To Bee or not To Bee
At my week-long school reunion in Rio de Janeiro last summer, I thought I might as well look at some killer bees.
Through a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend I found Walter Gressler, a retired beekeeping instructor at the Escola Wenceslau Belo, a Rio agricultural school. When I called him, we arranged to rendezvous. He asked what my main interest was. “Africanized honeybees,” I said.
In the trade we call them “Africanized.” These are killer bees.
Wasn’t I scared? Actually, I worried more about getting a broken beer bottle shoved in my face in this most violent of cities.
I heard about the holdup of the big tunnel that connects two main parts of the city. “Everyone who lives here has been robbed,” my Brazilian friend Suelena said.
After 42 years away, I savored the melodious Brazilian voices and thick tropical smells of my youth. But now there was something new – a soldier on every street corner. Copacabana looked like a prison with its armed guards and locked steel doors.
Crime was all they talked about on the news.
At the class dinner at the Rio home of a former classmate, we got up from the table at 1 a.m. Jimmy drove me back to my hotel like a maniac. When I remarked that he had just run a red light, he said, “Nobody stops for red lights at night. Too many muggings.”
The next morning at the Escola Wenceslau Belo, Walter and I walked through lush tropical forest to reach the bee yard. Although the grounds of the school encompass 84 acres – entirely surrounded by the city of Rio de Janeiro – this Africanized honeybee yard sat only 100 yards from a city street.
Next to the hives we ducked into a little classroom. Walter said, “Write this down: Never go into a bee yard alone. Also, Africanized bees don’t like dark clothing, barnyard smells, menstruating women, swishing tails, flying hair, flying shovels, pounding hammers, perfumes, smelly people. Wear clean clothes, don’t walk in front of the hive, don’t move your hands over the hive, don’t shake the hive, avoid quick movements, and use plenty of white smoke. Too much smoke is better than not enough. Never let your smoker go out.”
When we opened the hives, the little darlings behaved like, well, honeybees. They seemed placid enough.
When we discussed killer bee behavior, Walter explained that Africanized bee aggression diminishes through hybridization with European honeybees. “We can live with these bees,” he said.
Except he almost didn’t. When Walter once tried to burn an overly “defensive” colony, he instead burned a hole in his protective veil. He survived 127 stings.
After we finished working the bees, Walter and I went back into the classroom. Walter put his hand on the back of my zipped-in veil. He said, “Did you know your zipper is wide open?”
Walter explained that Brazilian beekeepers prefer killer bees. Brazilian Africanized hybrids resist honeybee parasites and disease, and make prodigious honey crops.
Late in the afternoon Walter and I walked to the busy freeway next to the school and hailed a taxi. “Take this man to his hotel in Arpoador,” Walter told the driver, “and see that no harm comes to him.”
The driver pointed indignantly to his taxi license picture on the visor. “Sir,” he said, “I am a licensed taxi driver.”
All the way back, I fantasized being driven to some drug-lord-ruled slum. . I shuddered, but my driver only wanted to talk politics. “George Bush, killer,” he muttered in English all the way back to Arpoador.
Part of my heart lies in Rio. I grew up there. My feelings about this place echo Walter’s when I asked him his opinion of the Africanized honeybee. “I’m in favor of her,” he said. “You just have to be careful.”
New Castle resident Ed Colby’s column runs every other Sunday.
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