the avgas, and then transport the smoking heaps thereon to the aeroplane.

If only we’d could have remained self-sufficient! The newly arrived troops spread panic where hitherto there had been calm.  An incident at their camp where a guest had, indeed, been stung dangerously is fresh in their mind.  While Rex sets dung smouldering far from the hubbub, they start pointing insecticide canisters.  I pounce to prevent the very thing they fear so much. We can do without enraged bees; what we want is slightly drugged bees, changing their mind about the suitability of their new abode.

And it works!  Although I have to gingerly lift the first water-doused, smoking heap right into the front hatch myself, Rex and Mkosi become the actual heroes, heads deep into the wheel well and luggage compartment, enveloped by clouds of bees, confused now in the numbing smoke. We stand back to watch an awesome sight – the queen makes her exit; for a few moments the swarm hovers above the aircraft, unsure.  Then they swirl off in huge circular patterns, into the tree line, to a good, solid, earthbound home, I hope.

Packing, greetings, take-off, and landing at Mombo – uneventful.

When the hatch is opened to unload at Mombo, a solitary, and by now exceedingly cross immigrant lands the only sting of the entire operation on the hapless helper!

Credit Brigitte Cross