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From the Publisher: Beeing There


Published June 23, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.


For the last two years of the 1980s, I lived in the West Nile region of Uganda, where its famous former dictator, Idi Amin, was born. My ex-husband was helping to repatriate people who were forced to leave the country after Amin's ouster; they'd been refugees for a decade. There was no organized law enforcement in much of the East African nation, and the army — as well as teachers and other public servants — went months without getting paid.

It was dangerous, in part because some soldiers freelanced or sold their government-issued automatic weapons to survive. The U.S. State Department advised Americans against traveling to our town, in Uganda's northwestern corner. No fewer than 35 vehicles were stolen from global nonprofits working in the area while we were there.

And yet the only real harm visited upon me and my ex in that "hardship post" came in the form of a swarm of killer bees.

We were about an hour from home, on the hard-packed dirt road that served as the country's north-south highway, when we noticed a military checkpoint up ahead. These were common, as were fake ones erected by carjackers, but before we could decide whether to stop or blow through, we saw a group of panicked soldiers running toward us. Theorizing about the cause of their torment, one of us spied something long and dark lying in the road.

My ex stopped our Toyota Land Cruiser, climbed out of the driver's seat and announced it was an AK-47 — one of the fleeing soldiers had apparently dropped his weapon. We were still puzzling it out, when, in a soundless second, both of us were covered with bees. They filled the cab of the truck, attaching themselves to our faces, arms and chests. I was screaming, but the occupants in the back were totally silent. One was a friend who had been in a terrible car accident; we were bringing him home from the hospital in a full body cast.

My ex was in similarly bad straits: He struggled to get back into the truck, pulling bees from his eyes so he could find the keys, ignition and gearshift.

After what seemed like an eternity, we were moving again, and zero to 60 never felt so good. The only way to eject the bees from the vehicle was to drive really fast, with every window wide open. The last thing we saw were the soldiers, laughing hysterically at our plight. Apparently, we had successfully diverted the bees from the men, whose guns were useless against them.

Later that night, both of us feverish from bee venom, we counted our blessings. One was that human beings can apparently sustain 10 stings for each pound of body weight. Another was that our precious cargo, Sam, escaped without a single sting.

Amazingly, I wasn't traumatized by the experience, but when Seven Days editors proposed an issue about pollinators, the memory came rushing back.

Read on to find out about all the good things bees do.

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