Revenge of the Bees: How I Nearly Lost my Ear in Australia

A heated argument with fellow artist Paul Gaugin cost Vincent Van Gogh part of an ear in 1888. In 1997, Evander Holyfield lost parts of both ears in a boxing match with Mike Tyson. Just a few months ago I also found myself in an ear-threatening confrontation while conducting research in the Outback. My imposing foe: an Australian carpenter bee.

To be clear, I am but a mild-mannered botanist -- and certainly more of a lover than a fighter. But after a decade of studying the unusual sexual habits of "bush tomatoes" in the northern Australian wilds, my voyeurism may have finally caught up with me. Perhaps it's one thing to look at flowers, but entirely another to disturb the privacy of the bees that service them. Or maybe I was just being the one thing that you should never be when engaged in field biology in remote locations: careless.

I had struck out for The Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park for the third time in ten years only a few days before the altercation. My companions this time around were Dr. Beth Capaldi Evans, my bee biologist friend and colleague, and Gemma Dugan, an undergraduate student from our home institution of Bucknell University. Thirty-five hours of travel time had brought us from central Pennsylvania to the small coastal city of Darwin, and about three hours more got us to the awe-inspiring landscapes of Kakadu.

One of our main research goals on this expedition was to shed light on the poorly understood relationship between a group of uncommon and unusual bush tomatoes and the bee pollinators upon which they depend for reproduction. Our plan was to capture and identify bees landing on their flowers, then remove and analyze the pollen already on their bodies.

It didn't take long to realize that capturing Kakadu bees was not going to be easy. They didn't come around very often (hours of sitting and waiting might result in two or three visits) and when they did their visits were short and the bees moved quickly. To make matters more challenging, the bush tomato plants by which we waited only grow on large stone outcrops. Some of these massive chunks of ancient rock are 60 feet high and act like monolithic heat sponges -- on one day, the surface in our study area reached 116°F.

Beth, given her background, is adept at catching bees under all sorts of circumstances. But I am a botanist and, although I am happy to hunt for plants in difficult and treacherous locales and climates, I am also accustomed to observing subjects that generally tend not to move about.

Still, we had traveled halfway around the world to catch some bees, and I was convinced that the data we could gather would provide answers to questions I had had for years. Every bee had the potential to tell a story that would otherwise go untold. I was willing to accept the challenges associated with delivering them to the back of my long, white, finely-meshed insect net (or, to be more precise, the net I had borrowed from Beth).

So it was that I climbed up and over an outcrop one morning and found myself alone in a patch of blooming bush tomatoes. By 8:30 a.m. it was already hot enough that I was sweating and reminding myself to stay hydrated. Bees buzzed by occasionally, but none alighted on the nearby flowers. Then, at around 9:20 a.m., a large, shiny, all-black carpenter bee came over the top of the outcrop like a mini gyroplane, made a stop on one of my plants, and continued onto a patch of pink-flowering myrtle just below where I was perched.

I slid down carefully and quietly approached the myrtle, moving slowly so as not to spook my quarry. Beth had captured five or six individuals of a bee species with a yellow, fuzzy midsection -- but not one of these, yet. I didn't want to lose this new bee. This was a story we could not yet tell. This bee before me could be carrying a narrative of which we had not yet even heard -- nor imagined.

I leaned in deliberately as the bee foraged just out of reach of my net length. At one point it came close enough to swipe at, but I gave it more time to come closer. It did not. Instead, the bee moved further away - and, I feared, so had my chance to collect it.

But then that shiny black bee shifted flowers again. It was within my reach -- but only if I stood on a small piece of rock just to the left of my foot. I moved onto it without looking down, my eyes trained on the bee's glimmering obsidian body.

A second later I was swinging my right arm as fast as it could go with a large insect net extending from it, the net engulfing the bee in soft nylon. I followed through with a flip of the net to bring the deepest part back over the rim to keep the rancorously buzzing bee from flying back out. I felt the rush. I was doing science like a boss.

For a quick moment I registered this victory... but then came the unexpected blow. Bam! The back right side of my head slammed into a large and jagged boulder behind me. I crumpled, seeing stars and cursing in pain. I checked for the bee (still there), then felt my head and ear. Both were also still there... but now wet. A barely-viscous liquid was dripping on my shirt, my pants, and the net. My impaired consciousness registered colors: the black of the bee, the white of the nylon, the yellow celestial bursts like fireworks in front of my eyes.... and, I came to recognize, the red of my own blood.

The violence of my sudden net swinging had thrown me off -balance, toppling me from the small perch I had taken only moments before -- leaving me now prostrate and bleeding. My only thought, as I registered the presence of so much scarlet lifeblood: Get to Beth before I go feint -- or become too dizzy or disoriented to find her. Back over the top of the outcrop I went, moving across the hot and largely barren grey sandstone moonscape at its peak. Two-thirds of the way I heard my own voice, hollering.

"I caught a new bee..."

On the approach I handed the net to Beth so she could transfer the bee to a vial. I watched her close it and waited for the click of its white plastic cap.

And then I said, moving a bloody bandana from the side of my head, "and I also fell down."

"Oh sh*t," she said, "we need to get you out of here; that's going to need stitches."

Beth yelled for Gemma, who was working below us at the base of the outcrop. Something about meeting us at the vehicle now. She was standing at the car, somehow, by the time Beth and I had scampered down to the sandy ground.

I was in luck. Because we decided to work that day in the East Alligator River region of the park we were just under a half-hour from a medical center in the small community of Jabiru. And, being a Monday, the center was also open -- a good thing given that the next closest medical facility was the hospital back in Darwin, close to 200 miles from our field site.

Getting to the vehicle meant I could look in a mirror. The back of my head was lumpy, but most of the visible damage was to my right ear. Part way up the outer edge of the ear, a 1-inch chunk had come loose. It was still attached at one end, but my ear was definitely no longer whole. My head throbbed. Beth drove quickly while I applied bandana pressure and closed my eyes. I asked if we still had the bee.

When we walked into the medical center, it was obvious that they had seen a lot worse. I accepted the invitation to have a seat and wait my turn. Within about 20 minutes I was escorted into the back room, still wearing gaiters and a hand lens, where a few other patients were getting treatment behind curtains. A friendly doctor's aid had a look and confirmed that I certainly seemed to need stitches.

A young doctor was called over and, after some discussion of how the injury occurred and whether the damage was to cartilage or mere flesh, she determined that they could fix me up right then and there. A bed was rolled over. I lay upon it, clenching my fists through three stinging injections of local anesthesia, and settled in for the procedure as Cat Stevens' "Moonshadow" played over the intercom. I had recently finished reading Mary Roach's book "Stiff" -- about the use of cadavers in medical training -- and kept imagining that mine could be the first living ear this doctor had sewn thread into.

I was no Humpty Dumpty; it only took five stitches to put me back together. The doctor helped me sit up, invited me to come back in five days to have the stitches out, and (did I detect a subtle bit of friendly Outback sarcasm?) told me to watch out for those nasty bush bees.

Five days later we were a couple of hundred miles away from Jabiru hunting down a population of another wild bush tomato, one that proved to be a new species. So Gemma, who had some past experience with stitches, pulled mine out by the campfire while we boiled potatoes for dinner. The ear still hurt, but had already started improving in appearance. I would carry a scar, but, aesthetically, I would still fare better than either Van Gogh or Holyfield.

And scientifically? As it turned out, that bee wasn't carrying any pollen at all.

But I guess you could still say that it brought me a good story.