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When agitated bees 'fought' the British in East Africa

Bee colony perched on a tree trunk in Dakatcha Woodland in Kilifi County. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

In Kenya, bees have been known to halt political rallies or campaign meetings, much to the chagrin of the organisers.

When that happens, it is not unusual for one party to claim that the bees have been “sent” by their opponents with others attributing such acts to witchcraft.

But African bees were also instrumental in one decisive battle pitting the British and Germans in East Africa. As the First World War broke out in Europe in July 1918, the two European powers turned their respective East African colonies as new battlegrounds.

Unfortunately, the Europeans knew little about how local wildlife would react to the sound of gunfire. The British, for example, suffered losses when their ponies were stung on several occasions in the fly-infested Longindo, on the Kenya-Tanzania border. However, it was the British platoon from India that faced the full wrath of the killer African bees while battling the Germans.

British soldiers were led by General Arthur Aitken, a man who commanded little respect among his comrades back home despite being in the army for 30 years.

A convoy of British soldiers deployed to crack down on the Mau Mau (1952 - 1954). [File, Standard]

About the British army from India, the Weapons and Warfare journal says: “They spoke 12 different languages, were of six different faiths, and were led by British officers who had never set eyes on their troops before they embarked, they didn’t speak their language, and had never been to Africa before.”

On the other hand, the British were fighting German army under the command of a battle-hardened Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. 

It was in Tanga rubber plantations where the bees turned the tides against the British. The area had old, gnarled trees where locals kept beehives or where the insects found safe, natural havens. The loud sound of gunfire irritated the bees that left in pursuit of the British soldiers hiding in the forests. The Indians became special targets, perhaps due to their heavily scented bodies.

“One may well imagine the spectacle this presented to General Aitken, still aboard his ship, when hundreds of wildly gesticulating soldiers minus their rifles, their arms waving like windmills, emerged from the mangroves and plunged headlong into the ocean,” stated Weapons and Warfare.

In what came to be known as the “Battle of the Bees”, the British suffered close to 800 casualties. While all these were not as a result of bee stings, The Times of London went on to accuse Lettow-Vorbeck of employing “swarms of trained warrior bees” as new battlefield weapons.