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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Thirsty Bees

Air Date: Week of

When Jeff Rice went camping in Arizona's Sonoran Desert this summer, he discovered that he and the Africanized bees that surrounded him had something in common: a quenchless thirst.


CURWOOD: If you apply heat to an object, it tends to move around more quickly, but sometimes it does just the opposite. Just ask Jeff Rice, who tested the intense heat while camping along El Camino del Diablo, the Street of the Devil, in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. He says when the thermometer heads into the triple digits, you don't do much more than sweat and think. And, as he tells us in this reporter's notebook, thoughts can range from fish to killer bees.


RICE: Even though our fishy ancestors flopped out onto the land about 400 million years ago, we never really left the water. We just took it with us. That's what I'm thinking as the thermometer reads 118 degrees in the shade. Sixty percent of the human body is water, and the water that I've taken with me in the form of muscle and fat and brain and blood is gradually draining out as sweat. In this heat, I'm forced to pour quart after quart of liquid down my throat to keep the balance. Water is best, but a couple cans of warm beer probably won't hurt, either.

(Bird calls)

RICE: The sweat cools my body, and this is a good thing. It's what keeps me alive. But there's a complication. This year at this spot the rain has been little more than a rumor. And as I sit here amidst the sagebrush and cactus, I suddenly realize that I am one of the few sources of water to be found. My body, me. The insects know this. The bees, in particular, search me out and sip from my leaking pores as if they were limpid pools of Evian. These aren't just any bees, mind you. These are probably Africanized bees, so-called killer bees. The kind that inspire low-budget horror movies with names like "The Swarm." A while back they were imported to Brazil as part of a failed breeding experiment, and they've been working their way north, passing on their dominant traits to bees in South America, Central America, Mexico. Now they make up about 90 percent of the bees in this part of Arizona.

I spend much of the afternoon nervously swiping at them as they try to drink my sweat. I'm told that if one of these bees stings me, it might release a chemical that will tell the other bees to come over and sting me, too. And that would be a very bad thing. I can see the headlines now: Sweaty Camper Hospitalized After Attack in the Desert. I continue to brush the bees away.


RICE: I look forward to the evening and the fading of the light, when the bees will go back to their hive and wait for tomorrow. At night, and only at night, will I allow myself the luxury of a makeshift shower from a plastic gallon jug. I can't help but think that pouring water over myself during the day would be like covering myself in marmalade and lying on an anthill. That's probably an exaggeration. The bees are not likely to sting me if I give them what they want.

But the imagination is a powerful thing, and the last thing I want to imagine is a beard of bees. So I sit here as the thermometer approaches 120 and wait for the day to transform. I take another swig from my water bottle. The water is about room temperature, as the saying goes, which means it's probably 20 degrees hotter than my body. But by the time the bees get it in the form of my sweat, I will have cooled it to a pleasant 98.6 degrees: a nice sip of morning dew in comparison.

I have to admit, it's strange to be the equivalent of a drinking fountain. But then, I guess it's also pretty strange to be camping in the middle of the desert in the hot August sun and trying not to sweat.

(Buzzing up and under)

CURWOOD: Reporter Jeff Rice lives in Tucson, Arizona.



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