Transcript of an interview with Conner James, former B-Force Resistance infantryman stationed in the soya plantations of Santa Fe, Argentina during the so-called Auschwitz-Spring of 2016 and only known survivor of Siege of San Jorge.
“I saw the ghosts of the ancients that day. Sure, I know now that I didn’t; I went through de-tox, the sessions with the army-issue post-traumatic stress shrink. It was a deception. Sensory Ganglion Trauma. I think that’s the term. Another effect of the toxic crap that’d been infiltrating our cells for months, through the lungs, the gut. The accumulated damage to the neurons causing them to malfunction – something to do with the chatter of electrical impulses. I don’t know, I’m not a fuckin’ neurologist.” [He shakes his head] “All I know is that on that last day, they were wisps of ghosts eddying in the wind all around us.”[Conner stubs out his cigarette and immediately taps another from a pack he pulls from his pocket. His lighter flares briefly in the dark and I notice the tremor in his hand as he touches it to the tip of the Marlboro.]
“I suppose it wasn’t the worst place to attempt an evacuation. This nest was in an unploughed field margin then – one of the last. Same thing had happened here as in England, when they tore up the hedge rows; everyone knew the property price crash was precipitated by mass rodent starvation but, hey, nesting sites were suddenly cheap, man, and I can tell you, nobody here asked why the colony of fuzz balls who’d excavated these tunnels with their claws had abandoned home sweet home. At least, not out loud.”[He chuckles, mirthlessly.]
“I don’ know how it hasn’t caved in yet. I ain’t superstitious, but with those mechanical beasts prowling the land above day and night without rest and still the dead not buried…”[Conner gestures at the of corpses strewn about us, all in an advanced state of decomposition, shrivelled and dry as tinder.]
“Anyways, back then it seemed just about conceivable – if you didn’t engage the pre-frontal cortex too much – that if we could get the refugees out on a 20km/hr wind, we could make it to San Francisco – another godforsaken human hellhole thirty k’s to the north, where what passes for intelligence reckoned some enslaved pollinator hives from Australia were being crated to California. We had the GPS co-ords and were waiting for the wind. It wasn’t a plan, but the brass couldn’t issue orders to just give up and die, now could they?”[Conner takes a long drag on his cigarette, staring intently at a corpse a few feet from us. It was a young worker, barely out of pupa, her face a grotesque grimace.]
“In some ways, I’m not sorry they didn’t make it. I mean, what was waiting for ‘em if they had? A life of bondage in the bees-for-hire business? Enslaved to goddamned beekeepers getting rich off of what we would’ve done for free? Force-fed a diet of pesticide and herbicide-soaked crops until they died – mercifully young, their bodies and minds a toxic slag-heap of humans’ industrial farming experiment gone mad?”[Note: Although the so-called Secrecy Act has prevented outright verification, subsequent investigations support these claims. Data on commercial pollination – a new industry that is growing rapidly as chemical-saturated monocultures precipitate a collapse in natural bee populations – is widely available in the human’s media. Each year, in early spring, some 3 000 trucks drive across the United States transporting around 40 billion commercially-reared bees to California’s Central Valley, which has over 60 million almond trees growing on 240 000 hectares of land, stretching 600 kilometres. Government authorities maintain registries which reconcile beekeepers’ proposed itineraries to farmers’ spraying schedules in order to (theoretically) ensure farmers fulfill their contractual obligations of a lag in order to spare the hired bees the lethal chemicals that humans ingest. According to the Kern County registry, published online, a consignment of bees from Australia was indeed scheduled to be shipped from Sante Fe, Argentina to California to participate in what is now the biggest pollination event in history.]
“Still, when the order came – ‘Evacuate!’ – my gut whooped. I was like, ‘Yeah! Let’s blow this hole!’ It felt like … like hope. You got understand what it had been like. At the end. A hiding place, after too long, becomes a prison, you know … and a subterranean hive ain’t natural for social bees – it does something to them, screws with their minds. But it got to me too. At night, I started feeling the weight of the earth above pressing down on my chest, like I was being slowly smothered. It was the sick, lying in every passage, curled up in corners, the goddammed drones tossing out the dying while they were still whimpering, and the stink. You curious about what death smells like? I bet my ballsack you think it’s sour, like despair, but it’s not – it has a tooth-rotting sweetness that coats the inside of your nostrils and slides down your throat.”[He shudders and then flicks the ash from his cigarette.]
“At least we still got to go out with the workers every day at sunrise. Armed escorts. They’d forage like nothin’ was wrong, but each day they were weaker, each day fewer would make it back to the hive. They fell among the soya, writhing until you found yourself wishing they’d just fucking die and be still. Christ. None of us had heard the term ‘poison factory’ then, but we didn’t need to. We saw workers go psychotic on that neonicotinoid shit – raving about their mandibles turning into bone, grinding invisible humans in their jaws, or claiming they were the Queen and ordering the soya leaves to service them, before falling to the ground to die bloated and addled in the sun, jaws still twitching, abdomens pulsating obscenely.”[Note: Mass Mortality or Colony Collapse Disorder, as humans have termed it, is linked to the use of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These are water-soluble, nicotine-like chemicals which, when sprayed onto the ground, are absorbed by the entire plant, turning it into what has been described as a ‘poison factory’. Plants grow extremely toxic to insects and, of course, to bees.]
“And every day that fewer came back … and fewer were left when we got back, the fear grew. Everyone could feel it. You could hear it in the voices of the squad leaders issuing orders, in the faces of the kids waiting for us like packs of thin feral dogs when we came in at night, still clamouring for autographs, in the way those sadistic fuckin’ rent boys dragged out those who weren’t too sick to beg to be allowed to stay. It was in that hoarse voice at the back of your head that just kept croaking, ‘Oh shit.’ We were the last line of defence, the afterthought. One platoon, minimal firepower – we were supposed to do nothing but pick off wasps or occasional mammals or reptiles that threatened the civilian hive. Maybe one in three of us was expected to fire his weapon during an entire tour.
You know where they positioned us? On the ground, behind sandbags or in fighting holes. We wasted so much time, sweating like hot-blooded goddamned mammals in the Sante Fe heat – it was another record year, of course – scouring out those holes. ‘Good cover,’ they told us. Cover? I thought, You’ve got to fuckin’ kidding me. ‘Cover’ means physical protection, conventional protection, from small arms and artillery or air-dropped ordnance. That sound like the enemy we’re up against? Humans launch full-scale chemical warfare, launching air strikes and fire missions, turning the atmosphere into a giant fuckin’ gas chamber and we’re sniping from bunkers.
By the time the order finally came to abandon the hive, the worker force was so depleted, hunger had become a bigger threat than poisoned bee bread. Fights were breaking out at meal times, bees tearing bread right from the maxillae of other bees, of the same caste even. Some drones were caught raiding brood chambers – stealing food from pupae! The workers attacked them. By the time we got there to quell the fight, most of the drones were already dead, some were still dragging themselves along on their bellies, workers gripping onto their backs with their scimitar tarsi, stabbing them over and over in a frenzy. Christ it was horrible. So, when the order finally came, I didn’t give a shit if the odds of making it were worse than the one-arm bandits at a Vegas casino, I just wanted out.[Conner squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, the ash on his cigarette falling unseen from the burning tip.]
It was a balls-up right from the start. Sure, we were unprepared, our weapons, our training, everything I just talked about, all amounted to a set-up for an epic fuckin’ fail, but we were also unlucky.
We’d managed to get the whole colony organised into a column, poised for flight, in less than an hour following the order. There weren’t enough soldiers, so volunteers were carrying the weakest of the sick in their maws, nurses cradled the pupae, many the oldest refused to be carried, insisting they were a burden that shouldn’t be borne. Most of them refused to even try and make the flight on their own wings, choosing death rather than jeopardise the colony. Then the signal came, and we rose into the air as one.”[The cigarette has burned down to his fingers. He drops and crushes it without noticing.]
“You ever been part of swarm?”[I shake my head.]
“Want to know a secret? If you die without ever being a part of one, I promise you, you never knew what was to be alive. The noise … it sounded like the whine of monstrous turbines as thousands upon thousands of translucent wings beat the air that was vibrating, like it was a living thing as the swarm rose to blot the sun from the sky. It’s a moment when you actually live the power of nature, when you feel it thrumming through your exoskeleton, when you see the essence of our kind – the sheer beauty of perfect synchronisity that turns a million into one.
That was when the advance scouts sounded the alarm. Our squadron swooped downwards in attack formation. I scanned the field below and spotted the team of manual crop sprayers wearing those gas masks that look like freakin’ proboscises. They were marching across the field like an army of super-sized insectoids. We flipped our safeties off, sighted our targets, and as the first of them entered the kill zone, the order came to hold fire.
I was a FN Minimi gunner, a light machine gun that you’re supposed to fire in short, controlled bursts just as long as it takes to say “Die motherfucker die.” To sting a human is fatal though and we didn’t have enough killpower to waste on a gratuitous Rambo stunts, so I ignored the frantic throbbing in my abdomen. The humans started running across the field, arms flailing, stumbling over the ridged ground, their eyes cast upwards towards us. My sphincter muscles were quivering but we held our fire and flew past. I only knew about the break-down in discipline from the screaming. You could hear it even above the drone of the swarm; a wild high pitched sound, unmistakable in all the animal kingdom, as terror. Fuckin’ civilians, we may be sworn to defend them but you can’t save them from themselves. Not Africanised Honey Bees anyway, the bastards.”[He smiles wryly at his joke, referencing the mixed race origin of the Africanised Honey Bee.]
“By the time we’d circled back, one of the humans was on the ground, a boiling mass of bees lathering his body. I couldn’t see the stingers trailing venom sacks and guts sticking out of the man’s flesh like quills, but I could see the mangled bodies mounting on the ground around him, organs spilling from ruptured abdomens, bodies ripped to shreds, thoraxes thrashing on the ground like they were possessed. My God, there ain’t no anti-psychotic drugs that can get that sight out of my dreams. At night, when I close my eyes, it’s like its burned onto the back of my eyeballs.
The squad leaders were trying to order the civilians to retreat, but we were all so mesmerised by the scene, our eyes yoked to the macabre horror down below that by the time someone lifted their gaze to the horizon, it was too late.
Aerial crop dusters. There were two of them, flying low like they were about to dump their load. The men on the ground had been harmless. I registered belatedly that none of them were carrying tanks on their backs and spray guns – they must have worn the gas masks as a precaution knowing the crop dusters would be coming in. As soon as I saw the Bayer logos emblazoned on the wings of the planes, I knew it was over. The soya plantations in Argentina are a hundred percent GM now. But you probably knew that, right? In 1996 Argentina was one of the first to allow the Frankenseeds altered to resist super-strength herbicides that nuked weeds and pretty much everything else, but after two decades of an evolutionary arms race with the weeds, farmers are now dumping over ten times the quantity of chemicals to produce the same crop yields. Still, the farmers are not going back to tilling milkweed for a crop that’s mostly destined for animal feed, since the cattle in their fuckin’ factory farms can’t graze on concrete. Ain’t a problem for Monsanto though; they own Bayer. A paranoid conspiracy theorist couldn’t make this shit up, man. Anyway, the cocktail of chemicals in the bowels of those bombers … we all knew nothing could survive full exposure.”[Correction: The actual figures for chemical use in commercial farming in Argentina follow: In 1990, before the arrival of GM in Argentina, 35 million litres of chemicals were used on crops per year. In 1996, the figure rose to 98 million litres. By 2000 it had risen to 145 million litres; and by 2010 the figure reached 300 million litres – not quite ten times the amount of pesticides and herbicides used pre-GM. About half of the world’s maize and over 90 per cent of soya beans are used for animal feed.]
“So, you want me to tell what happened when the vapor cloud hit the swarm? I don’t think you do. There’s no way of unknowing something like that. There aren’t many survivors to tell that kind of horror story and that’s for the best, I reckon. Maybe I should take what happened that day over the fields of San Jorge with me when I finally go to join the rest of the swarm. You just stick to the facts; they all died. Total annihilation. If you want, you can picture them just falling through the cloud, gentle though, the light dancing on the droplets as they float downwards. Maybe that’s how it was at the end. Last thing I remember was being sucked into the vortex of the propellers, felt like my lungs were being yanked through my throat and out of my mouth. When I woke, I was lying in dirt in the field surrounded by the dead, and the ghosts who were never there, my throat felt scoured raw, my eyeballs like pools of acid in my head. Made it back here, eventually. Crawling. Found these dudes.”[He stabs his cigarette in the direction of the corpses.]
“They were dead already. All of them. And, yes, I’m sure of that; I tried to find a survivor. Just one. It seemed desperately important to me that I save one, like that was why I’d lived. I guess I lost it a bit; trying to wake the dead, pumping hearts that had long stopped, trying to give the kiss of life to lips in the first stags of rigor mortis already.”[He wipes the back of his mouth, seemingly unconsciously.]
I know political analysts at think-wanks like to talk about how San Jorge represented a ‘catastrophic failure of military strategic planning’ and whip themselves into a frenzy of finger-pointing. Personally, I think that’s a big ’ole crock of it. Talk like that, it’s still just propaganda, cammo-style; the sub-text is that with better strategic planning, see, the disaster could have been averted. It’s just some more spin to keep that oldest of enemies at bay, the one that was slowly destroying the colony at San Jorge – fear. With every bee species that goes extinct, the new ones added to the critically endangered lists each year, the fear grows. It’s not something we’re used to dealing with. Jesus, we’re a species that demands suicide from its defenders, we never surrender, we fight to the end, because unlike them, every single one of us, every single moment we’re alive, is devoted to protecting our kind. But when you meet an enemy that practices total warfare – an enemy that will kill the mother on which it suckles … You don’t have to be the high priests of the Pentagon to know how this war ends.”
—- Transcript Ends —-
Like the canary in a coal mine, bee populations, as do birds’ and butterflies’, warn of impending danger. Their plight is part of the complex web of life that underpins food and farming.
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