This happened to me (an encounter with African bees)

28 Mar 2024 | Written by Marina O'Shea

The Joy Club member Elsa Browne shares her near fatal experience of an encounter with African bees…

It has taken me all of a year to be able to write up this experience, perhaps in doing this, I will be released of the shudders whenever I think about it.

This time last year it was a beautiful Summer’s day in South Africa on the East Coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where we had fled from the brutal winter in England for a few weeks of welcome sunshine. We were comfortably accommodated in my sister-in-law’s house in Umhlanga, near Durban. I wandered downstairs to the veranda where my husband was engrossed in the crossword, surrounded by the family’s three rescue dogs.

“Fancy a walk?” I asked. He barely looked up and muttered “You go”. And “How do you spell ennui?” The heat was almost unbearable but I was lightly dressed in shorts and a strappy vest top. “I’m off to walk around the block, won’t be long” I replied and reached for a wide-brimmed fabric hat on the chair nearby. A nudge from a protecting guardian angel? I pulled on my sandals, slapped on some Factor 50 and headed down the driveway and out of the gate before the dogs could wake up to the fact that I was going for a walk without them.

I walked a short distance along the wide road in this quiet residential area, marvelling at the large clump of roots of the mahogany tree on the corner that had been felled in a typical tropical storm a few days earlier. The road had been closed for a day whilst the Council team removed the debris. Such a beautiful tree, I mused and I hoped that it would sprout again from the massive trunk that remained.

Pulling my hat down to make sure that the brim cast a shadow over my face, I turned to walk up the hill to the right, staying as much as possible in the shade. As it was early in the morning, there were few cars on the road. As always, I admired the wondrous variety of the majestic aloes with their tall orange columns of flowers in the gardens as I passed and the abundance of trees I could see – numerous Acacia trees scattered all over, the beautiful lime green bark of the Fever Tree with its delicate leaf fronds (my favourite), the Lucky Bean tree with its distinctive red bean with its black eye. I passed a team of gardeners who acknowledged me with a wave before returning to cutting back a creeper that had grown wild against a boundary wall. I jokingly blocked my ears at the intrusive noise of their strimmer and crossed the road to the opposite verge.

I reached the top of the road and decided to turn right again, walking happily on a footpath on the wide green verge. Just a short distance along, I suddenly felt a sharp sting on my thigh. There having been armies of mosquitoes in the preceding days, my first thought was “Gosh, the mosquitoes are fierce today”. Immediately I felt another sharp sting, and then another and then I was being stung all over. Alarmed, I turned around to see a black, buzzing ball of angry bees within inches of my face. Instinctively, I reached for my hat and swatted at them, without any effect. By now, I was being stung all over my shoulders, my legs and my face. I realised very quickly that I was in real trouble and covered my face with the hat. I tried to think of a way out of this terrifying situation and briefly lifting the hat, looked for the nearest house which was set well back from the road and was protected by a high wall and a security gate, so I knew I would not get help from there in time. I became aware that I was shaking and that my legs were beginning to collapse, as I was being fiercely stung without respite. The bees were not going away.

Really fearful now, I screamed as loudly as I could “Help me! Help me!” hoping that someone, anyone, would hear. A lone, passing car slowed down and I saw the driver, a woman, gaping in amazement as she tried to work out what was going on. The car did not stop, she drove on, speeding up. My legs were beginning to give way completely and I felt my face swelling. I was panic-stricken, yet a calmness came over me as I accepted that I was possibly going to die on the side of the road on this beautiful morning, from an attack by African bees.

For a second time, a guardian angel was looking out for me – the car with the woman driver had done a U-turn and was now stopped beside me. She opened the passenger door and swung it back and forth in an attempt to disperse the swarm of bees. “Quickly! Get in!” she shouted, beckoning. I managed to stagger the few steps to the car and fell into the seat beside her, sobbing hysterically. I gasped my sister-in-law’s address and the woman drove me home and left me at the gate. I stumbled out of the car and hurried as best I could up the driveway, in great pain.

My husband threw his newspaper down and grabbed me in alarm. It was swiftly established what had happened as I mouthed “Bees, I’ve been attacked by a swarm of bees” before collapsing on the ground, covered in visible barbs. All I wanted was for the stings to be removed and I started pulling at them, pinching at them to get them out, not really succeeding. I was in shock and my teeth were chattering uncontrollably.

Within minutes my sister-in-law got me into her car and drove me to the nearby local hospital where I was swiftly put on a drip and antidote medication was administered in the Emergency Department. Still in shock, my body succumbed to vomiting and diarrhoea, I was shaking from head to toe. With all this going on, I heard a buzzing noise. Frantically I pulled off my vest top and sure enough, there was a lone bee trapped under it. It weakly flew off as having left its sting in my flesh, it would die. It was soon walking in circles on the floor where a nurse scooped it up and threw it outside.

As the medication took effect and I calmed down, I became quite the talk of the Emergency Department as the news spread that a victim of a bee attack had been brought in and the number of stings I had was being discussed by the staff. (Although I had protected my face, more than 40 were counted just on my face, neck and arms). Many of the sting sites had swollen rapidly and the venomous poison had caused large bruises.

One of the bee sting site injuries

I was discharged home later that day after several hours under observation, but felt really wiped out for several days afterwards. I spoke to the local Beekeepers Association who told me that the bees must have been disturbed by the noise of the garden strimmer as they “hate them”. It was the time of year when hives swarm to find a new site, and once angered by the disturbance, they would send out a message to the swarm to attack and would target the nearest moving object. I was also told that they would not have stopped stinging me and that I was very lucky in that I was not allergic. I was also lucky in that I was seen to in the hospital, as the worst thing to do is to remove the stings with tweezers, which was suggested when I had first reached home, as all that does is dispense more poison. Best advice is to remove them by scraping them out with e.g. a bank card. I was also advised that I may want to carry an Epipen in future…

I have always loved bees – I think I still do – and have several bee-themed objects around my house, and even a pair of slippers embroidered with bees, so there is no escape from the reminder of my ordeal, unless I redecorate! Pleased to be back home in England a week later, where the bees are unlikely to attack me at any time, I am nevertheless extremely wary whenever I hear even the faintest buzzing noise.