This past weekend, I was in the car with Laura, Julia, Rachel, and Rachel’s cousin Amanda on the way to get stuff for our next Average Fantastic shoot. The topic turned to bees (naturally) and I realized that I had never told you guys this story.
My Bee Story.
For a week every summer when I was small, I would spend my days at Mountaindale, a sprawling girl scout camp that promised Fun! Frolic! Friends! and educational opportunities that adults would approve of. We girl scouts were okay with all of those things, but really, we just relished the opportunity to play with gimp (colored plastic string that we wove into useless shapes and designs) and the novelty of choosing our own name for a week.
I think that particular summer my friend Kyrissa and I had coordinated. I chose the name Kit, she chose the name Kat, and a third friend who demanded to be added to our duo took the name Bar, although we didn’t make her. I wore my nametag proudly, and theorized that I would probably really change my name to Kit when I got old enough, because it was a better name than Jessica.
I usually participated in all of the provided activities with at least a mild enthusiasm. I behaved myself. I didn’t cause trouble. When our troop leaders said ‘jump!’ I asked how high, and when they demanded I sing silly camp songs, I belted so hard that I reliably lost my voice by Thursday every year. Nonetheless, when they asked me to make a ‘nature journal’ that year, some part of me rebelled.
See, I had spent the better part of my youth exploring the woods. My brother and I would pick up our cats and drag them into the forest behind our house, and we would go for long walks, exploring the creek full of crawdads, examining empty bird nests and discovering the secret caches of nuts and seeds that squirrels hid away from prying eyes. This was besides our numerous camping trips into The Wild (ie, Eastern Oregon) where my father pointed out wonders like deer, trout, and puma poop.
So, when handed a little cardboard booklet and told to catalog how many ladybugs we saw, I was understandably a bit insulted.
The knowledge that my mother was working at the camp that year (under the name ‘Goofy’) kept me from doing any outright misbehaving, but darn it if I wasn’t going to count those ladybugs as sulkily as possible.
We were led out into the woods, and instructed to stray off the path, just a little bit, into a thicket littered with fallen branches, dead leaves, and somebody’s shoe. I dutifully drew the shoe under the ‘Things I’ve Seen!’ section of my catalog, and moved on.
While the other girls eagerly scrabbled under rocks and logs in the pursuit of bugs, I broke ranks and sidled as far away from the leaders as I could. I chronicled three beetles, a ladybug, a potato bug, countless flies, and a distant squirrel. As I was creeping closer to the squirrel, clambering over a rotting log, I spotted the hole.
You all know that this story is about bees. At the time, I did not realize how bee-filled my day would be, and so the hole didn’t seem like anything alarming. In fact, it was intriguing. Let the other girls ooh and aah over the squirming centipedes they found in the dirt.
I was about to unearth a snake.
Carefully, I examined the hole. Ah, yes, I told myself. Probably a garter snake. Common in these parts. And the wind is from the east, so it’ll be a very big one. Also taking into account the time of year and the color of the dirt, I could assume it was asleep. I wasn’t concerned. I saw snakes in our backyard all the time. I even picked them up sometimes, and trapped them in flowerpots. So that I could observe. The discovery of a snake would undoubtedly prove to the leaders of my group that I was way too well-versed in forest lore to be bothered with counting slugs.
I crouched next to the hole and waited.
Probably the snake just needed a little coaxing, so I found a small stick and used it to skewer a worm that I found, and thrust them into the hole.
“Here, snakey snakey,” I whispered. “Come get the worm.”
Maybe I could scare it out. I rattled the stick around in the hole for a bit (the uncomfortable worm protesting in awkward shapes) but the snake seemed to be immovable. I began to think that maybe there wasn’t any snake in there at all. Yes, judging by the pattern of fallen pine needles and the day’s humidity, it looked like there hadn’t been a snake around here for some time.
Defeated, I returned to the task of drawing flies, pausing to kick as much dirt as I could down the barren hole, as any nine year old is wont to do.
There passed a blissful five minutes where my mind turned towards the possibility of finding a preying mantis (I had seen one the day before, and it seemed like a better idea than producing a stupid old snake) and I completely forgot about the hole. The other girls were happily clustered around bushes, poking irritable snails and asking each other whether ‘worm’ was spelled with an ‘o’ or an ‘e’. The leaders hung back on the path, chatting with each other and keeping half an eye fixed on their herd.
Suddenly, one of the girls began screaming.
She darted up, shrieking, “OW! OW! OW!” and slapping at her arms. The rest of us stared at her open mouthed, our bodies tensed to run from whatever was attacking. The leaders lunged into the thicket, crouching next to her with the proper concerned expressions while she flailed. Another girl jumped up with a yell and danced around with a chorus of wails, clutching her leg. The rest of us weren’t sure what to do. Run? Stay put? Panic? We were mystified.
One of the leaders startled and slapped the back of her neck.
“Shit!” she shouted. “Bees!”
To a nine year old, there is no word more terrifying. Even the word ‘bee’ serves as a firecracker in the midst of any kid gathering. Is there a bee? Nothing will get done within a mile radius, because every child will be concentrated on flipping their collective shit. Add an ‘s’ onto that, and you have the Apocalypse. Armageddon. Airborne death and suffering. The instant that leader shouted the word ‘bees’, we were electrified into action.
That action was running in circles around the thicket, slamming into each other, slapping the air, screaming at the top of our lungs and generally preparing for The End Of All Things. Every few seconds a girl’s squealing would be amplified tenfold, and we would realize that They had gotten her. She was dead, Jim. It was over.
In reality, there were probably about twenty bees, but twenty bees for eight girls is plenty. I sobbed as a bee jammed its stinger into my arm, and shrieked as a shocking pain in my finger caused me to bang it mightily into a nearby tree, squashing my would-bee destroyer.
“Onto the path!” one of the leaders roared, and we poured out of the thicket, crying, howling, a few of us rolling on the ground in our desolation. The bees were not eager to follow us, and slowly, we realized that we were safe. We were lead to the first aid station and given candy and band aids. We afflicted, about five of us, sat in a line on a cot and listened to the hushed adults talk in the next room.
“I thought that area was clean! Didn’t they comb for nests?”
“Yes, but these were yellow jackets.”
“Sometimes they make their nests underground, in holes. Somebody probably disturbed them.”
At that precise second, as I realized what I had done to my fellow scouts, my mother came into the station looking for me and I burst into noisy tears. She thought I was crying from the pain and shock of the sting.
In reality, I cried out of guilt. O, Cruel Science!, whose foolish pursuit had unleashed such dangers on my fellow man!
I suddenly knew how Oppenheimer must have felt.