Dressed in oversized headgear and protective clothing, they looked like astronauts descending from a space mission. But this was Sigiriya and the group, was, in fact visitors to the Rock, fleeing from a horde of furious Rock Bees whirling around their heads.
Passing the famous Sigiriya frescos and the Mirror Wall, rescuers reached those who were hiding from the bees. One by one those who had sought refuge in the protective bee shelters were given the bee suits and taken to safety. The rescue operation took more than three hours, and many were hospitalized with swollen limbs.
“It is not an easy task to rescue the visitors who are in panic. The sound of flying bees is scary,” said Kusumpriya Rajapakse, who has been part of such rescue parties many times. Kusumpriya is the official photographer of the Cultural Triangle and has had several close encounters with the Sigiriya bees. “A bee sting is very painful and you feel faint if stung many times. The bite site remains swollen for many days, if untreated,” he said.
The bee attack on Wednesday, March 25 saw some 40 visitors trapped on the rock, most of them schoolchildren “It was scary. We were near the Lion’s Paw and suddenly the bees came from nowhere. I was stung three times,” said Marlon, a student, who luckily had managed to get into one of the bee shelters nearby with his friends.
The Rock Bees or Giant Honeybees that nest in Sigiriya do not settle easily when disturbed. The second attack occurred the very next day, when visitors who had come to see the World Heritage site insisted on going up. The third attack came on Saturday when a group of foreigners who did not heed the warnings were stung. This forced the authorities to close the site temporarily.
The stinging bees have been a problem in Sigiriya for many years. Is there no permanent solution? Should the Sigiriya beehives be destroyed, is the question. “No, the bee hives should not be destroyed,” says Kusumpriya, pointing out that the Rock Bees have been part of the Sigiriya ecosystem for centuries. Culturally, the bees are believed to be the reincarnation of the guards of King Kassyapa and the mythical protectors of the Sigiriya fortress. So removal of the hives will mark the removal of a part of Sigiriya’s heritage, he feels.
“The bees are a valuable link in the ecological chain. Without them, flowers will not be pollinated. Besides even if you chase the bees away, there are chances that they will come back to the same place to nest the next year,” Kusumpriya says.
Bee expert Dr. ….. Punchihewa offers a solution. He proposes changing the bees’ flying route by ecological means. The attacks are not due to deliberate provocation like stones being thrown at the hives, he says. The Giant Honeybee depends on the flowers and is continuously bringing nectar to the hive.
The flowers may be on the ground a mile away and currently the bees’ flying route – naturally the shortest possible path – may be only few yards from the Sigiriya visitors’ passage. When these paths cross, one or two bees may get too close to an unwary visitor who attempts to chase them away. If this unlucky bee gets crushed, then it emits a pheromone – a chemical smell that spurs the soldier bees to attack. “Make a barrier of vegetation to deviate this flying path further from visitors to avoid the crossing points and hence avoid confrontation,” says Dr. Punchihewa. Shrubs and lianas can create a curtain-like barrier, he says.
Director General of the National Botanical Gardens Dr. S. Wijesundara agrees that a vegetation barrier is a possibility. He says it shouldn’t be a problem to find shrubs and lianas indigenous to the Sigiriya area. He also suggests that as a long term remedy one should look into the option of planting trees for bees to build their nests .It is known that Giant Honeybees prefer certain large trees and these could be planted in the vicinity to attract them.
With his years of expertise in studying bees, Dr. Punchihewa is positive that an ecological manipulation could work. He had unofficially briefed the Sigiriya authorities a few years ago but no action has been taken, he says. “At a time when we are faced with bee attacks every year, it is worth trying this ecological restoration plan. The solution is definitely not without challenges.
The bees inhabit Sigiriya during the drier six months and it won’t be easy to maintain such vegetation on the rock. Trenches will have to built, and plants will have to be carefully selected. But the natural plants in the area will not be too hard to maintain and it will also enhance the beauty of the site,” he said.
Bees not Wasps or Hornets
“They are not wasps,” said bee expert Dr. Punchihewa, dismissing reports that mistakenly refer to the Sigiriya attackers as wasps. “Even Sigiriya administrators call them wasps but those who nest on Sigiriya are a species of bees known as Giant Honeybee (Apis dorsata) whose Sinhala name is ‘bambara’. “They are bigger than the Oriental Honeybee Apis cerana, which is domesticated and cultured for beekeeping.”
Wasps are carnivorous insects that build a different kind of nest and are known as debara in Sinhala. Technically speaking, the hornet is a larger species of wasp.
Giant Honeybees prefer to nest in exposed areas, usually on tree limbs or under cliff overhangs, and sometimes on buildings. Each colony consists of a single vertical comb suspended from above, typically covered by a dense mass of bees. They do not use enclosed cavities like the Oriental Honeybees. This may be one reason for their aggressive defensive behaviour. About three quarter of bees in these hives are soldiers whose sole duty is to give protection to the hive and other worker bees. They have one sting attached to a venom sack and can commit only one attack which is suicidal.” says Dr. Punchihewa.
Publisehd on SundayTimes on 05.04.09