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SRI LANKA: Warrior Honeybees of Sigiryia

Updated: Apr 13

APIS DORSATA IN SRI LANKA


Aside from the bees I saw on the train to Kandy, the closest I’ve been to bees is sharing the breakfast table with tiny sweat bees, packing pollen onto their hind legs at the flower arrangement at the Weilikande yoga retreat. I jammed my bee suit, pounds of bulky white canvas and large metal brim around the veil, into my travel pack, and it’s only been taking up space since I left Rwanda last week. Meeting the Icelandic couple moving to Tokyo with their ski gear and scuba suits in tow did make me feel a bit better.


I figured my last Sri Lankan option for bee sighting was at Sigiryia rock, shooting 200 meters into the sky, a massive stone bulwark against the jungle. Sigiryia is the Sri Lankan answer to Machu Picu, housing the ruins of the palace of King Kashyapa (477 – 495 AD) and its royal city of frescoes, water gardens, and temples. The area had likely been occupied since pre-historic times, and was a monastery in 3rd century BC.


Unlike the Golden Temple, with its amazing reclining Buddhas chiseled into five caves in the rock face at Dambulla, the Sigiryia rock was much more an example of ancient urban planning than religious shrine. (But first, check out these pics of the Golden Temple.)



Now a World Heritage Site, Sigiryia’s elaborate fortress and intricate palace architecture have been studied by archeologists since the late 1800s. And in the 1980’s it the non-beach backdrop of Duran Duran’s "Save a Prayer" music video from their Rio album (check out min 2:50). You’d be surprised how much Duran Duran I’ve heard this week.


Nearly to the top of Sigiryia, are two beautiful lion claws, above which was once a large carved lion’s head, now crumbled away. I’m afraid of heights and my leg muscles were still burning from the previous day’s hike up the top of the Golden Temple, but it was the rumored inhabitants of the lions claws that I came to see. Up to 100 colonies of Giant Asian honeybees (apis dorsata), once made their home at the base of the lion’s claws, migrating to the rock face in January and February each year, and leaving again when the rains started in July. I was right in the window of opportunity.



But I knew the sighting might be hit-or-miss. There were some other rumors of non-migratory expulsions of the bees, as the resident colonies had attacked visitors like me coming to climb the ruins. From Sri Lankan news articles more than a decade ago, reports circulated that the Sri Lankan Central Cultural Fund, after trying to move the bees by chanting the Buddhist pirith, had resorted to using chemicals and burning to remove the bees and make a safe path for the tourists who spend nearly $4,000 USD daily at the site.


As these honey bees are believed to be the incarnation King Kashyapa’s soldiers, latched to the rock to defend the Sigiryia fortress. It would be a pretty big deal if these warrior bees were harmed.

In 2011, reports of the giant bee’s return were promising, and 20 large hives had been counted above a paw. I had heard that the hives were strong enough to be back to attacking noisy tourists – can you blame them? – so much so that protective gear was required near the claws. Perhaps I’d get some use of my bee suit after all.


My morning hike was beautiful. I arrived at the base of Sigiryia’s 1200 steps at 6:30am, just after a sunrise tuk tuk through rice fields and past one lone elephant. The first to start the climb up the mountain, I was indecently drenched with sweat by 6:45am in 94 degree heat, as I came eye-level with an 8-foot tall lion’s paw. Although the Red Cross medical tent and warning signs for “wasps” gave indication that they had been there recently, I found no more evidence of Sigiryia’s warriors.



I continued to the top of the vista with a beautiful view across the trees. Then it was back down the stairs through a narrow passage that had me swearing not too silently under my breath. Along the rock facee, other messages had been left for us. In addition to frescoes and ruins, archeologists have found nearly 700 verses written between the 8th-10th on the polished “mirror wall” rock. Love poems and messages scratched into the rock face, like a clean white wall would tempt any modern graffiti artist with a can and nozzle.

In ancient Sinhala one scratched note from the 7th century reads:

බුදල්මි

සියොර ආමි සිහිගිරි

බැලීමි ගි බොහො ජන

ලිතූයෙන් නොලිමි


Roughly translated: "I am Budal. Came with hundreds of people to see Sigiriya. Since all the others wrote poems, I did not." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigiriya)


Really, can you blame the bees? Tourists are awful.


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Next up, I’ll take a train from Anadradapura to Negombo Beach for a day of ocean, crab curry, PCR test and then off to Chiang Mai, Thailand to meet with traditional bee hunters. Can’t wait!!!





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