‘Bees in Crime Fiction’ by Chris Simmons

It was while reading an article in my newspaper about the ‘victory for bees’ (I imagined thousands of bees demonstrating with banners and placards) as the EU banned ‘neonicotinoids’, which is a nerve agent pesticide which has been blamed for the dramatic decline in global bee populations that I began to think about bees and bee stings in crime fiction. How many crime novels have involved a bee sting killing the intended victim? Well, more about that later.

While the bee is seen as a symbol of the balance of the world, the sign that summer is arriving (you’d be forgiven if you missed that one sunny day last week that I believe may have hailed our summer) while it’s counterpart, the wasp is reviled as a predator. It is strange that if you say ‘Oh, there is a bee’, most would look and not be bothered. Say the same thing about a wasp and you have family members or friends flailing about as though having a seizure and running a mile before they get stung.

Is it because we see the bee as a languid soul who floats from flower to flower collecting his nectar? That we as humans can associate more with the bee as we are all in our own way workers, the little people without whom the whole of society would grind to a halt? Are we not as subservient and hard-working as the bee?

Whereas the wasp is construed as a menace that attacks and stings without compunction. But are we misled by the seemingly timid unless provoked bee, this bastion of the insect world?

In the US the bee is classed as the biggest killer of humans within the insect world killing up to 53 people a year, ten times more people than a black widow spider which can kill up to 6.5 people a year. Where they get that figure from I don’t know, how can you kill point five of a person? Even Fire Ants can kill a small animal and in some cases humans. It all comes down to whether or not you have a fatal allergic reaction to the sting. Yes, there are thousands of different species of bee (yes, they are not all the same!) and some are more aggressive than others. Thankfully, our UK bee and their European equivalent appear to be on the ‘We’ll just get on with our work unless provoked’ mode.

So, what crime novels have contained bee stings to dispatch their victim?

Well, to be honest I was shocked that there were not more bee sting scenarios in crime fiction. The only one I could find that had any connection with a bee sting was Emily Brent who was killed by a bumblebee sting (which actually turned out to be a syringe of potassium cyanide which was to look like she had been stung) in Agatha Christie’s classic, ‘And Then There Were None’. So, I can hear you cry, not killed by an actual bee, then? The honest answer is… no. I was very surprised that looking through my crime novels and doing a considerable amount of surfing brought up only this nugget about victims of bee stings.

On the other hand – as I mentioned at the beginning, put in ‘wasp’ for ‘bee’ and it opens up a whole new ballgame.

Many have been killed from the dreaded, nasty wasp. Again, Christie, who always favoured poison to killing her victims famously used a ‘wasp sting’ in her excellent mystery, ‘Death in the Clouds’ where Madame Giselle, blackmailer and loan shark is found dead after a short flight from Paris to Croydon. This is one of Christie’s lesser appreciated novels despite the iconic Fontana cover which was brought back to life in the Doctor Who episode featuring Christie called ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’. Christie was also to write a short story featuring Poirot called ‘Wasp’s Nest’.

There have been other ‘wasp related’ books notably, ‘The End of the Wasp Season’ by Denise Mina, ‘A Door in the River’ by Inger Ash Wolfe and Ruth Rendell, who is appearing at this year’s Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Festival involved wasps in her second published novel, ‘To Fear a Painted Devil’. This was the first Rendell I ever read and highly recommend it if you haven’t read it already.

I have to admit that I was surprised by the fact that wasps had been given such a bad press. Are they such bad guys? Could they possibly be simply misunderstood?

The only other title I could find regarding bees and murder was an obscure detective mystery written by Sheila Pim called ‘Hive of Suspects’ which was published in 1952. This tale doesn’t involve bee stings but is a conundrum involving the consumption of poisoned honey.

So it appears that wasps are the bad guys and bees the goodies. If anyone knows of other crime tales involving the newly saved bees used as a method of killing off someone then I would certainly like to hear of it. For now, we can live peacefully that the bees who, for a small guy are such a huge cog in nature’s cycle.

However, on my surfing travels I found out two things:

One, if you get stung by a bee then put a penny over the sting to minimise the swelling. An old wives tale? It is rumoured that the copper in the penny counteracts the sting.

The only other thing I found whilst surfing was a biography of Mae Murray, a famous actress during the silent movie age. She was known as ‘The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips’. Now there’s a Stieg Larsson book title if ever there was one!