The road was well paved and two complete lanes, but there was little or no shoulder. The latter was not much of a problem; traffic was light. The hill was not a steep climb and the curves made it interesting and enjoyable. On the left rocky outcrops and occasional cliffs showed the uphill side; on the right a few feet of gravel and scrubby bushes and tall grasses preceded a sharp dropoff to the valley below. The sun was low enough that most of the road was in deep shade, but where the rays could cut through the trees it was still bright and warm, especially on the rock walls near me. There were cool breeze in the open areas but as i climbed this section the vegetation closed in. I climed in silence. Never is a cyclist quieter than when climbing a modest hill. There is no click-click-click from your freewheel; there is no panting from the rider; there is no squeal from brakes. I have snuck up on moose, deer, and in Korea, soldiers this way. None of them appreciated the surprise. As I climbed the hill in Mexico that afternoon, the only thing that bothered me were small gnats and shitbugs that managed to crawl up the back of my neck or slip through the ventilation grooves in my helmet.
So, when a bunch of them began to crawl up the back of my neck in earnest at one point, I was modestly ripshit. "Oh, will you goddamn motherfuckers leave me the FUCK alone!" I remember cussing outloud, as I stopped riding and took my helmet off for the umpteenth time to swipe the gnats away. I put my helmet down on the front rack of my bike and swept my forehead with the back of my cycling gloves. It was when I wiped the back of my hair--soaked with sweat from the climb, even if it was modest-- that I got the first alarm that something was amok.
Very amok. When i looked at the back of my hands, they were covered with bees. Small, agitated, buzzing and crawling bees...five, ten, maybe twenty. I don't like creepy crawly things, or flying things, or stinging things; and these things were all of thosethings! In a fraction of a second i realized they were all over my arms, crawling on the outer parts of my cheeks and behind my ears, and over my forehead as well. And then i started to feel the pains--pinches, burns, stabs. I was being stung--in a lot of places.
Word are slow. Ten seconds before I had been riding. Now, with a sudden shock and sense of urgency, I hopped off the bike. Maybe I should have tried getting back on and riding, but unfortunately since the hill was modest and I had been riding under a head of steam, i was going up the hill in a pretty high gear. Having stopped it would take a while to get any speed up--and i wanted to get out of there. NOW. Better yet immediately. So I hopped off the bike, running along with the bike beside me and the helmet awkwardly in one hand. It isn't easy to run with a bike; my body was twisted and i couldn't get up much speed. And the bees followed me. There were more--the air around me was full of them, and the sounds of a swarm were uncomfortably familiar. Worse was that I couldn't swat at the bees and run with the bike at the same time. Everything had snapped into rapid fire motion--all the more amazing since fifteen seconds before I had been riding in calm and silence-- and i was only now starting to panic.
Once I started to panic, things got out of my hands fast and took on a life of their own. I couldn't run with the bike and swat at bees at the same time--and they were crwaling all over my face, ears, neck, and arms. I dumped the bike--slamming it into the road. Fortunately my panniers prevented any damage to my derailleur and parts, as I found out later. Now I was free to run as fast as I could, and I did so..screaming at the top of my lungs, words, sounds...whatever i could find.
It still wasn't enough. I am not a fast runner, I was running uphill, and I still had my helmet in my right hand. I couldn't swat the bees very well, i could barely breathe with the crawling insects suppressing my breathing reflex as they swarmed and stung over my upper lip and nose, and everywhere I looked--the back of my arms, the back of my hands, my upper legs-- had bees crawling over them. Now they were as agitated as I since I was swatting at them, with little effect. I needed both hands--fast. The helmet was history, as i slammed that down on the roadway, also. How the rear view mirror stayed attached is beyond me--but it did. And events were conspiring to raise the panic level by the millisecond. I was now running, screaming, swatting and getting stung at the same time. No one had gone by on the road yet, I didn't have the faintest idea if i could outrun this swarm. And in the middle of all this panic I still had the impression that it had only begun and the worst was yet to come.
My impression was correct. I don't know how many bees were on my head at the moment, but i couldn't swat them very hard without hurting myself and couldn't swat them at all near my eyes since I still had my glasses on. And that was awful...because crawl up into my eyes is exactly what they did. And into my ears and nose as well. I took my glasses off and held them on my right hand while i tried to continue swatting. My eyes slammed shut by protection reflex and i ran forward now in total darkness, only by memory and fortune that the road continued straight on ahead. Had i tripped at this time it might have been fatal. This was my moment of greatest fear. I knew now that i was in the middle of a swarm of bees--killer bees came to mind, although i was not sure. My brain hadn't shifted yet into a 'do something to get yourself out of this' mode; everything up to this point was just flight and panic, and it would remain so for several more moments. As I kept running forward and screaming, mouth wide open, the inevitable happened: bees flew into my mouth as well. I had been stung on the tongue before, so the sensation was not new, but i was furious (my fear had started to turn to anger-- an important change) at this. I combined a cuss with a snarl, yelling for the motherFUCKERS to get out of my mouth and leave me alone. Now my mouth, as well as my eyes, was slammed firmly shut, although I did open my eyes a bit from time to time to see where I was going.
By this time I was probably 200 feet north and uphill from the bike and the helmet, which lay smack in the middle of the road. I stopped running; it appeared i had outrun the swarm and they were leaving me alone. Im opened my eyes, took a reasonable breath and for the first time in maybe 30 seconds, had the luxury of being able to think clearly. There were still some stragglers on my arms and hands, but i swept them away and crushed them with my hands. My cycling gloves had prevented my palms and web of my fingers from being stung. Looking around only a few bees flew around me; and my head, face, and arms were clear. I took a deep breath thru my mouth, catching my breath for the first time in probably a full minute; and started to assess the nasty situation i got myself into.
I was in deep shit, to put it mildly. The bike was smack in the middle of the road, as was my helmet; 200 feet away. Any truck or bus would have a hard time slipping by, if they even care to try. Still no traffic had come...of course that meant no help, either. I had no way to protect myself from another attack..all my clothes and equipment were on that bike. I waited; my main priority was to calm down and start breathing normally. I was not allergic to bees nor was i had a developed allergies to anything else-- so i did not fear the stings beyond the pain and panic i already had felt. (Had I been allergic to bees I would have been long dead. See the section on this bee attack in 'Cycling in Dangerous Places' if you are allergic to bees or are allergy prone). But there was the practical problem of getting my equipment back. I waited a few minutes and tried to walk to the bike; but i got attacked by a small swarm again. I waited another five minutes--and the same thing happened. Occasionally a car went by--they couldn't help much. The bees were still swarming around my equipment and I could see folks roll their windows up pronto as they slowed down to have a look. I was in a pretty pickle, I said to myself.
In a hoarse, raspy voice! It dawned on me just how much I had been yelling and how panicked I was. I sounded like I had spent an hour at an overtime sports contest. And I was hot...my face was flushed--from the panic I thought, later i found out it was from the many stings I had gotten. Were they killer bees? I didn't know. Killer bees are smaller than normal bees, and these guys were quite tiny...i had noticed that, amidst all the fear and swatting. They didn't like black, either..and my cycling shorts and pants were basic american afro! Yet killer bees were aggressive, and even amidst all of the stings I never got the idea that the swarm was THAT big. Nor had they followed me very far--i had read they'll stay with ya for up to a kilometer.
A fellow pulled up in a car. My Spanish is poor and he knew no english, but we worked out a plan (I think this was the plan.) He would bring me to the bike in his car; roll down the window, grab the bike and roll it alongside the car until we were a safe distance away. Sounded awkward and unlikely to me.
We never pulled it off, anyway. As soon as we got close to the bike bees started swarming around the vehicle. They quickly headed for the rubber window gaskets. The scene was right out of a science fiction movie. I must have been covered with pheremones that made them go crazy with the desire to attack. The guy put his wipers on and the blades started to stick in the insect gore smeared across his windshield. I started to think they were killer bees after all; and recoiled when i thought i had been in the middle of all this just a few minutes before. I shook my head and hands, telling the driver our plan was impossible. He hit the gas and i hopped out a few hundred feet further. I wasn't gonna leave my equipment; i was as attached to it as a soldier is his rifle. He said he would send the police from the town down below. I never thought i might need to be rescued on this trip; but here it was.
The car drove off and I returned to the task of recovering the bike. Now I was below it. After what I had seen in the car I was not gonna walk any closer. If only I had netting or something. I chuckled--comic relief amidst terror-- "how can I persuade some Mexican woman to take off her nylons?" A truck pulled over. Plan number II. Hop in the back, we'll take you to the bike. Get off and throw it on the flatbed and drive off.
Plan II failed, also. No sooner did he get close to the bike the bees found me on the back and attacked with vigor. I didn't have the discipline (did you get that idea so far?) and poise to get off and toss the bike on amidst all this...i just hopped off the back of the truck and ran back down the road. The truck drove off, what really could they do about this crazy gringo, anyway?
Another truck, and finally it was over. Two young guys put me in the cab, with the windows firmly closed. While one drove, the other guy did what i could not: hop off the bed, toss the bike and helmet onto the truck, even as he swatted at the bees all around him; and we sped off. Soon we could open the windows, and the bees didn't follow us. After about 2 kilometers they pulled over and I got out. (They had been going in the other direction and stopped to help). No attacks...no bees...nothing. Seemed everything was Ok, I got back on the bike, and off I went.
I did get to the town, just as it got dark and in the midst of a ferocious downpour. The rain felt good as it cooled me off and even hid a few tears; it was beginning to dawn on me what i had just been through and what it might have been with a few bad breaks. In fact, for the next few days I thought alot about how i could prevent or minimize the risks of such a problem in the future. Yet, in my 100,000 kilometers of cycle touring I never had a bee attack before; and it seemed i would carry a few extra items for a one-in-a-million chance. I finally came up with a simple idea: carry one or two red-smoke signal flares. The smoke would calm the bees, and let everyone know ya needed help. And the flares might be useful in other circumstances, also. I talk more about the precautions you might take when cycling on my 'Dangerous Places' page, from before.