Kashyapa’s ‘Warriors’ Threatened At Sigiriya
By Maryam Azwer
Reports of ‘wasp attacks’ on visitors to the Sigiriya rock fortress have been a matter of increasing concern. Recently, Wildlife Minister S. M. Chandrasena announced that the hives located within Sigiriya will not be removed, although wildlife officials will introduce alternate methods to protect visitors.
In truth, what have been mistaken for wasps are actually giant honey bees, scientifically referred to as ‘apis dorsata’, and, since they are recognized as important pollinators, there are legal and ethical measures which prevent the removal of their hives.
According to Sigiriya officials, approximately one hundred people have been attacked by these giant honey bees this year alone.
Project Manager, Sigiriya Cultural Triangle Project, Vajira Ferdinandez, said that there had been an attack during the Vesak season, and five more attacks after Poson.
He explained that these bees are found active mainly during the period from May to September, during the windy, and also the flowering, season.
There is actually little that can be done regarding these bees, he said, as they are very important to the eco-system of the approximately 12,000 acre forest reserve where Sigiriya is situated.
Ferdinandez also said that, “We could remove the nests and move them elsewhere, but this is an ideal breeding ground for these bees, and another colony could always come and settle here, so it won’t be very effective.”
Among the other measures taken to protect visitors, he said, were a steel cage and a protective net covering for people to take refuge in the event of an attack. Apart from this, reusable protective kits have also been made available, in the form of some kind of overcoat. “We have identified the high risk areas, and placed these kits in steel cupboards there,” said Ferdinandez.
He said that they had also spoken to the Red Cross about arranging a mobile hospital unit for use in emergencies.
According to Ferdinandez, large numbers of visitors could contribute to the bee problem. “When people come in large groups, they tend to make a lot of noise, and this could also disturb the bees,” he said.
Meanwhile, leading researcher on Sri Lankan bees, Dr. Wasantha Punchihewa, explained the most likely scenario that leads to the attacks by these bees, or ‘bambaras’ as they are locally referred to.
“At Sigiriya, if you stand facing the lions paws, bambara colonies are on the left hand side. In the middle is the human path which is leading up, and the bambaras on the left hand side will cross to the right hand side if any tree is in flower on that side. When they fly, naturally they take the shortest path… which crosses with the human path,” explained Dr. Punchihewa.
When they do this, he said, they may come into contact with humans, which would not pose a problem – until one of the bees gets crushed. These bees could get entrapped in hair or garments, which would cause people to swat at the bees, or kill them.
“That triggers a very serious reaction, and the bambaras act in defense. They are with a lot of honey stores, and in their nests are a lot of young, so just one single bee getting crushed is a signal for them to act swiftly. Bees are notorious as stingers, and the giant honey bee of Asia is ruthlessly defensive,” said Dr. Punchihewa.
He explained that these honey bees have always been a part of Sigiriya, and have been there in large numbers. The steps leading upwards, he said, were constructed very close to a nesting site.
Dr. Punchihewa, who has been working with Director General of the National Botanical Gardens, Dr. Cyril Wijesundera on the matter of these bees, said that one proposal they had made is to have some kind of foliage between the bambara nesting site and the steps that take people to the top, to serve as some kind of deflector.
“What we are proposing is that, just to the left of the human path, and to the right of the bambara nest, there is an empty area, [where they could] drill some holes on the rock and plant some concrete pegs, and make a little trellis. We have so many types of indigenous creepers, so have a kind of creeper fence that easily comes above the level of the human path. So then the bambaras will fly over the humans, and not among the humans. It will be a barrier, which deflects their flight path,” said Dr. Punchihewa.
He explained that among the reasons these honey bees are so special is that they are very important pollinators, and are also capable of making long-distance migrations, such as from Horton Plains to sea level, and then back. “Usually they nest in tall trees, or tall buildings or tall rocks.
In fact they are nesting in the Dalada Maligawa. The bees are everywhere, they are even in big buildings in Colombo, and they migrate according to the flowering of various plants,” he said. Environmentalist, Jagath Gunawardena, also pointed out that as a result of these traits, these honey bees, particularly at Sigiriya, need special protection. “The legal situation is that Sigiriya, though it is an archaeological site, is also within a sanctuary, and therefore is protected under the Fauna and Flora Ordinance. According to Section 7, no one can disturb the breeding place of any animal or destroy any animal in the sanctuary, which includes any stage of its life cycle,” he said, adding that since these bees use the honey comb to rear their young, there would be more than one offense taking place if attempts were made to remove these nests.
Interestingly, the giant honey bees are also of some historical and cultural importance to Sigiriya.
“From ancient times, whenever there is a reference to Sigiriya, the giant honey bee has been mentioned. According to the folklore, it’s the old soldiers of King Kashyapa who had become giant honey bees,” said Gunawardena, adding that this old myth created the perception of the honey bees being the guardians of Sigiriya.
“Also, there are several ‘kurutu gee’, or poems written on the stone at Sigiriya, where references had been made to these bambaras,” he said.
Apart from all this, Gunawardena said, there were ethical issues surrounding the bees as well, and preventing removal of their nests. “They are perceived as industrial animals, so destruction of their hives or eggs will be considered unethical in this country,” he said.