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In the Vegetarian & Vegan News...
   Jean d'Isle | The Great Honey Bee Caper

Probability Seminars and
the Great Honey Bee Caper

Reflections on a misspent freshman year
by Jean d'Isle

In the Fall of 1955, several years before dormitories would sprout on the campus of the University of California at Riverside, a number of male students were housed in the old Fleming mansion on palm-lined Victoria Avenue. Fondly called "Flem House", the interior of the old two-story structure, surrounded on three sides by a magnificent orange grove, had been modified to accommodate about 20 students. The unenviable task of maintaining order in this "Animal House" of pent up pranks and misdirected energy, fell to Mrs. Shirk (frequently referred to as Mrs. Shriek, as she was wont to do when things started to get out of hand).

If memory serves me (which it seldom does any more), there were seven inmates on the first floor and a dozen more upstairs. A number of other students spent so much time at Flem House that they were considered honorary residents. Dick Murphy, basketball player and poker shark extraordinaire, comes to mind. These frequent visitors were not drawn there for group study or wholesome fellowship, but by the almost non-stop penny-ante poker games around the perfectly suited round table in the Flem house living room, where seven players at a time could engage in these low-stakes probability seminars.

Many of us logged more time around that table than we did in our lectures and labs. No matter the depth of concentration or the urgency of the assignment, the barely audible clicking of plastic chips against wooden table would lure us like zombies from all corners of the house. None of us was immune, as we converged on the marvelous round table. No fortunes were won or lost, although a big night might finance several meals at some of the popular restaurants downtown. A graphic plot of an individual's time around the table versus Grade Point Average would show a nice inverse correlation.


Lest I give the impression that poker occupied all of our time outside of classes, I will recount the story of the day we directed our attention to loftier pursuits in a hands-on study of both animal and human behavior under stress.

I mentioned previously that the big winner of the poker game was treated to a variety of downtown dining options. Losers, on the other hand, who had seen their week's food budget disappear before the onslaught of Murphy's uncanny knack for filling inside straights, were not above foraging in the orange grove for nourishment-sort of an economically imposed veganism.

These gigantic, sweet navel oranges could sustain a person for several days, although the citric acid diet did not enhance social interaction in confined areas. Not infrequently, hotly contested pots were temporarily but rapidly abandoned to strangled warning cries of "Orange Fart! Orange Fart!" These table-clearing events were a form of petty revenge perpetrated by those whose extended losing streaks not only consigned them to a one-course diet but also placed them in the role of observer until their funds were replenished.

Having come out on the short end of a roll-'em-high-low-declarer-can-go-both-ways game, I was foraging among the trees the next day when I found myself in the flight pattern of an endless stream of bees, all clearly headed to and from the old shed where smudging equipment was stored. As I approached, I could see through the open second-floor loft doors that the bees had built a hive between two ceiling joists; and the hive was so full that the honey trickled down the wall in a steady and inviting stream. Spurred on by the enticing rivulets of honey and the formidable challenge its retrieval represented, I hurried back to the house and interrupted the game in progress with a report of my discovery.

I like to think it was my persuasive powers; but there might just have been a lull in the game. In any event, I enlisted a SWAT team to relieve those unsuspecting bees of their hoard. There were no honey experts in our force, although I, personally, had been stung on the eyelid as a child while tormenting a hive. This experience thrust me into a position of leadership for this ill conceived undertaking.

Our enthusiastic gang of five cobbled together a strategy that was sure to work. First, we needed a volunteer to climb the rickety stairs to confront the bees; and next, we needed a means of disabling the bees long enough to snatch the prize. A CO2 fire extinguisher seemed to solve one of the problems; and finally, after excruciating peer pressure, Dick stepped forward as the point man. The mission was on.

To protect our intrepid volunteer from potential harm, we outfitted him in heavy jeans, a raincoat and rain hat, and gloves. One of our rocket scientists came up with a foolproof scheme to protect Dick from the neck up. Ignoring the subtle warning printed on the flimsy wrapping ("Put this over your head and you're a dead man"), a transparent plastic bag went over his head; holes were cut for eyes and the lenses of his glasses were scotch-taped into the holes. To insure adequate oxygen, another hole was cut for the mouth and a toilet paper cylinder, one end covered by a perforated plastic lid, was passed through the hole into his mouth and taped in place. The plastic bag was tucked into the raincoat and he was ready to go.

The first indication that things might not go as planned occurred at the foot of the stairs, when Dick's glasses became fogged so badly that he was essentially blind and had to be guided by shouted directions as he made his way up the shaky stairs and across the sagging floor to a position close enough to engage the target.

We outside observers, at a safe distance we thought, verbally maneuvered Dick into place and gave the "open fire" signal. CO2 billowed around the hive, obscuring both the target and our human cat's-paw.

At this point, things get a little confused, but two things happened around the same time: A number of bees found a chink in Dick's armor, making their way up the inside of his pant leg and doing what riled up bees do best. Simultaneously, a formation from the hive concluded that the humans outside on the ground were not innocent bystanders but complicit in this attack, and had to be dealt with.

We did not cover ourselves with glory that day. Abandoning Dick to stumble blindly around the second floor of a rickety building with bees in his pants, the support team scattered in all directions trying to evade the angry swarms which pursued us relentlessly up and down the rows of orange trees.

None of the raiding party went unscathed, especially Dick, who was last seen executing a series of unique gyrations in his frantic attempt to escape from his predicament in the shed. In his after-action report, he refused to divulge where and how many times he was stung.

We each carried our own lesson away from our experience that day. Dick must surely have reflected on the wisdom of volunteering and the trustworthiness of his fellow man. And Kazuo, my Japanese roommate whose English was not quite at the same level as his math skills, stated his hard-earned lesson in animal behavior most eloquently: "Those bee got a good nose!" My own piece of wisdom, which would aid me as a future military officer, was that there is no substitute for careful and thorough planning-and running like hell is sometimes the best tactic.

Residents of Flem House
(the author is in the middle with sunglasses)

Jean d'Isle is a retired naval officer living in Hawaii. During his military career he served in a number of overseas assignments, including Germany, England, Spain, Viet Nam and Puerto Rico. Following his retirement, he was an adjunct faculty member of Hawaii Pacific University and is currently under contract with the U.S. Navy at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor.

Also by Jean d'Isle:


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