I was 11 years old when I learnt the difference between bees and wasps. We were collecting bees in jars. My best friend was a boy named Patrick Caulfield, a whippet of a child who I looked up to more than I’d ever admit. He told me once that wasp stings could kill you, that it was torturously painful, that they were cruel.
His sister had told him that a girl in her school had died earlier that year from a single sting, after cutting a hive from a tree. He’d developed a fascination with wasps since hearing this (almost definitely false) murder story, and at the start of the scorching summer he discovered a semi-trampled bee hive at the entrance to the local park and set himself the grim, exhilarating task of investigating it.
He thought bees were safe (‘They’ll only sting if you hurt them and they know they’ll die. Not like wasps, who actually like to sting’) and assumed that by familiarising himself with them, he could fearlessly confront a wasp, or at the very least remain composed if he saw one. He brought the empty jam jars. For some reason he had placed leaves in the bottom of each of them, and pierced air holes in the lids with a compass. The plan was to get around ten, each, and bring them to the low wall outside his house to sit them in the sun. Catching them from the low hive was surprisingly easy - it had clearly fallen, and lay half concealed by a bush. Patrick darted in and out, electrified with nerves, slapping the lid back on each time one of the panicked bees was snared, with a hooting laugh. He had started to enjoy it, and I had started to relax, when I felt something land on my hand, and with a jolt (and an embarrassingly girlish shriek I can still remember) I flung my jar away from me, towards Patrick, where it smashed at his feet.
I remember being impressed that he didn’t drop his jar, and only released it later, on the run home. They covered him, and although there couldn’t have been more than ten or fifteen, my memory has multiplied their furious little vibrating bodies, and when I try to picture it now I can’t see his face through the swarm. He was stung nine times, twice in the neck and once near the eye - and when he started to scream I thought that they’d kill him. I stood mute, transfixed, until he lashed out with his arms and turned to bolt home, bees bursting out in tiny black clouds. Before I turned and ran myself, I must have picked up a shard of the jar (although I don’t remember this), and squeezed it into the meat of my palm all the way home. Breathless, opening my front door, I noticed my tiny incarnadine hand, slick and warm. As good as stung.