The sight of Shahji and his brother walking up our drive, carrying a pair of canvas buckets, a large much-used sheet of thick cloth and sickle like knives, was a sure sign that somewhere in our compound there was a honeycomb ready to be harvested. This unique pair of individuals belonged to a family that had been ‘bee wizards’ since six or seven generations. They claimed that they could smell honey and were immune to bee stings. They would walk around the trees as if sniffing the air and lo and behold, there half hidden in the foliage of the giant pipal, would be a gigantic honeycomb or bees nest. Shahji would pick handfuls of ‘bhang’ that grew wild in a corner of our garden and fashion it into a torch-like thing. He would then cut a hole in the head of this ‘torch’ and stuff it with rags followed by a burning piece of coal. A few vigorous puffs and you had a smoke generator producing clouds of blue smoke that made you light headed when inhaled. Up the tree scrambled Shahji, with the sheet wrapped around his head and face with only the eyes visible, a bucket slung across the shoulder and the smoking ‘bhang’ smoker dangling from one wrist on a loop of twine. Oblivious of the swarm of angry bees, he would calmly cut up chunks of the honeycomb and put them in the canvas bucket, leaving enough in the nest for its industrious builders.

Celebrated ‘shikaries’ have no doubt that a swarm of angry bees is one of the most dreaded sights for even the stoutest of hearts. I am reproducing a page from the book ‘Field Sport in India, 1800 -1947’ by Major General J G Elliot and published by Gentry Books (UK) in 1973. This is one of the most illustrative narratives of how dangerous an attack by bees can be: “Last and least of the jungle folk was one against whose anger, if provoked, there was no defence: the bees. It was wiser to avoid them. There was a locality noted for its panthers and its black bees, and it was said that the panthers were less dangerous of the two.”

“There is the memory of stepping out on to a balcony of an old Rajput fort and coming unpleasantly face to face with a bees’ nest, a sinister, black, inverted cone: and the memory of being buzzed, escorted firmly and unmistakably by a single bee down to the main gateway. Others were not so lucky. The sportsman who figures in the next chapter, in the story of the tigress in the black collar, decided to have looked at the cave that had been her lying-up place. His friend pleaded that the climb down into the nullah was too much for his sprained ankle so he went alone with a villager to act as guide.”

“The cave was large and roomy. At the far end a spring of pure water splashed down the rocks, and above it, hanging from the roof, was a huge beehive of the jungle bees: dark and ominous, a great inverted cone about five feet deep. I hung back nervously, but before I could stop him the villager decided to have a drink at the spring. Things then happened very quickly. The nest exploded like a bomb and the bees were on us. The man draped himself in the dirty white sheet he was carrying and vanished out of the cave like a demented ghost. Wearing only a bush shirt and shorts I had nothing to cover me. Advice I had heard flashed through my mind as I tore handfuls of bees from my face and neck. ‘Lie flat on the floor, they will soon tire of stinging you.’ But lying flat on the floor of that gloomy cave, with nest still erupting above, did not seem the answer. I fled after the ghost, squashing handfuls of bees as I went. “Throw yourself into the water”. But these swirling, rocky pools looked most uninviting. I stumbled blindly on, then a figure loomed up: it was my orderly. He handed me the branch of a tree and we fought a rear-guard action, flaying the air like windmills”.

“He managed to cover the three miles back to his bungalow where the forest ranger produced an old man, famed as a bee wizard. He started pulling out the stings, all the time making a low buzzing sound like the hum of distant bees. The effect was most soothing and before long the victim announced that, given half an hour’s rest, he would be fit to take part in the feast they had planned to celebrate the death of the tigress. But it was a vain boast. His meal that evening was a glass of milk. After a wretched sleepless night, when dawn broke he crawled to his mirror and lifting an eyelid peered at what was left of his face. ‘I seemed to have no eyes or neck at all and vaguely resembled a sloth bear.’ It was not until he had spent several days in bed that he fully recovered. ‘Anyway,’ said his friend helpfully, ‘you’ll never suffer from rheumatism.’”

Yes - there exists an ancient belief that bee stings carry a chemical that permanently cures rheumatism. I, however, would not encourage that someone try it, for this would entail riling up a bees nest and then standing your ground.