Research suggests that lions in the Ngorongoro Crater spend 20 hours out of every 24 asleep. Anyone intending to watch lions for months rather than minutes should, therefore, arm themselves with a substantial library and the address of a good psychiatrist. For a short time my sanity was saved by a bee.
My attention was first drawn to the insect during the filming of an inexpert hunt by a pride of eight lions. Just as they were about to ambush some zebra and the kill seemed certain, a stallion caught sight of one of the lurking cats. The zebra stampeded and the lions charged. Faced with a confusing array of high-speed stripes, not one of the eight lions snagged so much as a whisker.
All this time I was being intermittently bothered by an extremely annoying bee buzzing in front of my face at the most inopportune moments. My attention became focused when I saw it carry a tiny piece of rolled-up leaf on to a bolt-hole on my camera mount. I watched it unwrap this leaf and glue it to the wall of the tube. Leaf-cutting bees live in burrows and holes of a certain diameter, not in hives.
I moved my Land Rover several hundred yards and, to my surprise, not five minutes later, I saw a bee carrying another rolled up piece of leaf to the same hole. Aha I thought, they’re opportunists, and this new bee thinks it has been saved some work – what a pity these efforts will also be wasted.
I returned to the camp for the night and, as soon as my head touched the pillow, it was five o’clock in the morning and time to get up. My lions had killed in the night. I pulled up near the carcase of the wildebeest and prepared for a long wait. As I levelled the tripod, a bee flew into the bolt-hole with a piece of leaf. Now this was getting ridiculous. It was impossible, surely, that this was the same insect.
Over the course of several drives across the crater floor, the lining of the cell was completed, and the bee – for now it was evident that it really was one insect – started collecting pollen. Somehow, it was able to keep up with the vehicle and continue its work despite all the trying problems I was giving it. But the mystery remained. What happened at night? That evening I watched carefully. At 5.30 pm the bee returned to my camera and went to bed. Clearly, it had suffered the bone-shaking drive, the engine vibration and each freezing night on the crater rim to remain with its nursery. At this point the bee achieved a notoriety out of all proportion to its size and became something of a project mascot.
The next day, every move of filming position became fraught with anxiety. Had the bee made it? At one stage, Gil Domb, the producer, came up alongside me. Would two identical Land Rovers parked side by side, cause confusion? No problem for this bee. But then I had to move off to take up a position 200 yards away. Five minutes later, Gil called me on the radio. The bee was frantically searching his Land Rover. Could I come immediately and pick it up. I did, and there was great relief all round when it returned to the right vehicle.
At five 0’clock that May evening, the cell was neatly plugged and the bee flew off for the last time. It was a sad parting but also something of a relief. The whole thing was becoming far too much of a responsibility.
But, you may ask, what happened to its brood? The brood travelled more than 600 miles to various parts of the Serengeti and elsewhere. It was sealed in a camera case while I was on holiday. Then, one September morning, when I was back filming in the crater again, a movement caught my eye. With great astonishment and delight, I watched as a bee emerged. By incredible coincidence, it was just a few yards from its place of birth.
(This article appeared first in ‘BBC Wildlife’ – Ed)