One Thousand Angry Bees
Over drinks at Christmas, I invited myself to photograph Jon's beekeeping operation in Blanchisseuse. "Call me in April" he said. "Things should be interesting by then”.
The bees are angry; very angry. Somehow the routine brush cutting exercise planned for this morning has gone awry. The buzzing of the bees; a simple expression we learn in childhood reading from our Student’s Companion. The term seems trivial enough, soothing even. But this is not the case. The sound of bees swarming is one of savage intent, their drone sounding mechanical, tinny even, not of tiny wings, but of vibrating metal. Instinctively your body reacts, your muscles tense and your breathing quickens. You know something bad is about to happen. It is a warning heard too late for an unprotected target.
And if their buzz was the bark, their relentless attack is the bite. I recall Jon mentioning casually on the drive up that all bees in Trinidad are of the Africanized variety. In kamikaze fashion, wave after wave, they crash into my thin mesh visor. I could feel them against the thick cotton of my overalls, on my leg and all along my arms, each insect registering a distinct bump as it collides at speed into my stiff body.
I’m in a full beekeepers suit and praying to every God I can remember that I've zipped it all up correctly. It’s an odd conversation that takes place in your head as you deny your flight or fight instinct. There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide and it is impossible to battle a swarm of bees. I know logically my best and safest course of action is to stand still and ride it out. I foolishly think if I move away slowly they would call off the attack. But it doesn't work like that. They just keep attacking. The suit is stifling and I can feel sweat running down my face and burning my eyes. I instinctively move my arm to wipe it away with my sleeve but the helmet and visor prevent me from doing so. Better sweaty than stung I think to myself. My glasses are slipping down my nose. When I think I see a bee inside my helmet I use every ounce of resolve to not panic. But it’s nothing. Imagination and fear are a bad combination.
Operating a camera in full beekeeper’s gear is, to say the least, not ideal. I cannot feel the shutter button, my gloves stiff and gummy from several seasons’ worth of dried honey and beeswax. The mesh helmet that saves me from the business end of the bees also prevents me from bringing my viewfinder to my eye. Switching to “live view” doesn't help either; everything appears as if I’m looking through a greasy restaurant window. And the attack ensues. But I know I'm there to make images. So I rely on muscle memory to operate my camera. I know my lens and its field of view and I'm able to compose and shoot “from the hip”. With my clumsy encased fingers, I eventually manage set my camera to burst mode and select an f-stop that will be forgiving. In the midst of all of this, I begin hearing Lord Kitchener’s “The Bee’s Melody” playing in my brain; I know I'll be ok. I shake my head, smile to myself and start shooting.