It is like watching a horror film peeking from behind a pillow; I can’t watch, I can’t stop watching. National Geographic’s spotlight on the Giant Asian Hornet’s invasion and slaughter of a honeybee hive is brutally fascinating. I can almost hear the screaming of dying honeybees.
The large hornets begin by chewing the opening to the hive large enough to fit their bodies inside. Then they decapitate every honeybee they encounter. Approximately ten times smaller than the hornet, the tiny pollinator doesn’t stand a chance. The Hornets occupy the hive and take their time devouring the bees’ defenceless larval brood.
Its dead volcanic mouth opens to the sky; Nui Ba Den, or Black Virgin Mountain, rises 3,268 feet out of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The mountain is nearly a perfect cinder cone with a shallow saddle, like a nest, and on the northwest side, there is a slight bulge that pushes trees and air out into the world.
The mountain is honeycombed with caves and large basalt boulders. It is 10 kilometers northeast of Tay Ninh and 96 kilometers northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
My father spent most of his year in Vietnam in the rubber tree plantations, rice paddies and dense jungle at the base of that Mountain. It was the only mountain like it in the distance, a breast, a bump in the skyline. “The Americans,” he said, “owned the jungle at its base and the boulders and two-acre army base at its top. The North Vietnamese Army owned the middle and inside.” Its belly was full of tunnels. If one listened long enough in the silence of a Vietnamese morning or in the wet dripping of a humid night, the mountain almost buzzed with secret radioed missives and whispered plans emitting, like a bee’s waggle dance, from dark tunnels inside the mountain.
They called it a spontaneous pneumothorax, a collapsed lung. Sometimes young skinny guys randomly acquire . . . get . . . earn . . . suffer them. My father was sort of skinny and sort of young when his arrived. His doctors said it was probably because he was lifting too much weight at work, working too hard for too many hours. They were probably right.
My cousin Michael had thick glasses, buck teeth that made his mouth look wet all the time, and he had a cleft palate that gave him an adorable speech impediment that matched his absolute love of the world around him. His “v’s” were “t’s,” his “th’s” were “d’s,” and “k’s” were hard to pronounce at the ends of words.
He and cousin Tommy lived far away, so my sister and I seldom saw them, but when we did, we were in for days and days of fun and trouble-making.
Uncle Mickey was the first person I knew who had a camcorder. The first time we were allowed to use it, we planned a brood of shows including a news broadcast complete with commercials.
We telegraph-beeped the Eye Witness News tune, proclaimed the weather forecast on a hand-drawn map with dancing construction paper clouds glued to sticks we found in the yard. We acted out a dramatic scene from grandma’s favorite daytime show, Days of our Lives—someone died and someone planned evil revenge. In another clip, we wore straw hats with homemade price tags like Minnie Pearl’s, sang the Hee Haw theme, and square danced.
The best clip we recorded was a Perdue Chicken commercial—it was Michael’s solo performance. We used every stuffed bird we owned: several penguins, a rainbow parrot puppet with long wispy-haired wings, a toucan, a duck, a squeaky plastic featherless chicken, and several pillows with cardinals and chickadees on them. We surrounded Michael with the birds, and he cradled the parrot and stroked its head and said over and over again, “Dass a nice Chicken” each time stressing a different word until he had given each word its special attention: “DASS a nice chicken. Dass A nice chicken. Dass a NICE chicken. Dass a nice CHICKEN. DASS A NICE CHICK-EEEHHHHN!” We laughed and laughed and laughed.
The queen bee has two primary jobs. One is to emit chemicals that regulate colony unity and the other is to lay eggs. In peak season, a young queen bee can lay over 3,000 eggs a day. In her two- to five-year-long life, she will give birth to approximately half a million offspring.
In contrast, a worker bee forages for nectar, pollen, and propolis all day every day until it works itself to death just 14-28 days after its birth.
Treating a pneumothorax is usually simple. A needle or chest tube is inserted between the ribs to remove any excess air. Sometimes they heal on their own. Sometimes they can kill. When healing, what is most required afterward is rest.
Dad was lucky; his collapsed lung wasn’t going to kill him. But the lack of rest, the doctors warned, would. Seeing the futility of his advice, the doctor said, “At least it isn’t honeycomb lung where one eventually drowns in their own lungs cysts.”
“I think I can handle drowning in tired,” Dad replied.
Asian honey bees in Vietnam apply animal dung to the openings of their hives to ward off potential mortal threats such as the giant hornet, the Vespa soror, the slightly smaller cousin of the Vespa mandarinia, or the murder hornet. Fecal spotting is the first tool that scientists have ever observed honeybees using. It is olfactory camouflage. Honey is sweet, which lures the hornets, but the feces, that simple defense, covers that sweetness.
When we were ready to show our families our movies, we eagerly sat in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room. Michael was taking attendance and asked, “Where is Uncle Tinny?”
One of us replied, “Working.”
“Dat Uncle Tinny. All he does is wurt, wurt, wurt, wurt, wurt. What are we going to do abou’ dat?”
Grandma replied, “A busy bee has no time for sorry.” We didn’t understand.
He looks like a normal man. He laughs, plays catch with his kids, works hard for his family; he vacations, loves his dogs and chickens. But if you could help it, you didn’t tell Dad a boy broke your heart, that you failed a test, crashed your car. He couldn’t handle those things. His pupils would ooze out into the hazel of his eyes, his skin would curdle, pock, and redden, his breathing would become labored, and his lips would peel back and bear teeth that seemed to growl under the menacing wince of his eyes. It was all involuntary, every shred of terror he felt and imposed. He couldn’t handle being unable to control the fear and worry in his life; he couldn’t handle the inability to stop those he loved from being hurt.
Approximately 91 million honey bee hives are managed around the world. That is more than two trillion bees and that number doesn’t count the feral colonies that exist.
Those two trillion honey bees along with other animal pollinators in the world are responsible for pollinating three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and around 35 percent of the world’s food crops that humans consume. And, obviously, they make the honey we use.
Honey never rots. In three hundred years, if our descendants needed to soothe a child’s throat or heal a burn, the honey jarred today would still be good. If it becomes hard and crystalized, all one will need to do is soak the jar in a hot water bath until it resembles its old self.
Honey is the world’s bandaid. It is an antioxidant that can keep our skin looking youthful and reduce the risk of cancer. It can lower high blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglycerides. It can reduce the risk of heart disease. It is a balm for stomach ulcers. An old folk remedy for bacterial infections, it is a germ killer.
Star clusters painted the night sky green, blue, white, red; their spiraled smoke tails glowing. Parachute flares bulleted through the constellations. The top of Nui Ba Den was a festival, a glowing moon, bright as a day against the dark of the mountain beneath and dark sky above. It was News Year’s Eve by American standards, and it is possible that every soldier there wished on those falling stars.
Whenever my sister and I (and now my children) need to cheer up or see something pleasing—a shadow of a cloud sailing an autumn hillside, a cotton candy sunrise, a tumbleweed of puppies—we say “That’s a nice chicken.” It makes us smile. Every time. That’s our honey balm.