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Kathy Bradley - About a bee's last line of defense

    One day last week, during one of the more temperate — though brief — moments in what has been a rather schizophrenic weather pattern, I went out on the deck to read. There were probably 10 or 12 different bird calls echoing in the branch and the wind chimes were tink-tink-tinking from the lowest limb of the chinaberry tree.
    The sound that drowned them all out, the sound that with its nearness and potential for danger demanded attention was the drone of a single bumblebee. I had hardly settled back on the chaise when the little demon appeared out of the waxy green branches of the lygustrum bush at the corner of the house and came to hover about six inches from the tip of my nose.
    Making the quick decision that immobility might translate into invisibility, I held my breath and stared at the fat little insect whose wings were nothing more than a silver blur against the blue sky. Fortunately for me, I was soon determined to be a non-pollen-producing organism and the bee buzzed away.
    There were a couple more flybys, but for the most part we ignored each other, each of us intent on gathering its own form of nectar.
    I don’t have any specific memory of learning the childhood rules of insects, but at some point someone must have told me that, first, if you don’t bother the bee, the bee won’t bother you and, second, if the bee does sting you he will immediately die. I accepted as truth those statements as every child accepts as truth the pronouncements of bigger people.
    It was quite a coincidence — if there is such a thing — that, just a few days after my nod-and-bob cocktail party encounter with the bee, I had my folkloric knowledge both confirmed and refuted as good science. The regular old south Georgia bumblebee is, as I had learned, an exclusively defensive stinger, but the “one sting and then death” proposition applies only to its cousin the honeybee.
    “They attack when threatened, but only as a last defense,” the author of my book wrote. “With the injection, their stinger and venom sac are ripped from their body and they die.”
    Given my propensity for seeing everything as metaphor, I was immediately struck by the “only as a last defense” part and felt my heart swelling for the little critters, both the honeybees and we people who behave in the very same way.
    Except that — let’s be honest here — we people tend to leave off that last subordinate clause. We just attack when threatened. Your ability to make it to the meeting in time is jeopardized by the car merging into traffic, so you blow your horn, maybe even give your index finger a little exercise. The customer service representative on the other end of the telephone line doesn’t seem to want to help me, so I start using what I hope are intimidating lawyer words. The first grader’s Crayon pack is missing the yellow one she wants, so she breaks the red one in two.
    It’s sad. There is really very little that threatens the 21st-century American. Nearly all of us have plenty of food. There are no bands of guerrillas haunting our subdivisions. Most of the diseases that killed our great-grandparents have been eradicated or held in check by medicine. Yet we behave as though we are hapless honeybees.
    Sadder still is all that is ripped from our souls when we recklessly respond. Dignity, peace of mind, clarity of conscience — attributes that require patient cultivation, character traits that take years to develop and only seconds to destroy. Virtues without which the nobility of the human spirit will die.
    Honeybees don’t know that something dies when they try to defend themselves. But we’re smarter. Shouldn’t we?

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