John Mcbeth

Feeling the sting in Bali

A DAY after an unruly Australian passenger aboard a Virgin Airlines flight caused a hijack alert in Bali by mistaking the cockpit door for the lavatory, I had a similarly interesting but perhaps more painful encounter with a hive of wild bees on the Island of the Gods.

Perched on top of a stepladder trimming the boundary hedge, I failed to realise I was invading their home until they stung me five times in quick succession, all on the left arm, then zoomed in apparently looking to finish the job.

I free-fell off the last four steps of the ladder and ran for cover. Fortunately, they gave up the pursuit without inflicting any new damage, but I was hurting badly and already trying to remember all the home remedies that were used for bee stings.

The last time anything like that had happened to me was back on the dairy farm in New Zealand, where, like any country kid, I mixed building bush huts, fishing for eels and hunting opossums with the occasional foolhardy raid on a bee's nest.

But in those days, I came prepared, wearing thick gloves and encased from head to foot in a makeshift suit that hopefully denied all efforts by the angry bees to get at me. Well, most of the time anyway.

Removing the stinger and dabbing vinegar on the wound was one remedy I recalled. But this time I couldn't find any of the stingers, just painful red marks. I only assumed later they were beneath the surface of the skin and still releasing toxins.

What to do? Get on the Internet, of course, with my group of old Asian hands, who always seem to have advice or an opinion on something. They came through in spades, but I could have done without the jousting that went along with it.

While thankfully no one mentioned urine, there was a lot of support for applications of toothpaste, baking soda and Tiger Balm, even cold coffee grounds used as a poultice. But if I was expecting instant relief, I was to be disappointed. The pain only seemed to get worse.

Many people are allergic to bee stings. An old mining friend tells me how he had to be led 5km through the Sumatran jungle after a sting caused his whole body to swell up and bring on temporary blindness.

I'm not one of those, or at least I didn't think I was. But my Internet friends made a big dent in my confidence by warning that older people could go into delayed shock, sometimes up to 10 hours after the event.

One, the head of the US Embassy refugee section during the height of the Indochina crisis, related how his head blew up to the size of a small watermelon after he was stung in Italy, though it did return to normal after an injection of epinephrine.

"The doctor said if I had arrived a bit later, it would have been too late," he told me in a comforting series of messages, all marked "URGENT". "But then docs are prone to exaggeration."

One retiree in Thailand recalled how he was attacked by an "orange jacket" while riding his bicycle through the Chiang Mai university campus. "Wasps cause more pain longer, but seem to cause less reaction than bees," he noted.

Then he went on to relate how bees had "got him" twice in recent years, the last time when he inhaled one while out walking in the mountains. Fortunately, he had some Benadryl with him. But a nurse later had to remove the stinger lodged in the back of his throat.

For me, it was to be four or five hours before the pain began to subside, during which I was bombarded with requests for a "selfie" of me and my winged assailants.

A former Bangkok-based diplomat, who in a much earlier life had been a guided-missile specialist with the Canadian Armed Forces, obviously had never been stung before because he had the temerity to inquire after the welfare of the bees.

"In our collective rush to sympathise with John and to offer remedies to his plight," he wrote, "we may have overlooked the fact he was acting his normal aggressive self by attacking a poor colony of peace-loving bees who were pressed to defend their home. So how are the poor bees doing?"

Good question.

A couple of hardy Javanese workers smoked them out, then presented me with the empty hive - a beautifully constructed four-tier structure which, unless you are in agony, allows you to reflect on the wonders of nature.

I thought, just for a moment, about returning to the hedge-cutting. But then I noticed a few bees were still buzzing around, probably long-distance foragers which couldn't figure out where their home had gone. I decided not to push my luck.

The next day I returned to Jakarta, my hand and arm still puffed up like a fat sausage. But as Arnold famously said, "I'LL BE BACK - BABY!!!"