If you missed the latest episode of Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel, you missed one of my best friends and all-around favorite humans on the planet, Mickey Ramos, almost DIE, after a swarm of Africanized killer bees attacked her and her production crew, while they marched through the jungle on an island off the coast of Panama. Yep. I’ll let her tell you the story…
You never think that you’re going to one day say the words, “Remember that one time when I nearly died from an attack of Africanized killer bees?”
I say those words now and I say them often since everybody wants to hear the story.
I suppose being a producer for the TV show Naked and Afraid gave me a greater chance of encountering Africanized killer bees since the show shoots in extreme, God forsaken parts of this planet. Prior to our flight to location, the Production Manager and I had a good laugh watching a YouTube video of a TV crew being attacked by Africanized killer bees. “You allergic to bees? Because I’ve been told there might be killer bees out there,” the Production Manager jokingly asked me.
“Not allergic, nope.”
But I am now.
Isla San Jose is a small, mostly uninhabited island off the coast of Panama. You get there by taking a tiny six seat plane from the mainland of Panama and landing on a somewhat maintained dirt landing strip on the island. The heat and humidity start doing their work on you the second you get off the plane. I knew this was going to be challenging, but I love challenges like this so I thought, “Fuck yeah, let’s do this!”
Two of us met our local Panamanian crew and we went directly on a five hour hike after an all night plane flight from Los Angeles. For every hike I suited up with drip-dry pants, drip-dry shirts with sleeves rolled all the way down, leather gloves, safari hat and my boots. I worked on Naked and Afraid but I wasn’t about to be in that jungle exposed, no way.
I was physically drained from the lack of sleep, the humidity and the intense physicality of hiking through a jungle. The training I had been doing in preparation for this job helped but I still found myself beat to shit, and it was only day one.
The next few days were the same; hours and hours of hiking through a jungle where every step was unsteady and every inch of jungle floor presented something that wanted to hurt you, eat you or kill you. There’s no moving quickly over vines that catch your boots and sweep your feet out from under you, past tree trunks with protruding needles that pierce the thickest leather gloves if you happen to lose your balance and grab for stability, over jagged rocks that twist ankles, through streams that soak your shoes and send you falling with their mossy, slippery rocks. Slow and focused is how you get through that sort of environment. And I’m not even talking about the parts of the jungle creek where we held our backpacks over our heads as we waded through waist deep water that crocodiles considered their home.
The last day of the scout arrived. We had figured out all the locations necessary to start shooting the episode two days later. The rest of the crew flew in the night before so this last scout day was supposed to be an easy day of showing off the locations we had chosen.
A lovely, carefree Mickey, BEFORE those pesky bees tried to murder her.
I was dog tired and running on empty from my very first step into the jungle on that Friday in January and my legs were toast so I was bringing up the rear with our medic. The medic and I had done most of the hiking the previous four days and we were just done. The other six in our group were heading up towards a beautiful waterfall we had discovered the previous day. As I was climbing over yet another fallen tree and cursing my boots that were filling up with water, I felt what seemed like a big buzzing insect, like dragonfly size, around my right ear. As I swatted at it I realized the buzzing sound wasn’t going away. With the speed of lightning, thoughts flooded by brain like snapshots from a camera and I realized what was happening.
As I looked up and broke the silence of the jungle with my loud warning I could see the group up ahead running back towards me, waving their arms wildly, clearly being attacked by the Africanized killer bees I had heard about. I know now that the whole thing started because the guide in the lead with the machete hacked into a branch that had a beehive on it.
Fight or flight kicked in and I bailed. The medic and I both tripped and fell into a pool of shallow water. He tried to help me by shoving me under the water to get the bees off me but in his panic he kept me under the water so long I was drowning. I fought my way out from under the medic’s grasp, came up and saw that every part of his face except for about an inch thick section from his forehead to his chin was crawling with bees and I thought, “If he looks like that, I look like that.” It was the worst scene out of the worst horror movie. The bees were teeming, covering every part of our bodies. It was every man for himself. I stood up as well as I could and headed towards the edge of the jungle. I hurled myself over boulders and banged the shit out of my legs as I followed the creek. I knew I had to stay in water.
The bees kept swarming. I was wiping them off my face, wiping them off my neck where they kept congregating around my ears. My hat fell off so they were stinging the top of my head. No matter how much I wiped them away they wouldn’t stop. It was like someone was standing over me pouring endless buckets of bees down upon me. They were crawling down the neck of my shirt. They were everywhere and wouldn’t stop. Africanized killer bees have one driving force when they have been angered and that is KILL.
“Gonna fuck you up, bitch!”
I opened my mouth to shout and the bees flew inside my mouth….INSIDE MY MOUTH! I freaked. They stung my lips, the inside of my cheeks and my tongue. I spit them out but not before they stung the hell out of my tongue. “Fuck, I can’t even shout” I thought as the horror continued. I didn’t know where anyone else was at that moment and I didn’t give a shit. I was completely aware that this had turned into a fight to stay alive.
The thought “Stop! It has to stop!” kept playing over and over in my head as I crawled from one boulder and pool of water to the next. Every part of me that wasn’t under water was covered with Africanized bees…and that buzzing sound…that sound that still haunts me. I pushed my way through the water, boots heavy as hell since they were full of water. The bees kept injecting more and more of their poison into me. I was getting weaker and weaker and starting to think, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this.” More falling. More attempts to submerge myself to get the bees to stop. Couldn’t breathe. Swallowing water.
I fell over one boulder into a pool below, somehow not hitting my head on any rocks and knocking myself out. My right boot got lodged in between boulders at waist level in this pool of water and my backpack was filling up with water so I was slowly being pulled underneath by its weight. There wasn’t anything around me to push on so I could get my head above water to gasp for air. I somehow managed to jerk my head above water to get a quick burst of air and was met with bees stinging my lips for the split second I was above water. I went back underwater and again, the thoughts flashed like lightning, “Drowning. Leg caught. Weak. This is like 127 hours.” Yes, I actually thought that. “Holy shit, so this is how I go out? I am really going to die shooting a fucking reality show?”
That was the second time I thought death was a definite possibility.
I yanked my boot free and was once again on my feet, which also meant once again every part of me that wasn’t submerged was under attack. Slogging through the creek, losing energy, legs heavy, thinking about how much I wanted to stay alive. This was my reality. It’s crazy how focused and present you can be when you have one and only one thought on your mind; stay alive.
Somehow I found the energy to hurl myself over a giant boulder in front of me. Adrenaline is a hell of a drug, let me tell you. Fell into yet another pool of water but this one was my salvation. The boulder I threw myself over and the one next to it created a small cave that protected my back and the small trickle of water falling in between those boulders created a tiny waterfall and the last barrier I needed to keep the bees at bay. I put my hat back on my head and pulled the brim down allowing the water to fall around me and that stopped the bees from stinging.
Singular thoughts flowed in as the immediate threat was halted.
“Catch your breath.”
“Oh, my face is so hot.”
“What do I do now?”
“Where is everybody else?”
“Am I the only one alive?”
I couldn’t hear anyone. The jungle was eerily silent. All I could hear was the rushing of water over my head in my protective waterfall. I felt like a little tiny dot in a jungle in the middle of nowhere and nobody knew where I was. I’ve never felt so utterly alone.
The affects of the poison kicked in. I started puking violently then I had to shit worse than any shit you could ever imagine in a Tijuana nightmare. “You’re not supposed to go to a foreign country and shit in their water table. You could cause cholera.” THAT’S what came to mind as my stomach cramped up and demanded attention. That was the first time I had even the slightest bit of a laugh about my situation. “Fuck their water table. But wait, can’t organisms swim up inside me if I shit?” The water around me was flowing fast enough I knew I could shit and not have to sit in a pool of shit water so I pulled down my pants and crapped my ever-lovin’ brains out. I smelled it bubble up as it flowed away from me and was grateful that water was moving quickly. That was a part of me I didn’t mind leaving on the island.
Ever been stung once by a bee? Now imagine SIX FUCKING HUNDRED stings!
I poked my head outside my little waterfall shelter just to be met with more damn bees. “Fuck you. I’ll out wait you.” The temperature was hot enough that I figured I could sit there all day if I had to. I saw one of the local crew out in the distance trying to make his way towards us for some sort of rescue attempt but before he even got halfway to me I saw him waving his machete around. He was under attack from those goddamn bees so he bailed back to the edge of the jungle where our base camp was set up. It still wasn’t safe.
“I think I’m going to get out of this…maybe.”
“I’m starting to shiver. I think I’m going into shock.”
I knew that the puking, the dehydration and the shivering were leading towards possible cardiac arrest but I also knew the swarms of bees on the edge of my little waterfall were not giving up.
A few minutes after that I saw one of our crew decked out in a beekeeper mask out in the distance. He made his way to me and jammed a needled of epinephrine into my arm. The bees quickly returned so I grabbed him and pulled him down into my waterfall shelter with me for a few minutes until the bees once again subsided. He took off after that to help the rest of the crew.
I could see the crew starting to amble past me like zombies on their way out of the jungle. The Co-Executive Producer saw me scooting my ass along the creek and said, “You have to stand up. We have to get out of here.” But my legs didn’t work. I have never experienced exhaustion so consuming that I could not make my legs do what they’re supposed to do. There wasn’t anyone to help me stand up since everyone was focused on their own plight so it was on me to summon the strength I needed to make the final push to get myself to safety.
I limped out of the jungle but not before a vine caught my boot and sent me falling to the ground like a freshly cut tree. I couldn’t even break my fall I was so exhausted.
I eventually made it out of the jungle and collapsed into the fetal position. Stingers and dead bees were being pulled out of my ears. Someone helping me gasped as he pulled my hair back and saw my ears full of dead bees. I dry heaved black bile so hard for the next five hours that it felt like I was turning inside out. I was dehydrated, given an IV, my vein collapsed, I was white as a ghost and then they decided I had to be medevac’d off the island.
Mickey, puking out her soul, shortly after returning to base camp.
The next forty-eight hours was a series of ambulances, emergency rooms and other indignities that all led up to the worst days of my life so far. When I finally reached LAX at midnight and had to go through the customs automated machines, my bee mutilated face didn’t match the picture on my passport so I had to explain why I looked like I had measles and ebola to the customs agent.
“Well, you see, I was just attacked by Africanized killer bees,” gets peoples’ attention every time.
Overall, I ended up with over 600 bee stings and a month of steroids, Benadryl, disability and doctor visits. I was told that I could have sustained 1500 stings before the amount of poison would have killed me so I was definitely dancing with Death but he didn’t get me that time. I am now allergic to bees contrary to everyone’s belief that I should have super bee powers. I have had a couple of horrific flashbacks so I guess that means I have a touch of PTSD as well.
I do not regret the experience. It’s made me aware of what’s truly important and if nothing else, I have one hell of a story to tell around the campfire. -Mickey Ramos
A few days AFTER the attack.
Buy Mitchell Boone a beer!